My Nat King Cole habit could get very expensive.
There’s this massive Collector’s Choice reissue project, you see, and I’m only beginning to realize that my greatest hits CD The World of Nat King Cole just doesn’t do it for me any more. After all, those tracks were tailored to the commercial sound of the 1950s and 1960s when Nat King Cole was a mainstream pop star. The deeper I get into his more idiosyncratic cuts, the more I discover the artist underneath the chart-topping record star – and the more I’m dazzled by what he could do.
So here we go with two more albums, This Is Nat “King” Cole (1956) and The Very Thought of You (1958). As a child of the 60s, I’m conditioned to think in terms of songwriters, which means I’m flummoxed by how many different songwriting teams show up on these albums. By this stage in his career, I’m guessing Capitol had a revolving door of songwriting pros producing material specifically for Cole’s warm and expressive voice.
You really see this at work on This Is Nat “King” Cole, a collection of songs originally designed as singles. They all conform to the never-fail formula for Cole hit singles in 1953-6 (the last gasp of the pre-Presley pop world): romantic ballads and “swinging” love songs with lush Nelson Riddle arrangements. As it happens, the ballads predominate, which makes my fast-forward finger get itchy—sure, his sincere renditions of “Too Young To Go Steady,” “Forgive My Heart,” and “Annabelle” would be nice surprises on a shuffle, but when you hear them one after the other, it's a bit too much sugar to take all at one go.
Luckily, Riddle’s touch is much lighter when he goes for a Latin-tinged sound, as in the deft “Nothing Ever Changes My Love For You” or the pulsating samba “To the Ends of the Earth,” both of which Cole handles with intoxicating suavity. On breezy numbers like “Someone You Love” and “That’s All,” Cole's witty, confident delivery lifts the song right over the frontloaded strings. It's amazing how his voice skates above the lyrics, using the same delayed attacks and little glissandos that were his trademarks as a jazz pianist.
One team that gets repeat credit on the album is Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh–McHugh was a close friend of Cole’s, and these three songs were all from a failed Adamson-McHugh musical that Cole did his best to promote. Two of them, “Love Me As Though There Were No Tomorrow” and “Too Young To Go Steady,” get the expected dated commercial treatment, but the one uptempo number, “I Just Found Out About Love,” is absolutely dynamite – Riddle’s jazzy horns and strings neatly accent the song without overwhelming it.
The other gem on this CD is a bonus track, which justifies all the work that went into this reissue project. “Don’t Hurt The Girl” is a relatively early track, featuring the Nat King Cole Trio, and despite some full-bore Riddle flourishes, Cole makes all the lovely irony of this song simply blossom.
I don’t mean to be a Nelson Riddle-basher—I know he enhanced some of Sinatra’s best swingers, and his work with Ella Fitzgerald was superb. (The Linda Ronstadt connection, that’s a whole ‘nother story.) I suspect my real issue with This Is Nat “King” Cole is a “greatest hits” problem—the overload of radio-friendly commercial numbers. These songs weren’t initially conceived to be listened to all together (otherwise Riddle wouldn’t have used virtually the same intro for “Someone You Love” and “That’s All”).
Still, I find myself turning with relief to The Very Thought of You, a wonderfully mature album Cole did in 1958 with arranger Gordon Jenkins. On this album at least, Gordon Jenkins kept a leash on his strings and let his singer lead the way. It does have its share of standards—“The Very Thought Of You,” “But Beautiful,” “Impossible,” “I Found A Million Dollar Baby”—but then Nat King Cole could rework a standard like nobody’s business. He even revisits a couple of songs, “Don’t Blame Me” and “For All We Know” which he had recorded back in his Trio days. And then of course there’s “There Is No Greater Love,” which nowadays may count as a standard, but only because Cole’s brooding rendition made it so unforgettable.
When I call this a mature album, it’s not just because of the craftsmanship Cole and Jenkins brought to the table; it’s the emotional intelligence that Cole throws in. You get the feeling that he’s actually thought through those lyrics, dwelling meaningfully on certain words, hesitating ever so slightly before others. He gives them subtext and back story, like nobody else but Sinatra could do. Listen to how pointedly he hits the pronoun on “The very thought of you,” or how he almost fondles the lines “I see your face in every flower / Your eyes in stars above” – as if he’s picturing that face, those eyes, as he sings. That’s how you transform a standard and make it your own.
These are songs marinated in wariness and regret. In Nat King Cole’s hands, “But Beautiful” takes on shades of reluctance Bing Crosby never gave it; his understated delivery really makes “Impossible” (written by Steve Allen) the convincing credo of a converted skeptic. In songs like “I Wish I Knew” and “My Heart Tells Me” you feel the bafflement of a man wading into complicated romantic territory, a man who’s been hurt before and doesn’t relish the thought of going through all that again. “If I’m fool enough to see this through,” he sings — and it’s a very Big If.
The result is, you end up really listening to what these songs are saying. “Making Believe You’re Here” may start off as an absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder song, but when he mentions “the photograph / You tore in half / Is back in the frame,” it suddenly deepens into a novel. A younger singer might have done “For All We Know” as a seize-the-day sex plea; Cole’s gentle weariness makes it an ineffably tender last-chance-at-love song. “This Is All I Ask” (you know, "beautiful girls . . . walk a little slower") is suffused with a sense of loss, much more interesting than the jaunty roguishness of Maurice Chevalier’s version. The trembling undertow of passion in “The More I See You” is a revelation—so that’s what this song meant, before Bobby Darin turned it saucy.
My ultimate test of any album is how many tracks I load onto my iPod—and with jazz and standards albums, only a few cuts can hold their own against the Kinks and Elvis Costello. The score right now is This Is Nat “King” Cole, 5; The Very Thought Of You, 9–pretty good for two albums that came out half a century ago. I’m still waiting to see how the Clash holds up, 50 years down the road.