KING COLE TRIO FLYIN' RIGHT!
The Trio, by 1938, had developed sort of a small cult-like following in Hollywood. In the beginning, most people were critical of the group, and made fun of them, calling them "The Chamber Music Kids". During this time, big bands with horn sections and drummers were in. No way could just a piano, bass and guitar keep people engaged...but the naysayers were proven wrong. It wouldn't be long before Nat's little drummerless group would be setting the standard for future small jazz ensembles to follow, even today. The nineteen-year-old Nat's piano playing was awesome. He had a very earthy and deep-rooted style, rich with blues and jazz, with influences from classical music and of course, gospel. The influence of Earl Hines, his idol, was evident as well.
Nat had excellent qualities as a leader. He would make suggestions to his sidemen as to how to play a certain riff, or which key to play in, but he'd never be demanding or pushy about it. He'd merely say, "Try it this way." Because of his gift of perfect pitch, more often than not, it would work. His rapport with Oscar, who was well on his way to becoming one of jazz's best guitarists (and would be even more important after the death of pioneering jazz electric guitarist Charlie Christian in 1942), and Wesley, the oldest of the three, keeping the beat and giving the Trio its bottom with the string bass, was just amazing to hear. It was as if they were able to read one another's minds. Their renditions of "Sweet Georgia Brown", "Honeysuckle Rose", "The Man I Love" and even jazzy versions of classical pieces (which Nat loved to do) like Offenbach's "Barcarolle" and Rachmaninoff's "Prelude In C Sharp Minor" left people spellbound. Those who had doubts at first were won over. Plus they had a youthful appeal that everyone liked, they were attractive young men with their slick and shiny hair processes (well, except for Wesley, who was slightly balding), and Nat's apparent shyness played well with the audience. Women were enchanted by them, as they usually are with musicians, and were constantly surrounding them. The King Cole Trio were on the rise.
Also during this time, something amazing happened. Nathaniel rarely, if ever, sang on his songs unless he was accompanied by Oscar and Wesley; he primarily thought of himself only as an instrumentalist. The story of why Nat began singing in the group goes something like this: One evening in a club where the Trio was playing, a drunken customer was demanding that they sing. Nat tried to explain that they were just an instrumental group and they were not singers, but the drunk wouldn't listen. The boss at that particular club wanted to know what was the noise about, and upon learning what it was, told Nat and the guys that they'd better start singing, or they'd be fired. This drunk apparently was a regular and spent a lot of money in the club. Nat sighed. He didn't feel he could sing at all, but he knew he had to or they'd all be out of a job. His voice was far from the polished instrument the world would come to recognize a decade later. It had a very raw quality to it in 1938. He even still had that slight lisp in his speech, and it came through in his singing. But the song that everyone was raving about was "Sweet Lorraine", a tune first made famous by clarinetist Jimmie Noone, but Nat would make it his own. One of his favorites, he sang it throughout his career and it became the very first song he recorded on which he sang. Nat was a great admirer of Billie Holiday and he took a cue from Lady Day's vocal phrasing on it. Upon hearing Nat's husky, sensual baritone ~ with just a touch of raspiness and an ever-so-slight Alabama drawl ~ people took notice and wanted to hear more of Nat's voice. He personally thought people were crazy for liking his voice. At first he was reluctant to sing, because number one, he just didn't see himself as a vocalist, and secondly, he wasn't sure of how white folks would react to a black man singing romantic ballads. Billy Eckstine, another one of Nat's contemporaries, almost had his career go up in smoke when whites discovered that this sexy-sounding crooner was black, and Nat didn't want to risk that happening to him. He just wanted to play piano and get paid! But as he began to get more and more requests to sing, he saw it as a professional move to do so. So he became primarily a piano player who sang once in a while.
By 1940, someone at Decca Records had heard Nat's rendition of "Sweet Lorraine" and another song that he and Wesley Prince wrote called "Gone With the Draft" and wanted to sign the Trio to the label. Nat had been with Decca before, as part of his brother's group a few years earlier. Some of the tunes they cut there were "Sweet Lorraine", "Honeysuckle Rose", "This Side Up", "I Like to Riff", "Hit That Jive, Jack", "That Ain't Right" (which Nat wrote himself and would be the Trio's first #1 R&B single) and "This Will Make You Laugh". That year, the Trio went on their first tour, but basically lived in New York City out of Harlem's Hotel Theresa, for nearly a year. They rubbed elbows with major stars and got to meet Ed Sullivan, Desi Arnaz, his wife Lucille Ball, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday (who they occasionally backed up at Kelly's Stables, a jazz club on 52nd Street, aka "Swing Street" in New York City), and many others. It was an exciting time for the guys, meeting all these celebrities and having their music heard by such a crowd. Everybody who heard them seemed to like them. But the Trio was still struggling. Also being away so often put a strain on both Nat's and Oscar's marriages, since their spouses stayed at home in California while their husbands toured.
When they came back to L.A. the following year, the song Nat and Wesley wrote about getting drafted became a reality for Wesley. He received his draft notice in the summer of 1942, so he had to leave the group. He recommended an excellent and handsome younger replacement, California-born and raised Johnny Miller, who was also a veteran of Lionel Hampton's band. At Wesley's urging, Nat called Miller and offered him the job. Johnny accepted, and joined them for the first time at L.A.'s 331 Club, a high-profile nightclub where a lot of stars hung out at.. He fit right in with Nat and Oscar. A quiet and soft-spoken young man who had furious fingers on a string bass, Miller was less likely to be drafted because he, like Oscar, was a married man with two small children. Wesley was married, too, but he had no kids. (Nat was also drafted, too, but he was rejected because he had flat feet.)
Right before Johnny joined the Trio, Nat and Oscar got bassist Red Callender to fill in on a few recording sessions that they were doing on a few small independent labels, since Decca had decided to let them go, due to problems in the musicians' union. One of the songs, "All For You", hit #1 on the race (aka the Harlem Hit Parade or R&B) charts. But still money was tight. The small labels couldn't afford to press the records they made, and since the second World War was on, certain materials were scarce. So fame had not necessarily brought fortune, but Nat, Oscar and Johnny believed in one another. They all became very close; they hung out together, spent time with one another's families, and teamed up to write songs. Their friendship would sustain them through the hard times. Even with Wesley's departure, the Trio's musical chemistry stayed in tact. And this would be the lineup that would be the most memorable and successful.
The King Cole Trio were favorites of the soldiers stationed overseas on Armed Forces Radio, and their old songs got a lot of play. In Down Beat and Metronome magazine's readers' poll, they were voted near the top as favorites for the year 1943, and they would be consistent winners of various awards and polls throughout the 1940s, such as "#1 Jazz Trio".. (Down Beat and Metronome were the top magazines in the jazz field.) Kids as well as adults loved the group's danceable, hard-swinging instrumentals and tender ballads, which would make the Trio one of the most popular jazz/swing acts of that era. But they still hadn't had that elusive hit record that would launch them into the mainstream and give them a profit from all their hard work. The Trio realized they needed three things ~ the perfect song to break out of the limited race market; a record company that could aggressively promote it; and a manager who would represent them. By November, 1943, they would have all three.
THE SONG: "Straighten Up and Fly Right" was a tune Nat penned, and Oscar and Johnny had accompanied him on vocals. It was inspired by a sermon that his father once gave in church. It was a novelty song that swung and jumped like nothing like anyone else was doing. (The story goes that Nat never made any money from that song; he had supposedly sold the rights to it during a financial bind.) Perhaps the reason why it was so big was during that time, folks needed to laugh. The United States was deeply ungulfed in World War II and there was not much to laugh about. It was a very serious time, and "Straighten Up" was a song that eased the tension. It crossed over big time, reaching the Top Ten on the pop charts in May, 1944. It went to #1 on the race charts. The song told a story of a buzzard who offers to take a monkey on a ride on his back, when in mid-flight, the buzzard deliberately attempts to drop the monkey to the ground. The monkey, in turn, grabs the buzzard's neck then chastises him for his actions. "Straighten up and fly right," the monkey says, "cool down, papa, don't you blow your top!"...THE RECORD COMPANY: Capitol Records, which Nat Cole literally built with all the hits he would have throughout his career. It was a new, relatively small label, founded in 1942 by movie producer Buddy DeSylva, singer-songwriter-pianist Johnny Mercer, and record store owner Glen Wallichs. They really weren't having much success with the few acts they had signed to the label, but with the King Cole Trio, they knew they were on to something. Wallichs and Mercer had caught one of the Trio's shows at the 331 Club in early 1943 and approached Cole with the offer of a recording contract...THE MANAGER: Carlos Gastel. Nathaniel had met him about a year before, and Gastel had heard Nat sing "Sweet Lorraine" and was a fan of the group ever since. He was unsure at first if he wanted to represent the guys, but he liked Nat, so he took a chance. He was already representing Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, and Stan Kenton, another artist on Capitol Records.
The Trio's first recording session for Capitol was in November, 1943, and in one day they had cut several songs: "Straighten Up", the sultry blues number, "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You" (later a #1 hit on the race charts), "If You Can't Smile and Say Yes", all with Nat singing lead, and "Jumpin' At Capitol", an instrumental tune. The group was encouraged by Capitol executives to record more vocals and ballads. Nat wasn't too thrilled about that. Although he loved to sing, Nat still showed some ambivalence about it, especially the love ballads. Some people were not aware that he was black, and if they found out AND if it seemed like he was singing to white women ~ God only knows what would've happened. It was taboo at that time. Segregation, or "Jim Crow" as it was called, was the law of the land. Black men could be lynched in the South for just looking at a white woman, and contrary to what people were saying about the better conditions in the North, things were not much better there, either. Of course Nat surely had Billy Eckstine in the back of his mind. But Nat also could not fight his fate. Just as the piano was an instrument that he had mastered, the other instrument ~ his voice ~ would be the key to the King Cole Trio's success in the pop world.
Finally, money was coming in. Now the Coles could live their lives more comfortably. They were able to purchase a modest home in one of the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Nat brought many tailor-made designer suits, jackets, and a new car. He was also able to send more money home to his family in Chicago. Nadine spent the money Nat gave her on new clothes, golf lessons, and weed. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Nat didn't smoke weed; he didn't like it. Nadine no longer had to work. But with the Trio being so successful, Nat was rarely at home. If he wasn't working, he'd be hanging out at all night jam sessions, sipping his preferred drink, J&B scotch on the rocks, smoking his Philip Morrises and spending time with beautiful young ladies. Nadine was not pleased, and made her feelings known. She had a hard time dealing with her spouse's fame, especially the attention he and his bandmates got from females. But that was unavoidable; women were always going to be hanging around them. That's just the way it was. Nat had his female following; so did Oscar and Johnny, who also experienced similar problems in their marriages. Nadine loved her husband and didn't want to share him with anyone, but there wasn't much she could do. Many times she'd find women's telephone numbers and passionate promises written on matchbooks or slips of paper in his pockets, and that would start an argument.
What made tensions rise in the marriage was the fact that the Coles had tried several times over the years to begin a family, but they had no luck. Nat wanted children very badly. He loved kids and couldn't wait to have some of his own. Many times Nadine just couldn't seem to get pregnant, and when she did, she'd miscarry. There were so many factors that were against them ~ the most prominent one being as Nathaniel, who was just 25 years old, was becoming famous, more and more women of all ages and races were gravitating to him. He was not considered to be particularly handsome in the eyes of some; Nat himself realized this and was always self-conscious about his looks. What was it about him?
Well, of course, he was a great pianist. He had charisma, class, a certain type of graciousness to his personality (which most likely stemmed from him being the son of a preacher), and a sense of humor. He was "a cool cat"; he peppered his conversations with slang and jazz lingo but still he had a well-known reputation for being a gentleman. He was friendly and sweet. And he had THAT VOICE...that incredibly sensuous, smoky voice that was velvet on vinyl (or rather, satin on shellac)...Even though Nat's vocal range was limited, less than two octaves, it was what he was able to do with that range that everyone loved, and even he couldn't understand it. Women and young girls adored his voice, and they found 'the shy guy' to be totally irresistable. It was all these attributes that made women see the beauty of Nat King Cole beyond what the eye could visualize. It is safe to say that from the time the King Cole Trio began to rise in popularity until his premature death in 1965, Nat's romantic appeal with the ladies never wavered.
|The original King Cole Trio, circa 1938, from l to r: Wesley Prince, Nathaniel Cole and Oscar Moore|