Happy 97th Birthday, Nat ‘King’ Cole!

Today Nat ‘King’ Cole, born Nathaniel Adams Coles 97 years ago today in Montgomery, Alabama, is widely associated with his pop hits of the 1950s and ’60s, but his musical career extends much further back, well into the Cladrite Era. He began performing as a jazz pianist during his teen years in the mid-1930s in Chicago. His older brother, Eddie, a bass player, joined his band and the two siblings cut their first record, under Eddie’s name, in 1936. It was during this time that Nat was given his ‘King’ nickname, said to be a play on the Old King Cole nursery rhyme.

Cole hit the road as the pianist in a national tour of Eubie Blake‘s revue Shuffle Along (currently being revived on Broadway), and when the show unexpectedly closed in Los Angeles, Nat decided that Southern California suited him and remained there.

Nat 'King' Cole

Nat ‘King’ Cole found his first success as part of a trio (though they weren’t yet the King Cole Trio, as they would come to be known, but the King Cole Swingsters). Radio was key to their rise in popularity, and they became a popular act in the Los Angeles area. Nat’s piano playing was his claim to fame, but he had started to add vocals to a number of the tunes in the trio’s repertoire.

In 1943, Nat and the trio signed with the fledging Capitol Records, and their success financed the company’s growth. To this day, the round structure that is the company’s headquarters, built in Hollywood in 1956, is referred to as “the house that Nat built.”

Cole is to this day considered one of jazz’s greatest pianists, but eventually, the popularity of his vocals overtook the acclaim his playing garnered, and his flair for crooning a pop song made him one of the most popular recording artists in the world (it’s not widely remembered today, but in the 1950s, Cole outsold Frank Sinatra by a wide margin).

Cole became so popular that on November 5, 1956, he began hosting his own television show, The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show, on NBC; he was the first African-American artist to host such a show. The show did fine in the ratings, but no sponsor for the program was ever found, a must in those days. Just over a year after it hit the airwaves, Cole pulled the plug on the show. The strain of operating a show without a sponsor’s backing was too much. After the show’s demise, Cole was quoted as having quipped, with a mix of good humor and bitterness, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”

The program’s failure proved a negligible setback, as the hits kept coming. Cole even recorded a trio of albums in Spanish (phonetic only—he didn’t hablan español). His Spanish was reportedly pretty bad, but many Spanish-speaking listeners found his clumsy efforts charming and his popularity only increased.

A favorite story of ours tells of the time that Cole moved his family into Hancock Park, a all-white Los Angeles neighborhood that was a bastion of old money (by L.A. standards, anyway). The Coles were not made to feel welcome—a burning cross was even placed on their lawn. But when members of the neighborhood property-owners association paid Cole a visit, telling him they didn’t want to see any undesirables in the neighborhood, he is said to have told them, “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”

That, our friends, was a perfect response.

We once attended an afternoon question-and-answer session with Debbie Reynolds in Las Vegas, and she mentioned Nat ‘King’ Cole as one of her favorites. We asked her if she had known him well and did she have any remembrances to share? She recalled Cole as exceedingly gentle and kind, widely respected as performer and as a man. She said he wasn’t bitter at the racial prejudice and rancor he’d encountered over the years. “It’ll pass,” she quoted him as saying. “The years will go by and it will all go away.” We wish he’d lived to see the day; we hope we will.

In 1964, Cole began to experience fatigue and back pain until finally, some time after collapsing during a show at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, he was convinced to consult with a doctor while performing in San Francisco. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and given just a few months to live, but he kept working, recording his final sessions in early December. He died, aged 45, in Los Angeles on February 15, 1965, less than three months after his diagnosis. The severity of his condition had been largely hidden from the public, so the news of his passing proved a shock to his fans across the country and around the world.

We were not quite seven years of age when news came of Cole’s passing, and our beloved mother was one of those grieving fans. She loved Nat ‘King’ Cole’s music, and she passed that love on to us. He remains one of our favorites, and it pains us to think of all the wonderful music we’d have gotten to enjoy if he’d lived to his 70s or 80s, as other singers of the era, such as Sinatra and Tony Bennett, have done. But his musical legacy remains virtually unmatched. He excelled as a pianist and a singer, in jazz and in pop, and even managed to acquit himself reasonably well in recording a few country and R&B songs.

