Richard Nisley


A Subjective Discography of Nat King Cole's Best
Pop Culture Released - Oct 22, 2020
The following is a short list of Nat King Cole's best albums (in my opinion, that is). Had I had the foresight, this subjective discography would have concluded my book review of "Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole"

(1) JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS (1957)

One of two great swing albums by Nat Cole, arranged by brass specialist Billy May (the second is "Let's Face the Music!", released in 1964). The band is the same stringless/reedless ensemble May employed to make his groundbreaking "Big Fat Brass." You want swing with zing? This is it. Even the ballades swing! The tunes are mostly from the great American songbook, which Cole swings with deceptive ease ("When Your Lover Has Gone", "A Cottage For Sale", "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", "These Foolish Things", etc.), plus three bonus cuts: the hard swinging "Day In-Day Out", "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter", and "Something Makes Me Want to Dance", which is what you'll want to do after listening to this upbeat masterpiece.

(2) LOVE IS THE THING (1957)

An album of firsts: Cole's first of four collaborations with stringmaster Gordon Jenkins; Cole's first album to be certified gold; and Cole's first album recorded in stereo. It's also the album that introduced the world to Cole's sublime, definitive "Stardust." Indeed, "Stardust" woulda-coulda-shoulda been the title of this album of romantic ballads (apparently, Cole nixed the idea). Recorded in late 1956, the album introduces a number of songs that, ironically, would go on to become hits for other singers, including "At Last", a big hit for Etta James, in 1960; "Love Letters", ditto for Ketty Lester in 1962, and "It's All in the Game", which would chart big in 1958 for Tommy Edwards. Another song, "When Sunny Gets Blue", was recorded by Johnny Mathis around the same time as Cole's version, but Mathis's record label had the foresight to release the song as a single, which went number-one in 1957. If you're going to purchase one Nat King Cole CD–this is it.

(3) ST. LOUIS BLUES (1963)

For all intents and purposes, "St. Louis Blues" is the last Nat Cole/Nelson Riddle album, and, by most accounts, their greatest achievement. The album was originally conceived as the soundtrack for a movie of the same name, which starred Nat Cole, as songwriter W.C. Handley, the self-styled "Father of the Blues". Alas, the movie is mostly forgotten, while the album lives on in the digital age.

What W.C. Handy did was take the rootsie Mississippi Delta blues and retool into what jazz critic Will Friedwald calls "a modern, mid-century blues, a highly refined jazz kind of blues." Cole and Riddle accentuate the transformation with a jazzy, big band accompaniment, resulting in a peerless collection of Handy's blues classics sung with heart and intelligence by Nat King Cole.

The album opens with an Aaron Copland-sounding overture entitled "Love Theme", composed not by Handy but by Riddle. This flows seamlessly into the first vocal track, "Hesitating Blues". Standout cuts include "Harlem Blues", "Stay", "Memphis Blues", "Morning Star", and, my favorite, the exuberant "Joe Turner Blues." Famed jazz trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison is heard throughout the set, adding tasteful flourishes on his horn that adorn Riddle's engaging brass-and-string arrangements.

"St. Louis Blues" as conceived by Cole/Riddle, reminds me of what Ray Charles did in 1962 with "Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music", which is to reimagine a niche genre (rustic blues) and transform it into something grand and universally appealing.

(4) NAT KING COLE AT THE SANDS (1965)

Recorded in January 1960, and not released until after Cole's untimely death, "Nat King Cole at the Sands", is sheer exuberance set to music. Cole's joy in performing before a live audience is evident from the start, beginning with "Ballerina", that sounds almost identical to his earlier studio recording. "Funny (Not Much)", a song Cole would record in 1961, is again very much like the studio version. New to the Cole repertoire are a number of standards: "The Continental", "I Wish You Love", "You Leave Me Breathless", "Thou Swell", and "My Kind of Love" all of which Cole delivers with charm and faultless diction. Special attention is reserved for "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top", with its tongue-twister lyrics that Cole sings with precision and panache. "Where or When" is recast for piano, thus allowing Cole (the consummate musician) to express his musical ideals on the keys. Very special. "Miss Otis Regrets (She's Unable to Lunch Today)", a Cole Porter tune, is too clever for its own good, and loses its welcome after one listening. The standout cut is the closer, the rollicking "Joe Turner Blues" by W.C. Handley, which Cole delivers with particular relish and joy. What makes this set highly worthwhile is the band, which cooks throughout.

(5) THE WORLD OF NAT KING COLE (1999)

This is the definitive collection of Nat King Cole's greatest hits, from his early days as pianist/arranger/singer of the King Cole Trio, to his middle years as a standup pop singer working with the best song arrangers in the business (Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins), to his last years working with journeyman arranger Ralph Carmichael. All of the classic Cole hits are here, in pristine digital sound, beginning with his most notable songs with the Trio: "Straighten Up and Fly Right", "It's Only a Paper Moon", "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66" and "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons", to his breakout hits as a pop singer ("Nature Boy", "Too Young", "Send for Me", "A Blossom Fell") to his signature songs ("Unforgettable", "Mona Lisa" and "Stardust"), to his last big hits ("Ramblin' Rose" and "L.O.V.E."). Included are two songs he recorded in a foreign language ("Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" and "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup"). Also included are a number of swing tunes he was famous for ("Almost Like Being in Love", "Let's Face the Music and Dance" and "Just One of Those Things"). Plus some upbeat blues numbers that were minor hits ("Orange Colored Sky" and "Walkin' My Baby Back Home"). Of particular note are three songs, while not hits, were fan favorites ("You Stepped Out of a Dream", "Let There Be Love", and "Smile"). There's no chaff in this marvelous sampling of Cole's best; just 28 great songs by one of the greatest singers of 20th century pop music.

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