Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Somewhere Along the Way

I know that Valentine's Day is over . . . but if you're ever looking for makeout music guaranteed to set the mood, you could do worse than to put on some Nat King Cole. If you can't make time with your sweetie while Nat's on the box, you'll never be able to.

Cole started as a jazz pianist, and an extremely influential one (sadly ignored by documentarian Ken Burns in his film Jazz), known for "bending" notes on the piano like a horn player, and for an exceedingly light touch. The story goes that Cole's trio was playing a club one night when an intoxicated patron asked him to sing "Sweet Lorraine." "We don't sing," Cole said. The club's manager informed Cole that for this patron, a regular, he was going to sing--and so he did. Not every historian of Cole's career believes the story, but it's a good one, and however Cole was persuaded to pick up a microphone, thank goodness he did. Cole recorded several hits with the trio beginning in about 1944 (including "Straighten Up and Fly Right," "Route 66," "I Love You for Sentimental Reasons," and the original version of "The Christmas Song") before moving to orchestra backing in 1948 with "Nature Boy." (In his bio of Cole, William Ruhlmann of the All Music Guide observes that jazz fans felt as betrayed by Cole's turn to pop as folkies did when Bob Dylan went electric.) Other famous hits followed, such as "Mona Lisa," "Too Young," and "Unforgettable."

In 1956, Cole became the first major black entertainer to headline his own network TV show, on NBC, and everybody who was anybody in jazz at the time appeared on it. What it didn't have was viewers. It lasted a season-and-a-half, and its failure has to be considered primarily due to racism. Southern affiliates wouldn't carry it, and it occasionally trailed an ABC series of travel films in its time slot. Throughout his career, Cole often found himself in the middle of racial controversies--sometimes hated by whites for simply being black, and other times criticized by blacks for failing to take a more active role in the Civil Rights Movement.

As the rock era began, Cole continued to chart steadily, even updating his sound now and then (as on "Send for Me," which topped the R&B chart in 1957)--although his true feelings toward rock were displayed in a nightclub number he performed called "Mr. Cole Won't Rock and Roll." In it, he imagined how his major hits, such as "Mona Lisa," would have had to sound had they come out in the rock era. Toward the end of his career, he tended to drown his music in syrupy string arrangements, as if he were trying to be as non-rock as possible. Cole's last major hit came in the fall of 1964--"L.O.V.E."--but by that time, he was already dying of the lung cancer that killed him 40 years ago today. He was not quite 46 when he died.

What-ifs aren't worth much, but had he lasted into the MTV era, I like to think Nat King Cole would have enjoyed some of the same late-career rebirth Tony Bennett did, and may have made peace with the rock world and recorded with some of its leading figures, like Frank Sinatra did. We'll never know, and it doesn't matter anyhow. What Nat did on record during his 20-year recording career was enough to ensure his place in history. And as long as there's romance, Nat will play on.


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