Nat King Cole is best remembered as a popular performer with an engaging and pleasant personality. He was a pioneer in the entertainment industry because of his color during an earlier era. Cole was a best-selling vocalist with a long string of hits (more than 150 charted!) dating back to the 1940s. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his recordings and is also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cole had his own radio show (King Cole Trio Time) in 1946, the first such program sponsored by a black artist. Cole was frequently a guest on TV shows during the early 1950s and even had his own variety show on television when few black faces appeared on the telly.
Cole appeared in several movies in a variety of roles, including the Academy Award-winning Cat Ballou (1965), which was posthumously released. In 1991 his daughter Natalie mixed her voice with his on a re-recording of his 1951 hit “Unforgettable” for a tribute album of the same title. The song and album won seven Grammy awards. In addition, Cole’s rendition of “The Christmas Song” still gets lots of airplay every holiday season and is explicitly referenced by Joni Mitchell on her Christmas standard, “River”.
Cole’s enormous popularity as an entertainer in popular media overshadows the fact that he first gained renown as a jazz pianist. Even as a teen, Cole was playing with big bands and started some small combos of his own that received positive attention and record contracts. Last year Resonance Records released a big box set (seven-CD, ten-LP) in partnership with Cole’s estate set in celebration of the performer’s 100th birthday: Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943). It was exhaustive in scope and contained tracks from a wide range of sources, including private collections, wartime recordings for the military during the Second World War, and radio broadcasts. The recordings were made by the King Cole Trio, which also featured guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince.
The sheer bulk of that product ensured that only devoted Cole fans would buy it. For those less familiar with Cole’s jazz piano work, Resonance is digitally releasing a 21-track best-of collection, Straighten Up and Fly Right – The Best of Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943). This is in conjunction with the upcoming Oxford Press book release of Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life & Music of Nat King Cole by author Will Friedwald, who co-produced of the Hittin’ the Ramp box set. Fifteen of the songs have never been available digitally, and one cut wasn’t even on the big box set (a transcription version of “This Side Up”).
The sound quality on most of these recordings is surprisingly clear, considering the mix of sources.
While Cole’s keyboard skills are in evidence, especially on the instrumental cuts such as “Two Against One” and “Black Spider Stomp”, he does sing on the bulk of the material. Included here is a 1939 transcription of “Sweet Lorraine” crooned loosely and featured instrumental solos, scatting, and informal phrasing. All of the material from the 1930s here are delivered jazz style, including a 1939 transcription of “Riffin’ at the BBQ” that’s so tasty it makes one hungry just listening to the piece.
This collection is largely chronological, with the first 15 cuts coming from the 1930s. Whether instrumental or with words, the songs from that decade reveal Cole as a master piano player who can tear off fast phrases and jam with aplomb. Cole began to be more commercially successful in the 1940s, and the material from this period falls on the more jive side of the music spectrum, albeit with lots of jazz flourishes. The live renditions of Louis Jordan’s “Slender, Tender and Tall” and Cole’s own (co-written) composition “Straighten Up and Fly Right” bounce with energy and flair. Cole aims to entertain more than just show off his chops here. He engages his audiences and joyously reacts to their appreciation.
The newly available track, a 1941 transcription of “This Side Up”, offers a hot instrumental take played fast and greasy. The three players take turns showing off their skills. The pace never drops. The song displays their mighty skills as jazzbos and, like the rest of the compilation, reveals Cole’s talents as a pianist and leader.