Book Review: "Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole"
Pop Culture Released - Sep 20, 2020
The key to understanding the musical career of Nat King Cole is that he, like most great artists–Picasso and Bob Dylan come to mind–realized that the key to staying fresh was not to stand still but to be always changing, and so forever growing as a musician. Cole began by performing jazz piano, then moved on to be-bop, and rhythm and blues, then quite by accident to stand-up vocalist, in both jazz and pop. Once he became America's favorite pop balladeer, he changed again, by recording world music (French, Spanish and Portuguese songs), big band jazz, gospel, and finally, near the end of his career, country and western, all the while retaining his huge fan base, and selling millions of records. Music critic Will Friedwald covers it all with clarity and great wit in his monumental Cole biography, "Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole".
(Note: Cole's song "Straighten Up and Fly Right" is based on a black folk legend that Cole's father–a Baptist preacher–once used in a sermon. It was the first song Cole recorded for Capital Records in the early 1940s, and became his first number one hit).
Nathaniel Adams Coles (he dropped the "s" from his last name when he became a bandleader) was born in 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, the second of four sons of a Baptist preacher, who, four years later, moved his family to Chicago. The Coles settled in Bronzeville, Chicago's largest black community, where young Nathaniel studied piano with their mother, a church organist, and in due time became a professional musician, as did all three of his brothers.
At the time the Coles' family moved to the Windy City, the south side of Chicago, where the Coles settled, was the epicenter of jazz in the time of Prohibition. As young Nathanial was beginning to master the piano, he became aware of one of the all-time great jazz pianists–Earl Hines. Hines was not only a great jazz pianist, he was also a bandleader. As a result, Nat Cole decided he not only wanted to master Hines' brilliant piano technique, but to model his career on Hines-the-bandleader. (Cole decided very early on, that he could never be a sideman; he had to be the leader of whatever ensemble he was playing in. "I kind of thrive on responsibility," he told journalist Edward R. Murrow in 1957).
In September 1933, Nat Cole, now fourteen, entered Wendell Phillips Academy High School. It was there that his musical dreams began to take shape. As fate would have it, Wendell Phillips Academy was the perfect place for a young musician as gifted as Cole to be attending. (Besides Cole, students who graduated and went on to fame, included Herbie Hancock, Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington.) The Academy's music director was a stern task master named Walter Henri Dyert, who made certain that his students were well versed in the musical rudiments, including being first-rate chart "readers." By his sophomore year, Cole could not only read music as well as any classical or studio musician, but also he was an ace improvisor, with a gift for devising ingenious "head arrangements" on the spot.
By the age of 15, Cole was performing every night in small jazz clubs around the South Side, and somehow also making it to classes in the morning. For most of the 1933-34 school year, he also was working regularly as a sideman around the city. (Years later, asked how he managed to get his studies done, Cole confessed, "Well, I guess it didn't get done").
Around this time Cole befriended journalist/promoter Malcolm B. Smith. He encouraged Cole to put together an eight-piece jazz band, and hired them to perform before other teenagers on Sunday afternoons at Warwick Hall, on Chicago's South Side. Smith was a master promoter with lots of connections in the print media, and by working all the angles managed to get Cole's photo in a number of newspapers and trade magazines. Cole's first band was a smash success, and soon an article and photo appeared in a magazine, proclaiming Cole as "the leader of one of the hottest bands in the Midwest." It wasn't long after that, and the Nat Cole Orchestra expanded to ten pieces, with Cole writing all the arrangements and conducting from the piano, with a male vocalist named Arthur Hicks as the front man.
When Cole began his second year of high school, he was already a professional musician, as confirmed by his membership in the local union. After fluctuating between "Coles" and "Cole" for a few years, he now settled on "Cole" as his permanent professional last name, with his ten-piece band now billed as "Nat Cole and his Royal Dukes."
