Two new collections help Nat “King” Cole turn 100 in proper fashion
“Unforgettable.” “Mona Lisa.” “The Christmas Song.” All classics associated with the warm, smooth, sophisticated voice of one man: Nat “King” Cole. Though rightly heralded for his musical accomplishments, Cole’s legacy is now seen as exhibiting a social consciousness as well.
The debut of The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show on NBC in 1956 made him the first African-American to host a television show. His own experiences with racism (the most infamous incident being when he was attacked by white supremacists while performing onstage in Birmingham, Alabama on April 10, 1956), led to his becoming an outspoken champion of civil rights. Meanwhile, his singles were chipping away at the white/black divide on radio, regularly crossing over from the R&B charts to the pop charts. It’s a large reason why Cole was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 as an “Early Influence.”
The celebration of Cole’s centennial year (Cole was born March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama) sees the release of two new compilations, Ultimate Nat King Cole, and International Nat King Cole, a collection of non-English language songs that Cole recorded over the course of his career (also scheduled is an expanded edition of Marvin Gaye’s album A Tribute to the Great Nat King Cole, originally released nine months after Cole’s death on February 15, 1965).
There have literally been dozens of Cole “best of” collections released since his death, the most recent being The Extraordinary Nat King Cole (2014), available in single and double CD editions, which had a pretty eclectic track listing (the second disc in the two CD set served up rare and previously unreleased recordings). And at 28 tracks, the 2006 collection The Very Best of Nat King Cole was certainly comprehensive (though how it can be called a “Very Best Of” set when it doesn’t include Cole’s last big hit, the delightful “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer,” is beyond me).
The Ultimate set has fewer numbers; 20 songs, plus a bonus track. And it’s opted for what might be called the “Classic Nat” approach; the majority of the songs were all hits in the US or UK. You get every song previously mentioned in this review (with the exception of “The Christmas Song”) as well as the jaunty “Route 66,” the dramatically haunting “Nature Boy,” the sweet, sad, “Smile,” and his first Top 10 hit on the pop charts, “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” along with the occasional surprise (e.g. “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas,” by Cuban songwriter Osvaldo Farrés, never released as a single). The bonus track is superfluous; a created-in-the-studio duet of “The Girl From Ipanema” with Cole and Gregory Porter, who released his own tribute, Nat King Cole and Me, last year. These after-the-fact duets have always struck me as being gimmicky; you don’t need to pair Cole with anyone to appreciate his sublime work as a vocalist.
International is a short spin around Europe, with a side visit to Asia, with Cole singing in Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Japanese. He’s better with the so-called “romance languages” (Spanish, French, Italian); just play the different variations of “L-O-V-E” side by side and you’ll hear that the flow just isn’t there in the German rendition. His Japanese is similarly a little stiff. It’s still fun hearing well-known numbers like “Autumn Leaves” being given a little international flavor.
Ultimate Nat King Cole is a good starter set if you don’t own any of Cole’s recordings and want an overview of some of the high points in his career. International is recommended for Cole lovers who’d like to have his non-English language numbers in one collection. Look for more to come over the course of this anniversary year, celebrating a life of accomplishment, and music that remains, well, unforgettable.