The first voice you hear on Resonance Records’ exhilarating new box set Nat King Cole – Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) isn’t that of the famous artist. Rather, it’s his older brother and bassist Eddie Cole warbling teenaged Nat’s sprightly composition “Honey Hush.” Nat, of course, is the one tickling the ivories with confidence, grace, and an already sure sense of swing. Although he hadn’t yet formed his famous trio (and the lineup here credited as “Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers” is larger with piano, bass, drums, alto sax, and tenor sax), he was already serving as leader, composer, arranger, and pianist for the group. This 1936 Chicago session for Decca Records – Nat’s first – is just one of the many revelations on this meticulously researched and lavishly presented collection available on 8 CDs or 10 LPs.
Hittin’ the Ramp is the first exhaustive chronicle of Cole’s pre-Capitol Records period. Chronologically it precedes the artist’s two complete solo Capitol box sets from Bear Family (one box spanning 1955-1959 and another covering 1960-1964) as well as a Mosaic box set chronicling all 349 of The Nat King Cole Trio’s Capitol recordings from 1942-1961. Thanks to his solo Capitol recordings, Cole is now primarily remembered as a vocalist nonpareil who, with his burnished, gentle, and resonant voice, introduced countless standards. But before Cole the singer, there was Cole the pianist. He took inspiration from Earl “Fatha” Hines to become one of his instrument’s greatest and most inventive practitioners, in turn inspiring the likes of Oscar Peterson and George Shearing. His fleet playing was as effortless – and as effortlessly cool – as his subsequent vocal work. While there are plenty of vocals on Hittin’ the Ramp, the emphasis is on Cole’s incredible musicianship. The full story is told through almost 200 impossibly rare recordings, both released and previously unreleased.
The second session here, recorded September 1938 in Hollywood and preserved on a transcription disc, introduces The King Cole Trio featuring the original line-up of Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass. (The group had formed one year earlier.) In an eclectic session also encompassing a jazz version of “The Blue Danube,” Stephen Foster’s “Swanee River,” and contemporary tunes by Johnny Mercer, Harold Rome, and Harry Warren, the Trio performed “Jingle Bells” years before Cole would become forever associated with the Christmas holiday. Note that Mercer would become a major figure in Cole’s life when the songwriter signed him to the new label he had founded, Capitol. On these early sides, the group sings harmony vocals; soon, the three-part harmonies would cede to Nat’s vocal solos. But before he chose to concentrate on his singing, Cole broke ground leading his drummer-less trio. The format afforded him the opportunity to develop the rhythmic and harmonic language that gained him prominence and set him apart from his predecessors.
These rare transcription discs, beautifully restored, dominate the first four fascinating discs of Hittin’ the Ramp. (Transcription discs were made by production companies in the era when radio stations didn’t play commercial recordings; local stations would subscribe to one of the major transcription services and would receive oversize 16-inch discs of original music playable on special turntables.) They demonstrate the Trio’s versatility on folk songs, classical pieces, pop, blues, swing, jazz, and even nursery rhymes.
The box then transitions to Cole’s earliest commercial recordings. As Will Friedwald points out in his typically astute liner notes, there’s some question as to what actually constitutes his first commercial work: some of the Trio’s 1939 Davis and Schwegler transcriptions were later released on 78s, and in the spring of 1940, the group recorded four sides for jukeboxes on the Ammor label. (As heard on Disc 3, these tracks stand out for the intrusive presence of a drummer.) Those Ammor recordings were made at Decca’s Hollywood studios, and in December 1940, The King Cole Trio returned to the Melrose Avenue premises for the first of four sessions for the Decca label. At the very first session, Cole cut one of the songs with which he would become forever associated: Mitchell Parish and Cliff Burwell’s “Sweet Lorraine.” It’s heard here in two takes. Later Decca sessions were recorded in Chicago (a homecoming for Cole, who attended high school there) and New York.
Despite the quality of the Decca sides, Cole’s contract wasn’t renewed by label chief Milt Gabler – a reluctant decision, per Friedwald. Nat joined tenor sax great Lester Young at the behest of the fledgling producer Norman Granz for a thrilling quartet of sides (“Indiana,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Tea for Two,” “Body and Soul”) heard on Discs 5 and 6 that haven’t lost any of their luster in the ensuing decades. The latter disc also has Cole’s recordings with another legend on the tenor sax, Dexter Gordon. The summer 1943 session also boasts the participation of trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, whose tone is familiar from countless studio recordings with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé, and others.
Before signing with Capitol, Cole also recorded for the Excelsior and Premier labels, both of which somehow got around the AFM recording ban of 1942. These tracks weren’t exactly “underground.” As the ban was coming to an end, Capitol (whose co-founder Glenn Wallichs was involved with Excelsior) acquired “All for You” and “Vom, Vim, Veedle” for release. Two alternate takes of Excelsior tracks “My Lips Remember Your Kisses” and “Beautiful Moons Ago” are among the treasures making their debuts here.
The final two discs of Hittin’ the Ramp also spotlight Cole’s sessions for Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) including two early versions of the future perennial “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Equally exciting are some tracks not known to exist until two of the set’s producers, Matthew Lutthans and Jordan Taylor, discovered them while researching the repertoire. These include two private recordings made for the owner of Washington, DC’s The Romany Room (two takes of “The Romany Room Is Jumpin'”) and transcriptions for jukebox company Cinematone, and a radio broadcast of “Whatcha’ Know Joe” performed by the Trio sans the vocals of Anita Boyer, who performed it with them on another recording included here.
This treasure chest of rare material might be overwhelming if not for the detailed research shared in the beautiful 56-page color booklet designed by John Sellards. In addition to Friedwald’s essay describing each period covered in the box, the booklet also features Nick Rossi’s appreciation of Oscar Moore; producer Zev Feldman’s insightful interview with one of Nat’s vocal disciples, Johnny Mathis; new commentary from a “Who’s Who” including Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Dick Hyman, Michael Feinstein, John Pizzarelli, and Quincy Jones; and Feldman’s fresh interview with Nat’s still-active younger brother, singer-pianist Freddy Cole. Matthew Lutthans, who has restored and mastered this set in remarkably fine sound considering the age of the sources, offers two pages of Technical Notes shedding further light on the process that made this one-of-a-kind release (produced by Feldman, Lutthans, Friedwald, George Klabin, Jordan Taylor, and Seth Berg) possible. The CDs themselves are housed in digipaks within the sturdy slipcase (two discs per digipak save for CD 7 which has the one disc). The inner panels have discographical annotation while the back panel offers the track listing.
The Nat King Cole centennial year celebration also seen the release from Universal Music of International Nat King Cole and Ultimate Nat King Cole as well as TJL Productions’ 3-CD collection Nat King Cole: Favorites (a companion to the public television broadcast of the new special My Music: Nat King Cole’s Greatest Songs). The festivities will continue into the new year with the release of Will Friedwald’s upcoming book Nat King Cole: Straighten Up and Fly Right!
Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) is a truly essential and illuminating addition to any library of jazz or American popular song, showcasing the far too unknown talents of Cole at the piano while still providing a look at the ground floor of Cole the beloved singer. As such, it’s not to be missed.