A century after the birth of Nat King Cole on March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, his voice continues to caress some of the most velvety melodies of the post-war period.
A crooner friend of Sinatra’s, his roots were deep in gospel, and he was a brilliant pianist before he distanced himself from jazz. A victim of the discrimination of the time, a supporter of John F. Kennedy and of the civil rights movement, his sentimental songs remained distanced from political considerations. Until he passed away at age forty-five, Nat King Cole contributed significantly to the Great American Songbook with an impressive and abundant repertoire, including ten of its most beautiful pages.
“Sweet Lorraine” (1940)
A standard by Cliff Burwell and Mitchell Parish released in 1928, “Sweet Lorraine” gained popularity in 1940 with the twenty-one-year-old singer’s version. Yet at the end of the 1930’s, Nat King Cole was mainly a pianist. He was touring the clubs with the King Cole Trio, an instrumental group comprised of Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on double bass. Responding one evening to a customer’s request to hear his voice, Nat King Cole caused a sensation on “Sweet Lorraine,” to the point that it was decided he should record the song in a Hollywood studio. That was the beginning of his singing career.
“Straighten Up & Fly Right” (1943)
“Straighten Up & Fly Right” by Nat King Cole and Irving Mills became the King Cole Trio’s greatest success, occupying the top spot on the Harlem Hit Parade for ten – then a list based on the rotation of songs on jukeboxes. Based on a traditional story that Nat’s father had used in a sermon, the song would be covered many times, from The Andrews Sisters to Dianne Reeves, Carmen McRae to Diana Krall.
“(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” (1946)
The first to perform “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” the King Cole Trio popularized this famous R&B song written by Bobby Troup as he drove from his native Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, where he hoped to launch his career as a songwriter. It’s a three-minute road trip that many rockers, including Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison’s Them, would go on to take.
“Nature Boy” (1948)
“Nature Boy” was written in 1947 by Eden Ahbez, whose lifestyle inspired the hippie movement (he was camping under the “L” of the “Hollywood” panel overlooking Los Angeles). It became a major standard thanks to Nat King Cole, who recorded its first version in 1948 with a lavish orchestra. He did the same on the hits “Mona Lisa” and “Too Young,” taking him away from jazz but enabling him to win over white America. Now a superstar, Nat King Cole would part ways with his trio. As for “Nature Boy,” the song would go on to make a fortune of its author, who bragged about living on three dollars a week.
“Orange Colored Sky” (1950)
First sung by Jonny Edwards, “Orange Colored Sky” was popularized by Nat King Cole twenty years later, thanks in part to Stan Kenton’s orchestrations. Although the crooner had gone for mainstream music, this time he was accompanied by a pyrotechnic big band whose brass and choirs bounce between two piano parts. “Orange Colored Sky” rose to the top of the charts and many versions would follow, from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Lady Gaga.
Included on the album of the same title, the song “Unforgettable” (written by Irving Gordon) is a deliciously misty serenade from 1951. It allowed Nat King Cole to display all the sweetness of his vocal timbre on Nelson Riddle’s precise arrangements. Today, the most famous version remains the one recorded — virtually — with his daughter, Natalie Cole. In 1991, a quarter of a century after her father’s death, she recorded this posthumous duo that was based on the an idea from one of Elvis Presley’s former musical directors, Joe Guercio; it won three Grammy Awards, while her cover album, Unforgettable… with Love, went seven times platinum.
Although the jazz world blamed him for having moved to the dark side, Nat King Cole pushed aside the usual armada of strings, winds, and brass for the duration of an entire album. He recorded After Midnight with John Collins (guitar), Charlie Harris (double bass), Lee Young (drums), and a few guests, in order to reconnect with his beginnings. One passage of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” was enough to demonstrate his mastery of the piano. Mission accomplished: the crooner proved that he was still a hell of a jazzman.
“Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” (1958)
In 1958, Nat King Cole was keen to record an album of covers of Spanish-speaking songs — the outstanding Cole Español — with a large orchestra and mariachi. It was the summit of kitsch, but a summit nevertheless, whose artistic and commercial success justified two more reiterations of the same kind, A Mis Amigos (1959) and More Cole Español (1962). A new generation rediscovered this repertoire with Wong Kar-wai’s film In the Mood for Love (2000), whose soundtrack dug up “Aquellos Ojos Verdes,” “Te Quiero Dijiste,” and the classic “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” a Cuban folk song composed by Osvaldo Farrés in 1947.
“Ramblin’ Rose” (1962)
Although his career was on the decline, Nat King Cole remained an exceptional singer, capable of selling a million copies of a ritornello as innocuous as “Ramblin’ Rose.” The song, which many country artists would go on to cover, gave its title to one of the four albums he recorded in 1962. Behind this sleek image, Nat King Cole was nevertheless a supporter of the young John F. Kennedy, and he and his friend, Frank Sinatra, were involved in the civil rights movement.
Carried by an airy swing and sung with a smile that listeners can hear, “L-O-V-E” opened Nat King Cole’s last, eponymous album. After recording the original version in June 1964 at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, the crooner recorded five new ones in Japanese, German, Italian, Spanish and French (“Je ne repartirai pas”). The album was completed in December of the same year, just after his lung cancer was diagnosed. It was released in January 1965 and Nat King Cole died on February 15, at the age of forty-five. This love song is his artistic legacy.