The chart-topping success of Natalie Cole’s tribute album, Unforgettable, and specifically the hit title cut, a ”duet” in which her workaday voice blends with the uniquely resonant tones of her truly unforgettable father, has clinched a resurrection of Nat ”King” Cole already well under way with reissues of his records, a TV documentary, and rebroadcasts of his old TV shows. Nat Cole was a major pop star in the ’50s and early ’60s. If you were around then, you knew his voice as well as your own, maybe better — not merely because it was ubiquitous, but because it had an emphatically intimate quality that produced a profound bond with listeners. His throaty timbre, with its plush baritone vibrato, was so seductive and sure, whether caressing a ballad or gliding over a jazzy rhythm, that your pulse would all but vibrate along with his.
Cole was everywhere. Between 1942 and 1965, the year he died, he had nearly 100 Top 40 hits, not only on the pop charts, but on R&B, jazz, and country rankings as well. He was a frequent presence on TV and movie screens, eventually becoming the first black entertainer to have his own TV variety show. (Cole’s widow, Maria, claims the show was canceled in 1957 after Revlon, a prospective sponsor, concluded that blacks couldn’t sell cosmetics.) The crazy thing, though, was that as famous and even beloved as he was, most people didn’t know that he had originally achieved a more modest success as a superb and highly influential jazz pianist. Some musicians who had followed his career since the early days hoped his singing was strictly a passing fancy.
Cole grew up in Chicago, where in 1936, at age 19, he first began to record as a pianist. His style, strongly influenced by the legendary pianist- bandleader Earl Hines, was known for its supple, single-note phrases, played with tripping wit and incomparable rhythmic finesse. When he organized a trio of piano, guitar (Oscar Moore), and bass (Wesley Prince), he began to achieve a national following, working primarily in Los Angeles and producing such jazz and R&B hits as ”Straighten Up and Fly Right” and ”Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.” In the wake of Cole’s success, trios with the same instrumentation were formed by several pianists, including Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, and Ray Charles, whose first records are virtually Cole imitations.
Beginning in 1946, however, Cole began to record romantic ballads — ”The Christmas Song,” ”Nature Boy,” ”Mona Lisa,” ”Too Young,” ”Unforgettable” — often accompanied by string orchestras. In no time, he disappeared from jazz to be reborn as an international celebrity. Every once in a while, he would return to his jazz piano roots, as on his classic 1956 album After Midnight, but by the end of his career, cut short at 47 by lung cancer, he was too often heard singing banal pop tunes. Still, Cole’s voice, reflecting by all accounts his easygoing nature as a man, retained its extraordinary warmth, and his phrasing never failed to impart a dependable rhythmic drive. After you hear the best Cole interpretations, his satiny baritone sailing serenely over every open vowel, your pulse will never beat the same way again.