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8.120727 - NAT KING COLE TRIO: Transcriptions and Early Recordings, Vol. 6 (1941-1943)
THE KING COLE TRIO Transcriptions Vol.6
“Fine, Sweet and Tasty” Original 1941-1943 Recordings
With the disbanding of the King Cole Trio late in 1951, the group’s mainstay Nat embarked in earnest on the solo career already earmarked by the commercial successes of the million-selling US No.1s “Nature Boy” (1948) and “Mona Lisa” (1950). The velvet-voiced crooner’s early billing as a kind of Sinatra ‘in sepia’, however, was superfluous, as his list of chart hits, including the No.1 “Too Young” and “Unforgettable” (both 1951), “When I Fall In Love” (1957) and “Ramblin’ Rose” (1962) was soon to prove. With 78 Billboard hit singles between 1944 and 1964 (an average of three per year), 49 of which entered the US Top 40, in terms of sales (even posthumous sales) Nat Cole qualifies as one of the most popular singers in the history of recording.
Nat Cole was also something of a cult movie idol whose sporadic screen career – which began in 1943 with Here Comes Elmer and ended in 1965, the year of his passing, with Cat Ballou – included a starring-role (as pianist-songwriter W.C. Handy) in St. Louis Blues (1958), but these greater identifications of highly successful middle-of-the-road pop star and middling film icon have eclipsed his true standing as a band-leader and brilliant jazz arranger. Nat’s influence as a jazz piano innovator is consequently not as universally recognised as it should be, albeit he was many times a Downbeat, Metronome and Esquire award-winner and his influence was openly acknowledged by, among others, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and George Shearing, who still rates him ‘the most underrated jazz pianist of all time’.
The son of a Baptist minister, Nat was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, on 17 March 1917 but from 1921 grew up in Chicago. Keenly interested in the piano as a child (his brothers Eddie, Isaac and Freddy also became musicians) he was encouraged by his choir-mistress mother. He first played by ear but later, at high school, embarked on more serious study with the musical educators Walter Dyett and N. Clark Smith. At twelve Nat played the organ at his father’s church and was steeped in classical piano repertoire ‘from Bach to Rachmaninoff ’. But he was also strongly drawn to jazz and improvising at the piano and in 1934, while still at school, fronted his first band. By 1936 he had already cut his first record (for Decca) with his bass-player brother Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers. Influenced from more than one direction, at this stage Nat’s playing already combined the economical pulse of Basie’s left-hand with the intricacy of Earl Hines’ right and his own groups, the Rogues of Rhythm and Twelve Royal Dukes, regularly featured Hines’ arrangements.
Later in 1936, Nat left Chicago with Eddie to appear with the band of a touring revival of Eubie Blake’ Shuffle Along, a show which in 1921 had been proclaimed ‘the first all-black Broadway musical’. However, the revival was conspicuously less successful and, suddenly unemployed in Los Angeles, Nat found work as solo pianist at the Century Club on Santa Monica Boulevard. In 1938, at Bob Lewis’s Swanee Inn Club, Nat formed the ‘King Cole Swingsters’, a quartet comprising Oscar Moore (1912-1981) on guitar, Lee Young (born 1917) on drums and Wesley Prince on bass, but after Young’s departure the following year the group was re-named the King Cole Trio and was heard both live and on radio around Hollywood, notably at the Swanee Inn, until late 1940. The hot small combo was signed that year by Decca and their first recorded sides (December 1940) included classic versions of “Sweet Lorraine” and “Honeysuckle Rose”, and with Nat’s Hines-derived style prominently featured a ‘cocktail jazz’ format was set which Tatum and others would soon follow – although the group was also distinguished by frequent vocals from the Trio (or by more occasional contributions from featured vocalists ad hoc) and from around 1941 from Nat himself, a foretaste of the solo vocalist of the future.
Between 1938 and 1941 Nat provided the instrumental backings on about 200 broadcast transcription discs issued on the Keystone, MacGregor and Standard labels, many of which are still unpublished. These featured various artists (including The Dreamers and soloists Maxene Johnson, Juanelda Carter and Pauline Byrns) and the solo and instrumental items are invariably prefaced by Nat’s florid, Hinesian one-note-run intros, characterised by vocals by trio members which alternate scat with lyrics. The majority of the transcriptions predate the Trio’s first commercial discs (here is yet another version of Gone With The Draft, a number which was also featured in their first Decca session). Precisely what they would have played in the clubs, they are certainly more indicative of the Trio’s slant on the (then) latest jazz innovations than their more regular commercial Tin Pan Alley offerings might indicate. The repertoire is remarkable in its diversity (reflecting Nat’s catholic tastes and early assimilation of many styles, both serious and mundane) and includes light-hearted echoes from well-known light classics, as was then the fashion.
Many of the transcription items are of obscure authorship although it is reasonable to assume that the majority are improvisations – if not actual creations – by Cole himself. Producer David Lennick has offered the following clarifica-tion: ‘Transcription companies syndicated their recordings to radio stations, and often recorded songs that were originals (to which they held the copyrights although they remained unpublished). Credits were never given on the labels since the leasing agreement included the right to play the songs on air without having to declare the composers’ names.’
Peter Dempsey, 2004
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