Richard Nisley

From Nature Boy to Golden Boy
Pop Culture Released - Aug 11, 2013

Nat King Cole did not start out to be a pop singer or even a jazz singer. He wanted to be a jazz pianist in one of the Big Bands like the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. The band he was with in 1940 ran out of money while on tour and fell apart, leaving Cole stranded in Los Angeles.

Cole found work as pianist in a three-piece combo playing in a downtown jazz club. Los Angeles was not the sprawling mecca it is today. Everyone lived in the city, and what would become the suburbs was mostly orange groves. People spent their evenings on the town in smoke-filled jazz clubs to hear the really hot groups like the Nat King Cole Trio.

Life was fine for Cole and his two sidemen; they were paid well and had a contract with a small West Cost record company. One night a drunk in the audience insisted that Cole sing “Sweet Lorraine.” Cole had never sung in public before, but to keep the guy quiet, obliged. After that, the requests for Cole to sing never stopped. “My voice is nothing to be proud of,” Cole said. “It runs maybe two octaves in range. I guess it’s the horse, breathy noise that some like.”

In 1946, Cole recorded a new song by jazz singer Mel Torme, a tune written for the holiday season, entitled “The Christmas Song.” To everyone’s surprise, the song went number-one on Top-Forty Radio. In an effort to repeat the success, Cole recorded a pop ballad entitled “For Sentimental Reasons.” It too went number-one. Next, Cole recorded “Nature Boy” and it topped the charts as well. Small, underfunded Capital Records had a star on its hands. Cole was the Golden Boy, the one paying everyone’s bills at Capital Records.

Nelson Riddle was hired to compose arrangements for string orchestra and choir to give Cole’s ballads a lush full sound. “Mona Lisa” topped the charts in 1950. “Too Young” topped the charts in 1951. Then came “Unforgettable” which became Cole’s signature song. While it failed to reach number-one, it stayed on the charts for nearly a year. Next was “Answer Me, My Love,” also number-one.

It was unprecedented: a black singer connecting with white audiences. And it didn’t stop there. By 1957, Cole became the first African American to host his own national television show. Ratings were good, but sponsors were hesitant to be associated with a black entertainer. Cole himself cancelled the show after one season.

As big as Cole was--he was a sellout in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Las Vegas--he couldn’t get a decent hotel room or eat in a “white” restaurant south of the Mason-Dixon line. More than once his life was threatened while performing in the South. Even in Los Angeles, Cole faced discrimination. While house-hunting in all-white West Los Angeles, residents spoke openly of plummeting housing prices should Cole move in. “I don’t want to see prices drop either,” Cole retorted, who for paying a hefty sum. In fact, they didn’t.

Frank Sinatra said his favorite singer was Tony Bennet, but paid Nat Cole the ultimate compliment by NOT doing covers of Cole’s hits. “I can’t add anything new to those songs,” he said. On the other hand, Sinatra did cover many of Bennet’s hits.

As singers, Cole had Sinatra had much in common. They sang the words rather than the melody in an endless quest to plumb the emotional depth of each song. In the 1940s Cole sang uptempo tunes while Sinatra concentrated on ballads. In the 1950s it was the reverse: Cole sang ballads and Sinatra did uptempo songs. They both recorded for Capital records and worked with the best arrangers in the industry--Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Gordon Jenkins.

While Cole’s broadest appeal was as a singer of love songs, his best work was singing straight jazz. Sinatra, no slouch as a jazz singer, was at his best singing saloon songs. Cole’s biggest-selling album is a collection of love songs entitled (appropriately) “Love is the Thing” while Sinatra’s biggest seller was a collection of uptempo tunes entitled “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers.”
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