After finishing high school, the next step for Nat Cole and his Royal Dukes was to go on the road, with an extended tour throughout the upper midwest, and finally out to Los Angeles There, despite enthusiastic sellout crowds, the tour stalled, due to a lack of funds. Apparently, someone absconded the ticket receipts, and as a result management could no longer pay salaries or expenses. The band dispersed and Cole found himself without a job.
At the time, all the great jazz clubs were centered in West Los Angeles, and the owner of one of them (the Swanee Inn, at 133 North Le Brea Avenue), Bob Lewis, invited Cole to put together a small group, and perform at his establishment. Cole, who had just turned 18, got together with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince, and in September of 1937, began performing nightly at the Swanee Inn, as the original edition of the King Cole Trio. The rest as they say is history. Within three years, after performing in venues throughout greater Los Angeles, the small combo would sign its first record contract, and hit the airways with their first smash hit, "Straighten Up and Fly Right."
The idea of a trio was quite unique at the time. Full-time jazz combos were rare in the '30s–jazz and pop music would be dominated by big bands for another decade to come. How to explain the trio's success? Foremost, Cole's talent at the keyboard was such that whatever band he performed in would have created a sensation, and Moore and Prince were exceptional musicians. However, the absence of a drummer gave the trio's sound a unique, clean texture that allowed Cole and his sidemen to toss around musical ideas with carefree abandon. All that was missing was the element of contrast, and Cole supplied that when he began singing with the group.
Why did Cole decide to sing? Years later, he explained: "When I organized the King Cole Trio back in 1937, we were strictly what you would call an instrumental group. To break the monotony, I would sing things I had known over the years. I wasn't trying to give it any special treatment, just singing. I noticed thereafter people started requesting more singing, and it was just one of things."
By now, Cole had added a touch of the blues to his robust Earl Hines' jazz stylings. Writes the author: "At twenty, Cole (was) already one of the finest blues pianists in history: few of the piano giants he revered could touch him as far as the blues were concerned, not (Art) Tatum, not (Teddy) Wilson, not (Fats) Waller, and not even his original idol, Earl Hines. . . . "
In addition to recording prolifically (mostly instrumentals), the trio made frequent guest appearances on radio, eventually starring in their own weekly radio show on NBC, "King Cole Trio Time." They followed up their number one hit, with a Christmas tune, that also topped the charts, "The Christmas Song", composed by fellow jazz musician Mel Tormé. This time, their producer added four violins and a harp to sweeten their sound.
There followed a string of hits using the same formula, of utilizing strings to sweeten the trio's sound: "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons", "What'll I do?", "Nature Boy" and "Lost April".
The result led Cole, his manager, and his colleagues at Capitol Records to begin thinking of him not as a singer-pianist, but as a stand-up vocalist who played piano on the side. With this in mind, the executives at Capitol began pairing Cole with arrangers who could further bolster his commercial sound.
The first was an unknown arranger named Nelson Riddle who at the time was ghost-arranging for band leader Les Baxter. As a result two of Cole's biggest early hits ("Mona Lisa" and "Too Young") list Les Baxter as arranger. In time, Cole became aware that the actual arranger behind his number-one hits was not Les Baxter but a shy, former trombonist for the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, named Nelson Riddle. By the time Cole recorded what would become his signature song –"Unforgettable", the record label correctly identified Nelson Riddle as arranger.
The Trio's days were numbered, however, which distressed their legion of loyal fans. While Cole continued to perform in jazz clubs with the trio, the name was changed from the "King Cole Trio" to "Nat King Cole and His Trio." However, when television beckoned, Cole would perform without the trio, as a stand-up vocalist. For Cole, who always thought of himself as an entertainer first, and as a musician second, the change made sense. Indeed, he saw it as another way of staying fresh. However, he never gave up on the trio, and would resurrect it from time to time, especially for pure jazz albums, such as "After Midnight." For more mainstream and hard-swinging jazz albums and singles, Cole began working with brass band specialist Billy May.
