Yesterday, March 17, 2019, would have been Nat “King” Cole’s 100th birthday. While the man born Nathaniel Adams Coles only lived to the age of 45, he more than earned his royal moniker over his three decades of performing. He paved the way for African-American artists as the first black man to host a nationwide television variety show, and quietly but devotedly crusaded for civil rights. At the time of his death, at the height of Beatlemania, he was selling some seven million records a year.
The Cole centennial has just been celebrated by Capitol Records and UMe with a new CD collection, Ultimate Nat King Cole. (A vinyl edition arrives in June.) Its 21 tracks reflect the artist’s many personas: fleet-fingered piano man and bandleader of The King Cole Trio, perennial hipster, peerless interpretive singer. These diverse selections showcase the voice that influenced and inspired artists as disparate as Ray Charles and Johnny Mathis: smooth, seductive, and entrancing.
The non-chronological survey of the Cole oeuvre spans 1943-1964 and includes many of his greatest and most indelible hits including his solo top ten smashes “Nature Boy” (in its 1961 re-recording), “Mona Lisa” (1950), “Unforgettable” (1951), “Pretend” (1953), “Smile” (in its 1961 re-recording), and “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” (1963) as well as the King Cole Trio’s top ten entries “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (1943) and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” (1946). But it’s a measure of Cole’s artistry that the hits don’t begin to scratch the surface of his talent. The set also includes many of the standards which are forever associated with him, including Bobby Troup’s “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” Cliff Burwell and Mitchell Parish’s “Sweet Lorraine,” Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert’s “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” and Edward Heyman and Victor Young’s “When I Fall in Love.”
Throughout these 21 recordings, one can’t help marvel at Cole’s innate warmth, flawless intonation, and subtly piercing manner of getting to the heart of a song. Despite his improvisatory jazz background and skill, his vocals were more often than not matter-of-fact and straightforward, always in service of the melody and lyrics; his rich baritone revealed a natural honesty. One glance at the arrangers here reveals boldface names like Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Billy May. While all three men were closely associated with Frank Sinatra, their work with Cole is equally nonpareil; in fact, Riddle’s association with Cole at Capitol directly led to his work with the future Chairman of the Board.
Cole performed all manner of songs in his career, from novelties (the jaunty “Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer”) to foreign-language tunes (“Quizas, Quizas, Quizas (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps)” and “Perfidia,” both of which are sung in Spanish). But it’s the lush, romantic ballads for which he will ever be best known. The timeless “Unforgettable” was the very first song on the singer’s very first session with Nelson Riddle (August 17, 1951); while they revisited it in stereo in 1961, their magical mono original is the one featured here. His gentility and intimacy are perhaps best expressed on “When I Fall in Love,” which like “Unforgettable” gained further fame when his daughter Natalie added her vocals decades later in a virtual duet. Cole made classics his own; his recording is undoubtedly among the finest ever of Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish’s oft-covered 1927 standard “Stardust.”
The vocalist’s easygoing charm oozes from 1961’s “Let There Be Love,” in which he’s joined by another great pianist, George Shearing, and his quintet. Jazzman Stan Kenton was the conductor for Milton DeLugg and Willie Stein’s joyful paean to an “Orange Colored Sky.” As dramatic as those are swinging is Eden Ahbez’s moody, otherworldly “Nature Boy,” a 1948 chart-topper for Cole heard here in its 1961 stereo version.
Due to his untimely death in 1965, Cole didn’t get the opportunity to record many songs from the tunesmiths who would ultimately write the second chapter of the Great American Songbook – one could easily imagine him bringing his resonant tone to a song from his Capitol labelmates John Lennon and Paul McCartney – but in late 1964, he did record Antonio Carlos Jobim’s alluring bossa nova standard “The Girl from Ipanema.” Ultimate Nat King Cole concludes with a new, previously unreleased duet version on which Cole’s voice is joined by one of his more recent disciples, the Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Gregory Porter (who in 2017 recorded the tribute album Nat King Cole and Me for Capitol’s sister label, Blue Note). Producer Don Was has seamlessly melded their vocals, utilizing Ralph Carmichael’s original chart.
Ultimate Nat King Cole is packaged in a jewel case with a 12-page booklet containing liner notes by James Ritz. Robert Vosgien has tastefully remastered all tracks at Capitol Studios. For those wanting more Cole (and who wouldn’t?), UMe has also issued International Nat King Cole, a webstore-exclusive CD rounding up tracks recorded in August 1964 sung in French, German, Japanese, Italian, and Spanish, as well as a tribute from another late Cole fan. Marvin Gaye’s 1965 Motown LP A Tribute to the Great Nat King Cole has been expanded as a digital-only release. Lastly, Public Television stations nationwide are currently airing TJL Productions’ My Music: Nat King Cole’s Greatest Songs, a new special hosted by Martin Sheen presenting rare performances from the icon. As a pledge incentive, fans can purchase the DVD, plus a bundle including Ultimate Nat King Cole and a companion volume, the 3-CD set Nat King Cole: Favorites, which offers a deeper look at his musical magic via 81 additional tracks.
This 100th birthday collection makes for a vivid introduction to the sound of Nat “King” Cole. His brand of L-O-V-E is, indeed, “made for me and you.”
Ultimate Nat King Cole is available at: