I don’t get it, but almost no one gives a single solitary you-know-what about Nat “King” Cole these days.
It’s disgusting, frankly. Sure, massive amounts of good music just gets lost over time, but this is a special kind of atrocity. Like 9/11, or if, god forbid, the world were to forget about Aaliyah one day or something. So, today I’ll do my part to bring the man’s music back into the public consciousness. Here is an absolutely killer playlist of his music and what follows is everything you need to know in order to separate the killer from the filler in his discography.
Nat Cole is remembered, first and foremost, as a crooner.
That reputation is well-deserved. He had a singular, inimitable, velvety-ass baritone that dropped more panties than you can shake a stick at. I can tell you this with 100% confidence: you’re Grandma wanted to make babies with Nat “King” Cole. And for good reason, he was everything a good woman needs in a man: intelligent, kind, handsome, and oh yeah, he had the singing voice of the almighty.
He began his recording career in 1939, a pretty classic time for jazz music. Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday were all in their prime back in those days. As for Cole, he put together a killer trio consisting of him, on piano and vocals, Oscar Moore, on guitar, and Johnny Miller, on bass. Nothing against Johnny Miller, he was a good bass player, but it should be noted, he was more than a little bit upstaged by his bandmates; they were two of the greatest jazz musicians of all time.
Throughout the 1940s The King Cole Trio recorded prolifically for Capitol Records.
Their works have been collected in the jaw-droppingly good (and comprehensive) box set, The Complete Capitol Recordings of The Nat King Cole Trio. You’ll be glad to know, it’s streaming. The only downside of the set is that it’s got over 300 songs. But don’t worry, again, I’ve gone through it and put together a playlist of only the most essential cuts for you (can you tell I’m really trying to push this playlist on you? I am. Because it will change your life). Don’t believe me? Check out the incredible interplay between the guitar and the piano on the intro to this joint:
These early recordings have an almost surreal peacefulness feel about them—which is probably a relic of the time period when they were recorded as much as anything. But just about every fan of Nat agrees, the Trio was at their best when they did ballads. And they did a lot of them. The Trio’s recordings of “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” “I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons),” “Embraceable You,” “Route 66,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “What’ll I Do,” and “Too Marvelous for Words” are, at least in my humble opinion, the most quintessential versions of these tunes.
They’re perfect for wintertime. And for cuddling. And for other things that I’ll let you figure out on your own time (another reason your Grandmother loved him).
Speaking of which, it was also during this early period of his career (the mid 1940s) that Nat Cole started to develop a reputation as a G-Rated playboy.
There was something about the way he delivered his family-friendly tunes that made the honeys salivate over him. Check out this video of the trio performing “I’m A Shy Guy” (circa 1945). Notice the gaggle of babes fawning over him–it’s not even subtle.
A major turning point in Cole’s career was 1950.
This was when the trio’s virtuoso guitarist, Oscar Moore, parted ways with the group. After that, neither man’s music was ever the same. Moore left the group to strike out on his own, and by all accounts it didn’t go well for him. He struggled to find an audience and was forced to become a bricklayer to pay the bills. He basically died in obscurity.
Meanwhile, after the departure of Moore, Cole focused his efforts on making middle-of-the-road, orchestral pop.
Whatever you might think of this era of his work, it was a huge boon for his career. It was also around 1950 that Capital began pressuring Cole to stop playing piano (because they laughably thought his voice was “pitchy” unless he was standing) and the label also pushed Cole to start working with large orchestras (probably because Frank Sinatra, a label-mate of Cole’s, was having a lot of success with this format). At first, Cole worked with some excellent big bands, like those of Pete Rugolo, Gordon Jenkins and Stan Kenton, (many of the great cuts he made with these orchestras are embedded below). But by the end of the 1950s, it was his most frequent collaborator, the perfectly boring Nelson Riddle, who came to typify Cole’s middle-of-the-road style of the 50s and 60s.
None of this is to say that his work in the 50s was crap.
It wasn’t. It just wasn’t as consistently amazing. Indeed, Cole’s career should probably be viewed as having two, very distinct, eras: his earlier work singing and playing piano with the marvelous King Cole Trio (1939-1950), and his later, safer work where Cole by and large embraced his status as a crooner. His earlier work was before 12 inch LPs (everything was released on 78 back in those days) but if you can find them, Capitol released a couple LPs (in the 50s) of the Trio’s biggest hits from the 40s: Unforgettable and Vocal Classics are the ones you want–they’re both long out of print but all of the songs were reissued on the aforementioned boxset. As for his later work, the best LPs from that era are without a doubt After Midnight, his final jazz album, recorded in 1956 (without Oscar Moore, but it’s still excellent) and Love Is The Thing, a gorgeous, orchestral pop album arranged by Gordon Jenkins from 1958.
Both eras have their virtues, but I’m more fond of Nat’s early work with the trio—to me it just has more soul.
Nevertheless, it was during his later period that Cole made the biggest hits of his career: “Mona Lisa,” “Pretend,” “Too Young,” “Stardust,” “Lush Life,” and “Answer Me, My Love” are are essential.
But there was also, “Unforgettable”
You might know “Unforgettable” from when Cole’s daughter, Natalie, recorded a reworked version of the song in the 90s as a duet. She did it to honor her father. It was sweet. It was a huge hit. But truth be told, she took a huge shit all over a masterpiece. Which isn’t to say I’m hating on Natalie Cole (in fact, she made a couple pretty fresh disco albums back in the day). Thing is, if you’re gonna listen to “Unforgettable” you need to hear the O.G. There are few things in this world that chap my hide more than people jumping on classic recordings trying to make them “contemporary” or something. People should really stop doing it. It never works.
Putting that aside. There is one last song I ought to mention:
Nat Cole recorded “The Christmas Song” a few times.
I’m partial to the 1946 version with Oscar Moore on guitar (above) because, of course I am. But the 1953 version with Nelson Riddle’s Orchestra is also quite good (this is the one that radio stations typically play).
It isn’t easy to record Christmas music well, and most people screw it up. But after 60 years, I think it’s pretty safe to say that even though a lot of people have taken a stab at “The Christmas Song,” no one has ever done it quite like Nat. He owns this song. Both of his versions are timeless.
Once again, here’s a playlist of some of his best stuff. And if you don’t have Spotify I’ve embedded videos to some of them below. Enjoy.