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Reissue Captures Nat King Cole Before He Broke Through To Mainstream


This is FRESH AIR. Pop singer and jazz pianist Nat King Cole was born 100 years ago. His centenary this year has prompted numerous tribute albums and now a big reissue of his early recordings. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has the details.


NAT KING COLE: (Singing) We'll call up spots. I know them where the music is really low down. And just for fun, we'll show them how we can go to town. I'd love to circulate, bring you my head today. So come on, honey. Don't make me wait. Let's do new things.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Nat King Cole in 1940. Later in his career as one of the great 20th century pop singers, publicists sold the idea that the pianist had only reluctantly backed into singing. See, for example, a short biopic where he plays himself, "The Nat King Cole Musical Story," which you can find online. To be sure, he was a formidable pianist who come up in Earl Hines' Chicago. Early on and sometimes later, he could catch Hines' blend of antic action and pinpoint timing. Here's Cole on his first record date, Chicago in 1936.


WHITEHEAD: Nat Cole's career didn't really get going till a couple of years later after he'd moved to Los Angeles. He formed a trio with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince, the band that put Cole over and where he sang from the first. Harmony vocals were as central to the trio's act as the hot instrumental work, which very much included Oscar Moore's guitar solo.


NAT KING COLE TRIO: (Singing) Now you've really got the ways and means. Let's go from North Dakota to New Orleans. If you want to get back to your team, let's get happy tonight. (Scatting).

WHITEHEAD: The Nat King Cole Trio in 1939, before Oscar Moore switched to electric guitar - this music's from a seven-CD roundup of stuff Cole recorded before signing with Capitol Records, where he became a star. It's called "Hittin' The Ramp: The Early Years (1936 - 1943)" from the Resonance label. Almost all the music is by the Cole Trio, but there are a couple of small groups with top tenor saxophonists - Lester Young, or this one, Dexter Gordon.


WHITEHEAD: Most of the trio music in the box "Hittin' The Ramp" comes from so-called transcription recordings, which were made for radio stations - short performances broadcasters used to plug holes in programming. For the musicians involved, squeezing all the action into less than three minutes was good training for making pop records. And it encouraged springy solos.


WHITEHEAD: The trio fit Nat King Cole like a tux. Oscar Moore's rhythm was so solid they didn't need a drummer. Over the years, the piano-guitar-bass lineup was copied by, among others, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and singing pianist Diana Krall. Its influence went further. Pianist Erroll Garner's left hand could mimic strummed guitar under his right-hand block chords like he wanted to be Oscar Moore and Nat Cole at the same time. You can hear Garner's style coming in Cole's 1939 "You're My Life."


WHITEHEAD: By the time the Nat Cole Trio began knocking out hits for Capitol late in 1943, they were ready to break through. They'd been polishing their repertoire on gigs and radio shows during a long hiatus in recording owing to a standoff between the musicians' union and the record companies. That's when the trio honed favorites like "Straighten Up And Fly Right" and "Sweet Lorraine." Once Cole became a singing star, he moved away from the piano. He'd get back to it sometimes, if not often enough for jazz fans. Fair enough - he sure could sing though.


COLE: (Scatting).

(Singing) Now I've just found joy. I am as happy as baby boy with another brand new choo-choo toy when I met my sweet Lorraine. A pair of eyes that are bluer than the summer sky. When you see them, you'll realize why I love my sweet Lorraine. Now, when it's raining...

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed Nat King Cole "Hittin' The Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943)," a seven-CD reissue of his early recordings. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Saeed Jones. His new coming-of-age memoir, "How We Fight For Our Lives," is about growing up black, gay and closeted in Texas at a time when he thought being gay meant dying of AIDS. He writes, "being black can get you killed. Being gay can get you killed. Being a black gay boy is a death wish." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan describes Jones' memoir as raw and eloquent. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT KING COLE SONG, "SWEET LORRAINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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