"Mine is a casual approach to a song; I lean heavily on the lyrics. By that I mean I try to tell a story with the melody as background."--Nat Cole
The year was 1965 and it was late February. I vividly recall that I was walking home from school when I passed a barbershop and heard about the passing of Nat "King" Cole. I recall that by the time I got home I was in tears. I don't really know why, he was not my favorite artist at the time, and although I was totally into "soul" singers and barely discovering Cuban dance music, I still sensed a certain loss. The same feeling came over me when Sam Cooke and JFK were killed. I mean, how can you feel any kind of personal loss when you don't even know someone? It seems that some people just affect you in that manner. Perhaps it was because I had grown accustomed to hearing Nat's smooth, silky voice over the radio (especially during the holiday season). Even while I was still living in Cuba, whenever "A Christmas Song" carne on, I would stop whatever I was doing just to listen to the way Cole phrased those lyrics. I remembered watching him on television just a few years earlier (I spent a number of summer vacations in New York City between 1957 to 1960). When Cole died, I knew that the man whose voice had thrilled millions around the world had been irreplaceably lost. Somehow I don't think that I was alone in that sentiment.
DISCOVERING THE "REAL" NAT COLE
I simply loved his renditions of Mona Lisa and Nature Boy, so when I discovered that Nat Cole was also a consummate jazz pianist, I had to take another look at the man (or should I say, listen?). That's when I discovered that there had once been something called the Nat Cole Trio. Wow! Get me on Route 66 brother! One thing led to another, and then I found out that Nat had been to Cuba to perform at the Tropicana Cabaret and that he had recorded some Spanish-language LPs on Capitol. I immediately went out and bought them. While it's true that Cole was known more as a singer of ballads (a crooner, to be precise), his forte was actually playing the piano, and I learned later on that he played the piano in a very laid back and cool style. But since singing was obviously where the money was, that's where he ultimately stayed.
He was born Nathaniel Adams Coles on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1917, in Montgomery, Alabama. His parents were the Reverend Edwards Coles and Perlina (Adams) Coles. The family moved to the Southside of Chicago in 1921. By the time Nat was 12, he was playing the organ and singing in his father's church choir, under his mother's direction. He was given piano lessons early on, and thus learned to read sheet music. He learned not only jazz and gospel music, but European classical music as well, performing everything from Bach to Rachmaninoff. This was obviously a plus, but his inventiveness was as impressive as his reading skills, and by the time he reached manhood, he was already improvising.
Show business seemed to be in young Nat's blood, so he formed his first big band, which he called "The Rogues of Rhythm," along with his older brother Eddie, who had previously been featured as the bassist of Noble Sissle's orchestra. The Rogues recorded for Decca Records, and worked the Chicago nightclub and dance hall scene, enabling Nat to develop both as a pianist and a singer. He was obviously influenced by the piano styling of Earl "Fatha" Hines. It's really hard to identify his vocal influences, as he seems to be in a class by himself. I will go out on a limb and say that it was probably Louis Armstrong, or maybe even Jimmy Noone. Sweet Lorraine was the first song that he ever sang professionally. It was written by the New Orleans clarinetist Mitchell Parish, and it would soon become a Nat Cole classic.
Nat and the band left the Chicago circuit in 1937, joining Broadway legend Eubie Blake's revue, "Shuffle Along Show," playing mostly on the west coast. His brother Eddie declined the engagement, so Nat went on alone, as bandleader. In California, he met and married Nadine Robinson, a chorus girl featured in said revue. When the show folded, he and the band played a short-lived engagement at the Ubangi Club. When the Ubangi gig was over, Nat broke up the band and went on to do a solo act at the Century Club. It was at this point that he dropped the letter "s" from his last name. From there, he was hired by Bob Lewis--owner of the Swanee Inn in Hollywood. Lewis insisted on a trio format, and although the gig was to have lasted only two weeks, it was extended to six months. The bassist was Wesley Prince, who introduced Nat to Oscar Moore, a movie-studio guitarist. The trio reached its apex with the combination of Cole, Moore, and Johnny "Thrifty" Miller, who later replaced Prince.
The Nat Cole Trio played everything--blues licks, jazz riffs, arpeggios and improvised melodies. AII three musicians possessed exceptional improvisational gifts that fused original melodic ideas with jazz traditions. Their harmonies were added to a steadfast rhythm rooted on Miller's solid bassline combined with Moore's driving chordal backing. Cole's accompaniment style, which supported Moore's improvisational guitar lines and his own singing, was characterized by his pianistic bass-note rockers and comped (chopped) chords executed by the left hand, against exquisitely tasteful fill-ins delivered by the right hand. Nat was a musical genius who would have remained a legend, even if he had not decided to become a popular vocalist.
During the boom of the big bands, the trio format became the genesis of the emerging jazz "combo," preparing future audiences for the small ensembles that would later emerge as a consequence of economic retrenchment within the music industry and the subsequent demise of the big bands. In retrospect, it was the Nat Cole Trio that paved the way for such groups.
Jazz folklore tells us that during one of Cole's after-hours vocalizations with the trio, a young lady who was in the audience affectionately crowned Nat as "the King of Cole," rivaling the reverential titles bestowed upon "the Count of Basie" and "the Duke of Ellington." Whether this is true or not remains uncertain, but it seems that the title stuck, and became his professional name thereafter. The nickname was presumably reinforced by the otherwise unrelated nursery rhyme about "Old King Cole."
After their gig at the Swanee Inn, the trio worked in Hollywood and its environs before triumphantly returning to Chicago, where they played on the same bill with the Bob Crosby band. They cut eight sides for Decca, including the original version of Sweet Lorraine, which was almost identical to their big hit on the Capital label. The proverbial "road" took them through Washington, D.C., and on to New York, where in 1941, they played Nick's in...