Nat King Cole: Four Classic Albums Plus

Four albums and bonuses present the smooth, pianoless, often bland side of Cole, singing standards, pops and country with impeccable taste

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We overlook Nat King Cole at our peril, for his contribution to modern music was immense. Fronting the King Cole Trio in the 1930s and 1940s, he pioneered the style of the light-touch modern (or, more critically, cocktail) jazz trio copied by Art Tatum and then perfected by the likes of Bill Evans and Ahmed Jamal before abandoning the piano and becoming a solo singer in 1950.

He was the only black artist on Capitol Records, and led their top-selling group. He was the first African-American to host a nationally broadcast TV show in America, and – once chastised for performing in front of white-only audiences – became an active and visible member of the civil rights movement, marching on Washington with Martin Luther King in 1963.

The four Capitol Records albums featured here all come from his later solo career, all recorded in Capitol’s studios in New York or Los Angeles in 1958–62 and all sumptuously arranged and orchestrated with strings and vocals. Four bonus tracks – including the two orchestrated hit singles Smile and When I Fall In Love from 1954–56 and a New Orleans-style Midnight Flyer from 1959 – complete the package.

The 1958 Tell Me About Yourself is smooth, easy-listening orchestrated pop, although its feisty brass section adds such much needed clout to proceedings. The Touch Of Your Lips is far smoother with its sweeping string arrangements, Cole gliding effortlessly through the lyrics, his nuance and interpretation always spot on. Interestingly, he introduces Poinciana, recently a huge hit for disciple Ahmad Jamal, as if in an echo chamber. The emphasis on both these albums is on love and romance, with nothing sung to upset the neighbours. The hit songs clock up regularly, Cole making it all sound so easy, his casual, velvety baritone only occasionally giving way to something more urgent and impassioned.

Ramblin’ Rose from summer 1962 is more varied, with a pronounced country element throughout, no doubt picking up on Ray Charles’s recently released and phenomenally successful country and western album, as they were both recorded that year in Capitol studios. But his treatment of such material is often bland, notably in his version of Hank Williams’s regretful Your Cheatin’ Heart. A joyfully modern The Good Times with added choir makes up for it.

But best of all is the final, classy album with the George Shearing Quintet, including Shelly Manne on drums, plus some added flutes and trombone, drums and percussion, and a string choir. It’s surprisingly light in feel, Shearing barely caressing the keyboard, the accompaniment reticent and often subdued, but Cole’s jazz singing is just perfect. The hit single Let There Be Love sums up Cole’s impeccable feel for a song: not for nothing did Jack Benny introduce Cole on his TV show in January 1964 as “the best friend a song ever had”.

The main to remember when listening to these four albums is that they were all recorded when Elvis Presley and rock ’n’ roll dominated popular music, when jazz went through its revolutionary year of 1959, and when easy listening was out of touch, and out of date. Personally, I much prefer the King Cole of the keyboard rather the smooth-singing vocals of Nat King Cole, but still, it is hard to dislike the perfection found here. As I said, we overlook Nat King Cole at our peril.


Discography
CD1: [Tell Me All About Yourself] (1) Tell Me About Yourself; Until The Real Thing Comes Along; The Best For You (Would Be Me); When You Walked By; Crazy She Calls Me; You’ve Got The Indian Sign On Me; For You; Dedicated To You; You Are My Love; This Is Always; My Life; (I Would Do) Anything For You; [The Touch Of Your Lips]: (2) The Touch Of Your Lips; I Remember You; Illusion; You’re Mine, You!; Funny (Not  Much); Poinciana (Song Of The Tree);  Sunday, Monday, Or Always; No So Long Ago; A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square; Only Forever; My Need For You; Lights Out; (3): Smile (bonus); When I Fall In Love (Bonus) (75.37)
CD2: [Ramblin’ Rose]: (5) Ramblin’ Rose; Wolverton Mountain; Twilight On The Trail; I Don’t Want It That Way; He’ll Have To Go; When You’re Smiling; Goodnight, Irene, Goodnight; Your Cheatin’ Heart; One Has My Name The Other Has My Heart; Skip To My Lou; The Good Times, Sing Another Song (And We’ll All Go Home) [Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays]: (6) September Song; Pick Yourself Up; I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good); Let There Be Love; Azure-Te; Lost April; (The End Of) A Beautiful Friendship; Fly Me To The Moon; Serenata; I’m Lost; There’s A Lull To In My Life; Don’t Go; (7) Midnight Flyer (bonus); (8) That’s You (bonus) (73.31)
Cole (v) plus: (1) orchestra, Dave Cavanaugh (arr), New York, 30 October, 4, 10 November 1958. (2) string orchestra, Ralph Carmichael (arr, con), Los Angeles, 22–23 December; 1960. (3) Los Angeles, 27 July 1954. (4) Los Angeles, 28 December 1956. (5) string section, small band, and vocal chorus, Belford Hendricks (arr, con), Los Angeles, 19 June, 11 August 1962. (6) George Shearing (p) and quintet, string choir, Carmichael (con), Los Angeles, 19–22 December 1961. (7) Los Angeles, 2 July 1959. (8) New York, 11 November 1958.
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