PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 8, 2005

Freddy Cole: All About Love

by Jim Newsom

When Freddy Cole performed at Jazz on Granby three years ago, the house was packed and audience members left the theatre in agreement that they’d just seen a master at work. Patrick Lackey’s Virginian-Pilot review of the concert noted that he “sings with an intimate, almost whispery voice reminiscent of his famous older brother, the late Nat King Cole. But Freddy's style is a little more bluesy, a little less pop.”

What the folks in the crowd noticed more than anything else was Cole’s way with a romantic ballad. As Lackey said at the time, “When Freddy Cole sings, it is all about love.”

So it’s appropriate that this year Freddy Cole is coming to town for a Valentine’s Day weekend show at the Roper Friday night entitled “Romantic Jazz.” Wrapping his deep, smoky voice around a nonpareil set of love songs, he’ll create the perfect ambience for an evening out with the one you love.

But Lionel Frederick Cole didn’t plan on being a great love song singer when he was growing up in Chicago, the youngest of five children born to The Reverend Edward Coles and his piano-playing wife Perlina. (Not a misspelling---the family had an “s” on their name.) Though he had begun piano himself when he was just five years old, sports had a stronger hold on him. He wanted to become a pro football player.

“I wanted to be, you know, like high school kids want to be,” he told me recently on the phone from his home in Atlanta. “I got hurt the last game I played in. I like to use the expression, ‘I blew nineteen scholarships when actually getting hurt was my blessing.’ It led me to be a piano player and it caused me to be a musician. That was my blessing.

“Playing sports is great, but it’s a two-to-five year proposition, especially with football, and that’s it…You’re walking around with your legs all messed up.”

Cole began performing in Chicago clubs and studied music at the Roosevelt Institute there. In 1951, at the age of 20, he moved to New York to attend the Julliard School of Music, and subsequently received a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music.

By that time, Freddy’s brother Nat, twelve years his senior, had become one of the biggest names in show business, and his oldest brother Eddie was also making a living as a musician.

“It was a great feeling, very proud,” he says of Nat’s success. “I got the chance to meet so many musicians one-on-one because he used to bring them to our house. I was never in awe of any of them, I just felt fortunate to meet so many of them.”

Freddy cut his first single in 1952, a tune called “The Joke’s on Me,” and began a career that would include live performances, recordings, and television and radio commercials and jingles. Interestingly enough, the last fifteen years have been his most prodigious, with a series of albums on Fantasy and Telarc raising his star high in the jazz world as his voice mellowed and became more expressive with age.

“It’s funny how that happens,” he reflects about his increased popularity. “If you can stay in it long enough you’ll be rewarded.”

Cole’s last three Telarc recordings brought critical acclaim, with Merry Go Round, released in 2000, nominated for a Grammy award. Ironically, though, it’s his 1990 CD, I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me, that is capturing the most interest these days due to its reissue last summer on the High Note label.

“That’s doing better now than when it was first out,” he laughs. “We’ll have plenty of them up there to sell!”

The album, whose title might be interpreted as a slap against those who won’t let him escape the shadow of his brother, comes across more as a tribute. Employing the same piano-guitar-bass instrumentation that Nat used in his famous King Cole Trio, Freddy traverses similar musical terrain that includes a 10-minute medley of “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “Mona Lisa,” “Nature Boy,” “L-O-V-E” and “Unforgettable,” as well as the self-composed remembrance, “He Was the King.” The blues-structured title track wraps up the disc by humorously proclaiming, “I'm not trying to fill nobody's shoes/My brother made a whole lotta money, I sing the blues.”

Next week he goes to New York to record a new project for High Note, and while there, he’ll perform at Lincoln Center. But Friday night, Freddy Cole brings love to Norfolk. Those who saw him three years ago can tell you how completely he inhabits a song.

“I learned that from Brazilian singers,” he says. “They can sing and make you feel as if they’re singing directly to you. I tried to study how they did this and I tried to put myself in that position of singing a lyric and making the lyric believable.”

Few singers can put across a love song as believably as he can. But he also has a wonderfully low-key presence on stage, not just putting the songs across but also keeping his audience entertained.

“I worked hard at that,” he admits. “It’s not how you sound; it’s how you present what you do and being professional doing it. I try to tell other entertainers about that specific thing, you know, working to present what it is you do to the people.”

When Freddy Cole returns, he’ll be accompanied by the same band he had three years ago---guitarist Jerry Byrd, bassist Zachary Pride and drummer Curtis Boyd. He’ll also have another full house at the Roper in the palm of his hand, ready for romance.

To quote Pat Lackey the last time around, “The lyrics, they were all about love: The highs, the lows, the confusion, the triumphs. Freddy knows.”

copyright © 2005 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.