Nat King Cole

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Nat King Cole Pencil Portrait
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The quality of the prints are at a much higher level compared to the image shown on the left.

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A3 Pencil Print-Price £45.00-Purchase

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*Limited edition run of 250 prints only*

All Pencil Prints are printed on the finest Bockingford Somerset Velvet 255 gsm paper.

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Comments

This portrait dates from the early 50’s by which time Nat had been recording for Capitol records for more than a decade having cut his first titles with his trio as far back as 1943.

I have always professionally loved Nat as opposed to admiring him. It is difficult to define that extra degree of musical affection; perhaps it’s that unique combination of voice, pianistic skills and persona. For any of us who remember being young and in love (and that’s virtually all of us), Nat king Cole’s music defines the ‘heady rush’ we experience before age and the practicalities of life take over and unbridled joy gives way to cynicism. Sinatra sang of fractured love but Cole defined the feeling in its most youthful and purest sense. He was not by any definition, an outstandingly handsome man yet that wide expansive face made you feel good about life and of course his supreme musical artistry ensured that he was never short of female admirers.

I first became aware of Nat when I was five. My father owned a reel to reel tape recorder and in 1964 purchased a special release entitled “The Nat King Cole story” narrated by the late great Alan Dell who is sadly missed to this day by aficionados of quality broadcasting. Dell wouldn’t have known it at the time but Cole was already terminally ill with throat cancer and indeed a revised edition of the programme was broadcast by the BBC in February 1965 to mark the singer’s passing. My Nan was always reflective when he came on the radio asking the same question each and every time “why do the good ones die so young?” She was a great singer herself, a peerless mezzo soprano working tirelessly for ENSA during the war giving classical recitals for the weary troops. She gave me my earliest grounding in breathing techniques often saying that “people barely know how to talk properly let alone sing”.

There is another very sad coda to Nat’s life that dovetails horribly with his cancer. His marriage was under a terrific strain as a result of a clandestine involvement with the Swedish born actress and singer Gunilla Hutton. She was more than twenty five years his junior and God only knows what he was thinking because the affair become much more than merely a physical diversion to while way the inevitable “downtime” performers experience in Vegas. It’s probably naïve to presume such involvements hadn’t occurred before but by this time Cole was in the midst of a full blown mid-life crisis. His second wife Maria had borne him twins in 1961 (the couple already had three children including two adoptions) and the news of her impending pregnancy had been met with stunned silence. Clearly the man felt domestically stifled. Nevertheless Maria was by his side when his cancer was diagnosed as ‘’advanced and could often be overheard cajoling the surgeons and specialists to save her husband because she wanted to be the one to kill him; hyperbole for sure but indicative of feelings at the time. Maria Cole made only the briefest of references to a difficult period in the marriage when the BBC broadcast an excellent Omnibus profile in 1988 yet by 2004 when BBC 4 commissioned “The World of Nat king Cole”, reference to Miss Hutton was made towards the end of the special. I felt for the woman watching her being interviewed. She clearly loved Nat and the happier times in their marriage and yet she must wonder to this day whether her relationship with him would have endured. Yes, there is alternative footage of her discussing showbusiness in which she describes the affair as “something that goes with the territory” and states categorically that she and her husband were reconciled at the end but Cole’s premature death nevertheless left a fragile air of uncertainty over matters of the heart. The age gap between the entertainer and Miss Hutton is an obvious pointer to the relationship eventually running its course but that is probably small consolation to his widow. Gunilla Hutton has never discussed her relationship with Cole and was, in all probability, far too young to deal with the trauma associated with caring for a terminally ill man. However, if she had felt so strongly for him then an outright war would have broken out during those last few months amongst his family as to who would tend to his needs. As it was, Cole biographer Daniel Mark Epstein writes that her last communication with the singer was via a phone call to his bedside. It is very doubtful he would have told her of the seriousness of his illness. In a 1988 interview with Frank Sinatra, Ol’ Blue Eyes recalls a greater awareness of the gravity of the situation amongst his friend’s family than the singer himself. Miss Hutton probably heard of Nat’s‘s death through the media like everyone else.

