Nat King Cole: Soundies and Telescriptions [DVD]

Nat King Cole
Music Video Distributors

Existing for less than a decade during the 1940s, soundies were a precursor to MTV and a rival to jukeboxes. These three-minute, black and white shorts were designed to shown in rear-projection, self-contained, and coin-operated machines found wherever you might find also find a jukebox. Soundies cut a swath across the American musical landscape, capturing jazz, country, blues, and big band performances by some of the genre’s biggest stars. Additionally, soundies would also offer more novelty performances by comedians, athletes, and circus acts. Though WWII and a trouble with the film projectionists’ union caused a slow down of production, more than 1,800 soundies were created between 1941 and 1947.

Music Video Distributors has done an excellent job in collecting the soundies of legendary jazz pianist and vocalist Nat King Cole. Created before he became a household name, these soundies nonetheless capture the spirit of this engaging jazz icon. This generous offering collects 27 of Cole’s soundies, including six cuts taken from the little seen and largely unavailable films Killer Diller and Breakfast in Hollywood.

The first half of the DVD is largely made up of soundies produced by Snader Telescriptions. Perhaps a sign of this burgeoning entertainment form, the productions are fairly static, with King Cole performing on soundstages in faux club settings. The repertoire for these early recordings features runs through fairly standard jazz fare including “Route 66”, “Sweet Lorraine”, “For Sentimental Reasons”, and “This Is My Night to Dream”. Perhaps the most striking thing about these soundies, however, is the porcelain-like makeup applied to Nat King Cole. With elongated eyebrows and a lipsticked mouth, Cole looks eerily like a cross between a doll and a young Lauren Bacall.

Clearly, as soundies caught on the productions became livelier, as the latter of the DVD showcases. Several tracks featuring jazz vocalist Ida James, including “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and “I’m a Shy Guy”, feature Cole performing in more natural, lively settings, giving the viewer a feeling they are sitting in a club watching a live performance.

In addition to showcasing the talent of Nat King Cole, these soundies also showcase the versatility of some of Cole’s marvelous sidemen. Guitarists Oscar Moore and Irving Ashby; bassists Johnny Miller and Joe Comfort; and percussionist Jack “Mr. Bongo” Costanzo are all featured in these soundies, providing a rare glimpse at these solid backing players.

Music Video Distributors has done excellent job in compiling these soundies. The picture quality — particularly on the Snader productions — has been beautifully restored, with the sound being as cleaned up as well as could be expected from these recordings. If there is one quibble I have with the DVD, it’s the lack of recording information or liner notes. A collection with this kind of historical value demands to put in the context of Cole’s career. However, this shouldn’t deter jazz fans — particularly Nat King Cole enthusiasts — to stay away from this release. Despite the number of soundies that were produced, they are still relatively difficult to find on DVD. Nat King Cole: Soundies and Telescriptions is an excellent collection of his rare soundie performances.