Thanks for all the wonderful music, Nat, and happy birthday, wherever you may be.

We’ll be loving you, always

Today marks the 124nd anniversary of the birth of the great Irving Berlin. One of history’s great tunesmiths, Berlin wrote more than hundreds of songs, 19 musicals and the scores of 18 movies over the course of his lengthy career.

“[Berlin is] the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.”George Gershwin

“Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.”Jerome Kern

Here are some of our favorite Irving Berlin songs:

“What’ll I Do?”The Nat “King” Cole Trio

“Say It Isn’t So”Annette Hanshaw

“Marie”Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra

“Puttin’ on the Ritz”Leo Reisman and His Orchestra

The British Bands That Mattered

There are many familiar names among the artists we feature on Cladrite Radio—everyone from Glenn Miller and Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday, Paul Whiteman, and Nat “King” Cole.

But our greatest pleasure is giving exposure to lesser known artists—bands, singers, and instrumentalists with whom only the true buff is familiar.

Among those less known here in the United States, except among the cognoscenti, are such British band leaders as Ray Noble, Jack Payne, Henry Hall, and Carroll Gibbons, who was American but gained his fame in England. Each of these artists can be heard here on Cladrite Radio, and those interested in learning more about them now can turn to the BBC’s Radio 2.

Air personality Brian Matthew hosts a program called “The Bands The Mattered,” which each week explores the life and career of a pair of orchestra leaders. Payne and Hall were featured in Week 1, but, unfortunately, the BBC only streams each show for a week. But you’ve still got a few days to access the archive of this week’s show, which focuses on Noble and Gibbons.

We only just learned about this program, and we’re not at all happy to have missed the first episode of this season (not to mention all of the episodes of a previous season, too), but we’ll be listening going forward, and we thought you might want to, as well.

The Winding Path to a Merry Little Christmas

Our favorite Christmas song has long been Mel Tormé and Bob Wells’ The Christmas Song, made famous by Nat “King” Cole (and really, no one else need tackle the song—every other artist who’s taken a stab at it has fallen short, in our eyes), but coming in a close second is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, credited to Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (though Martin has since claimed he wrote it alone, with Blane’s encouragement) and introduced by Judy Garland in Vincent Minnelli‘s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).

Sheet music--Have Yourself a Merry Little ChristmasFrom its familiar opening lyrics—Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, yuletide carols being sung by a choir, and folks dressed up like EskimosThe Christmas Song celebrates an idyllic holiday season, but let’s face it, for many, the holidays carry with them a tinge of melancholy—especially in difficult times like these—and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas openly acknowledges the bluer side of the yuletide.

In the lyrics as we know them, that melancholy is leavened by a certain “keep-your-chin-up sticktuitiveness,” but it wasn’t always so.

The first set of lyrics Martin delivered, which I found in this very informative 2007 Entertainment Weekly story by Chris Willman, were downright maudlin, intended to fit the mood of Garland’s character, who, at the point in the picture at which she sings the song, is upset that her father is moving the family from her beloved St. Louis to New York City.

The story has it that director Minnelli and Garland urged Martin to come up with something just a bit less gloomy, and he agreed, soon delivering a second set of lyrics, the ones Garland sings to young sister Margaret O’Brien in the movie.

Then, in 1957, Frank Sinatra, who was recording a Christmas album called A Jolly Christmas, asked Martin to kick the the Christmas cheer up yet another notch. He specifically asked the composer to revisit the line in the final verse about “muddling through,” and that’s how we came to have the line about hanging a shining star upon the highest bough in yet a third set of lyrics to the song.

Most folks are familiar with versions two and three—Linda Ronstadt melds the two sets of lyrics in her recording of the song—if not with the original gloomy lyrics.

But did you know Martin wrote a fourth set of lyrics? In 2001, the composer, then 86 years old, wrote an overtly religious set of lyrics to the song, entitled Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas.

Listen: Judy Garland—Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Listen: Frank Sinatra—Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas