'King of love ballads'
...emerged from poor musical family
Nat 'King' Cole is known to many as that warm-voiced sentimental singer who has charmed and captivated millions with a series of unparalleled love songs during the 1950s. The King of love ballads as he was justly called, was said to have drawn emotional tears from the eyes of Queen Elizabeth during one of his mesmerising and hypnotic deliveries while on a visit to Buckingham Palace during that period. It spoke volumes about the quality of this man's voice.
Last week's Music Diaries paid scant respect to that aspect of the man, as we focused then, on the challenges, controversies and impediments Cole encountered through racism, and by his decision to divert into ballad singing, and away from jazz. Because of his unparalleled multifarious, and multitudinous achievements, it was virtually impossible for one to do justice to the man in that one article, and so we decided to focus this week mainly on the man and his music.
A multilinguist singer, Cole sang in some half a dozen languages, English and Spanish being the most popular. The album Cole Español, was a classic example of Cole's magical Spanish expression. Surrounded by the rhythms of Mexico and South America, and recorded in romantic old Havana in 1958, it featured the hits Cachito and Quizás, Quizás, Quizás (Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps).
As an accomplished jazz pianist, he was rated the best of his kind at the time; as a multi-genre performer, he covered jazz, blues, ballads, Latin beat and rock and roll songs. Cole proved that he was quite adept at handling this latter set, when he demonstrated it on the cuts, Send for Me, If I May and Midnight Flyer.
Hosting his own television show in 1956, Cole became the first African-American to have done so. He also appeared in several motion pictures, performing starring roles in China Gate (1957), Night of the Quarter Moon (1959) and his best known one, St Louis Blues (1958), in which he played the role of the jazz composer, W.C. Handy. When viewed in perspective, 'versatility' then becomes a thin and battered little term to describe a man with such immeasurable flexibility.
From a mere musical standpoint though, Cole was in a class all by himself. His mellow vocal delivery and careful enunciation of his lyrics, may perhaps be matched, only by the legendary Sam Cooke. It enabled him to convey a song with depth and meaning.
Born in Montgomery Alabama, United States, in 1919, Cole grew up in a poor musical family, which included his Baptist Minister father - Edward, his choir director mother - Pearlina, his two sisters and three brothers - Eddie, Isaac, and Freddy, who were all musicians.
He formed his own band while in high school, but soon dropped out to go into music full-time by age 15. In July 1936, Nat did his debut recording, a piano instrumental, entitled Hush Honey. The creation of his own jazz ensemble, 'The King Cole Trio' the following year, was the turning point in his early career. For the next six years, their popularity soared to great heights. When Billboard instituted its first album chart in 1945, The King Cole Trio was ranked at No.1, a position they held for several weeks.
Cole's career, however, took a major step away from jazz, when the Trio recorded The Christmas Song in the summer of 1946. After the song was introduced to Cole by writer Mel Torme, the suggestion was made to add strings along with the Trio. After some initial objection from Capitol's management, the idea was accepted, and the song became Cole's first recording with 'strings'.
A year later, September 1947, Cole recorded Nature Boy, his first recording with full orchestral backing. Hitting the No.1 spot, Nature Boy with its philosophical quote, 'the greatest thing you'll ever learn, is to love and be loved in return', made Cole a national figure overnight. Its haunting melody, its simple poetic lyrics, and the husky caressing sound of Nat's voice with strings, captured the imagination of listeners. He thereafter, recorded romantic hit after hit, to become and remain one of the superstars of international music.
Cole was great with a jazz ensemble, or a big band, but when his velvet voice was combined with a lush string orchestra, the result was romance made audible. Indeed, he was dubbed the King of romantic ballad, and he continued to demonstrate this with his third number-one pop hit, Mona Lisa, in July 1950, in which he depicted her as 'The lady with the mystic smile', and continued, 'Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa, or is this your way to hide a broken heart'. Cole's fourth No.1 pop hit was Too Young, which topped the charts in June 1951. Unforgettable, peaked at number 12 in February of the following year and became one of his better remembered recordings. With his daughter, Natalie's voice dubbed on to the original, the recording became a gold record, and won the Grammy award for Record of the Year in 1991.
run of love ballads
Cole's remarkable run of love ballads became more intense towards the end of the 1950s, with the top 10 hit Looking Back, being perhaps the most popular. In it, Cole was particularly penitent:
'Looking back over my life
I can see where I've caused you strife,
But I know, yes I know, I'd never make that same mistake again'.
In his description of what love had taught him, he admitted in the recording 'Again', that,
'This couldn't happen again
this is that once in a lifetime,
this is the thrill divine',
while 'Time and the river' brought him hope:
'It will bring my love to me' he chanted,
'If I must I'll wait forever by the river that took her to the sea'
One of his most beautiful pieces, was one in which he posed the philosophical question: -
'Is it better to have love and lost, than never to have loved at all,
I wonder as my lonely teardrops fall'.
These are but a few of Cole's enduring love songs, but how could one forget the 1962 number-two country-influenced Ramblin Rose and the erotic, Dear Lonely Hearts.
Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer, became his last top-10 hit in the summer of 1963.