How did Cole, who began his career as a bandleader and arranger, manage to take a back seat to other musicians arranging his music? Exceptionally well. Writes the author: "Cole had started his career leading a big band in Chicago, for which he wrote all the arrangements, thus, in later years, rather like Quincy Jones, he didn't need to write all of his orchestral arrangements, but it was his own ability as an arranger that allowed him to work with such giants of pop music orchestrators as Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins. . . ."
His experience as a songwriter, coupled with his ability as an arranger and singer, enabled Cole to find songs the public would love. As a result, he introduced more new standards into the public domain than anyone in the business. "Working in clubs for years, I learned that you have to reach audiences . . . you have to get across the footlights to the crowd. If you don't–you're sunk." (picking good songs, and selling them as a vocalist, was part of the deal).
According to the author, "that partially explains why Cole is so closely identified with individual songs–and had so many hit singles–whereas (by comparison) Frank Sinatra was better suited, in the long run, to create his masterpieces in the album format. Cole could put over a song and make his point in three minutes; Sinatra did better when he could put a story together point by point . . . ."
As singers, both Cole and Sinatra were known for their perfect diction and faultless phrasing, which served them well singing American standards. However, Cole went a step farther by adding French, Spanish and Portuguese songs to his repertoire. His friend, Sammy Davis Jr., used to kid him about his diction on Spanish and French songs. "He learned the songs phonetically, and they sure sound it," remembers Davis, who was taught Spanish by his mother. "But when I went to South America, everybody asked me, 'Why don't you sing in Spanish like Nat?' I stopped teasing him."
In 1956, Cole and arranger Gordon Jenkins made what was perhaps Coles' masterpiece, a collections of heart-felt ballads entitled "Love is the Thing." It was Coles' first million-seller. However, Cole being Cole, rather than repeat himself, moved on to other genres. His next album, in which he resurrected the trio for a hard-core jazz fest, was "After Midnight" After that he worked with Billy May and his band of studio pros, on a high-octane jazz album, entitled "Just One of Those Things." He followed this with "Cole Español", the first of three all Spanish albums he would make. Then, paired with Nelson Riddle, he recorded an album of blues standards entitled "St. Louis Blues". After that he finally got around to making a follow up to "Love is the Thing", entitled "The Very Thought of You." Despite the changes, his fans continued to buy his records. Indeed, thanks to world sales, "Cole Español" was one of his biggest money-makers.
Among Cole's most enduring classics, is his account of "Stardust," a song, ironically enough, he did not want to record. It was Cole's producer and friend, Lee Gillette, who insisted he do it. "I hate to sing 'Stardust,' Cole said at the time, "it wears me out." However, Gillette was insistent. "When we got to choosing the material and came to 'Stardust', and Nat looked at me and he said, 'You gotta be out of your mind! Me, do 'Stardust'?! It's got to have a thousand recordings!' I said, 'Yeah, but we don't have one by Nat Cole.' So we finally got that settled, and got the key set, I said 'Now Nat, there's one other thing . . .' and he said, 'Oh no, I'm not doing the verse!' I said, 'You've got to do the verse.' Well we argued for an hour or so on that. I finally convinced him to do the verse."
Although the tentative title of the album was "Love is the Thing," at one point they considered calling the album "Stardust," and, according to the author, that's what it says on Capitol's recording sheets. But apparently Cole was still unconvinced, even after they made the first take, and it seemed to be apparent to everyone but the singer that this was a "Stardust" for the ages. (Indeed, after hearing Cole's version, Sinatra stepped away from recording his version).
A year after recording "Stardust", Cole sang the song on his own TV show, which aired on NBC. The show had the ratings but, alas, not the sponsorship to keep it on the air. At the end of the first year, NBC reluctantly dropped The Nat King Cole show.
Cole was a lifelong smoker, which, unfortunately, caught up with him in middle age. After recording his 28th album for Capitol Records (entitled, "L.O.V.E."), Nat Cole died February 15, 1965, age 45.
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