PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
January 8, 2008

Cool King Cole

by Jim Newsom

Penthouse Serenade/The Piano Style of Nat King Cole
Sings for Two in Love/Sings Ballads of the Day
Just One of Those Things/Let’s Face the Music
Love is the Thing/Where Did Everyone Go?
The Touch of Your Lips/I Don’t Want to be Hurt Anymore
Ramblin’ Rose/Dear Lonely Hearts
Welcome to the Club/Tell Me All About Yourself
Songs from St. Louis Blues/Looking Back
Cole Espanol/More Cole Espanol

Nat King Cole
Collectors’ Choice/EMI

When a record company releases nine two-fers of one artist at the same time, do you count is as a box set or just call it a musical treasure trove? When the folks at the Collectors’ Choice reissue label were chosen by Nat Cole’s estate and his daughter Carole to release his Capitol catalog on CD, they found a wealth of magnificent music filed away in the old Capitol Records vaults. The result of their foraging is this set of recordings, assembled thematically on single CDs with two original albums per disc, original artwork and historically intriguing liner notes.

The earliest recordings in this release are on Penthouse Serenade, an all-instrumental album with Nat at the piano in 1952, doing the cocktail jazz thing on eight standards, some remembered, some not. When the 12-inch LP era came along three years later, he fleshed out the set with four more numbers performed in the same vein. That album is paired here with Piano Style, another non-vocal affair from 1956 that added Nelson Riddle orchestrations to the piano-bass-drums format of its predecessor. While it has been said that even if Nat Cole never opened his mouth to sing he would have made a name as a great jazz pianist, this set doesn’t really do justice to his jazz chops, serving more as a pleasant easy listening diversion. Still, some of Riddle’s arrangements cook with that jazzy excitement so typical of his voluminous catalog.

Of course, it was his singing style that made Cole a superstar, and there is ample documentation of his vocal prowess in this release. The Two in Love/Ballads of the Day disc brings together sides recorded between 1953 and 1956, before rock-n-roll hit and the music biz skewed young. This is the Nat King Cole so many revere—ballads and mid-tempo tunes propelled by inimitable Nelson Riddle charts. The strings are thick, the songs romantic, the horn section sexy and sensual. The titles tell all: “Love is Here to Stay,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Tenderly,” “Angel Eyes,” “Let’s Fall in Love.” Only Sinatra could even come close to Nat’s definitive versions of these classics.

Riddle wasn’t the only arranger who got the call for Nat King Cole sessions. Just One of Those Things and Let’s Face the Music match the singer up with Billy May’s brassy style for albums seven years apart—the first from 1957 swings with lots of horns; the latter from 1964 has gentler arrangements that leave plenty of space for Cole’s cool, relaxed readings. On five tracks, the singer takes a ride on organ, something he apparently had never done before in a recording studio.

Love is the Thing put Gordon Jenkins into the arranger’s seat for a set of richly romantic songs filled out with lush string arrangements. Where Did Everyone Go brings the strings on even more syrupy for a batch of saloon songs dripping with loneliness. Ralph Carmichael steps in to direct The Touch of Your Lips, another festival of string-laden ballads. However, I Don’t Want to Be Hurt Anymore, teamed here with Touch because it was also arranged by Carmichael, is in fact a collection of country songs with the tinkling Floyd Cramer-like piano playing of Don Robertson, the guitars of James Burton and Glen Campbell, and fat countrypolitan choral accompaniment. Released in 1964, it continued in the direction first traveled two years earlier with the huge hit single, “Ramblin’ Rose.”

That song anchors the album of the same name, recorded in the wake of Ray Charles’ huge success with “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and the Modern Sounds in Country & Western LP. With an odd setlist including “Wolverton Mountain,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Skip to My Lou,” it would be considered a novelty if it had been Cole’s only outing of the kind. But Dear Lonely Hearts went in the same direction, though with fuller orchestration.

My personal favorite among this massive reissue is probably the Welcome to the Club/Tell Me All About Yourself pairing. The first features Count Basie’s orchestra swingin’ hard in all its glory; the title track, “She’s Funny That Way” and “The Late, Late Show” rank with Cole’s finest. The second is sans the Basie band, but has the same spirit and the same feel, though the material is weaker.

Songs from St. Louis Blues is just what the title implies—material from the film in which Cole starred as the great blues composer W. C. Handy. It’s not a soundtrack; instead it’s a reimagining of a dozen Handy songs arranged by Nelson Riddle. Tilting more toward jazz than gut bucket blues, it stands on its own as one of the swingingest albums in this collection. It shares disc space here with Looking Back, a posthumously issued set of non-album tracks that wanders all over the place from quasi-rock-n-roll and doo-wop to dreamy ballads. Though not very highly regarded, it has a kitschy late ‘50s appeal as a memento of those transistor radio days.

Cole Espanol and More Cole Espanol found him reaching out to the non-English speaking world. Both sold well and, though occasionally corny in a cheap Mexican restaurant kind of way, the sound of that voice, even in cheesy musical settings, transcends language.

copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.