As for what Cole was thinking at the time we return once more to that tried and trusted subject of male stupidity. As the family grows the man invariably feels marginalised, he can no longer monopolise his wife’s time, he is often overlooked amongst the general melee of day to day domestic life and he longs for that sense of optimism and adventure of his youth. Men invariably seek to repeat earlier experiences when life becomes monotonous and humdrum. In the case of individuals who are feted wherever they go, the situation is even more dangerous.

In the early 60’s after the discovery of the pill and before the spread of AIDS it was impossible to distinguish “working girls” from amateur adventuresses who prowled the casinos looking to score. Nat avoided the obvious targets and as a member of his touring revenue Miss Hutton was an ideal choice. One can safely presume she told Cole everything he wanted to hear and her overtures were obviously seductive enough. Maria had hired a private detective and armed with sufficient evidence Cole would have been burned alive in any divorce court. What would he ultimately have done? Would he have lost everything? We shall never know. What we can say is that any younger woman is going to eventually find her biological clock ticking at some point. A child invariably results from the union which compels the new mother to become much less attentive towards her male partner and history repeats itself.

In the last full blown professional year of his life the Beatles exploded across America with their television debut on the coast to coast networked Ed Sullivan Show. They were signed to Capitol records stateside and the company was understandably keen to promote its association with the quartet. What Alan Livingstone, the company’s president would undoubtedly come to regret in one particular instance was the decision to have all his staff take incoming telephone calls with the greeting “Hello Capitol records, home of The Beatles how may I help you.” Nat had placed just such a call to the company that spring of ’64 and was appalled at the greeting and understandably so. Revenues from Cole’s record sales had played a significant role in financing the distinctive Capitol Records building near Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. Completed in 1956 it was the world’s first circular office building and became known as “The house that Nat built”. Nat was still a large record seller so he must have wondered if the world was going mad.

He was also a tolerant man beyond the call of duty. Living in LA his lawn was branded with the word nigger, his dog was poisoned by neighbours and he was attacked on stage by a fanatic. If he succumbed to the after hours delights of Vegas he was still also a family man at heart. He was a generous host to other performers and was universally loved and respected in the business. “Madison Avenue’s afraid of the dark” was a witty riposte to the NBC executives when they pulled the plug on his Tv series after suitable sponsorship deals had dried up. Clearly the man had a grasp on his life and times. Just considering what he might have done with another thirty years in the business is thought provoking to say the least. Nevertheless he left over 1000 recordings, many of which set the yardstick by which other popular singers must be measured.

Recommended listening

Nat King Cole sings for two in love (1953)

Featuring some of Nelson Riddle’s most diverse and arresting scores.

Love is the thing (Capitol 1957)

Cole was compelled to work with other arrangers once Sinatra began monopolising Nelson Riddle’s time and Gordon Jenkins was an obvious choice. Those soaring strings and minimal rhythmic accompaniment create the perfect backdrop for his warm and sympathetic tones. Standout tracks (though not by a significant margin) include “When I fall in love”, “Stay as sweet as you are” and “Stardust” which Hoagy Carmichael cited as his own favourite reading amongst the many cover versions of his timeless composition.

Cole and Jenkins collaborated again in 1962 on “Where did everyone go?”. The album was nowhere near as commercially successful as its predecessor which means nothing in the context of actual recorded quality. The album was out of print for years yet I was fortunate enough to find an excellent condition vinyl long player. My daughters are always intrigued by my turntable (“Dad’s showing his age again) yet there is a certain “warmth” to analogue recording that the digital domain will never displace. In any event, I don’t listen much to Cole’s concessionary efforts to the more mainstream popular domain such as “Ramblin Rose” and “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer”. They have a dated period feel to them whereas the acute desolation emanating from every groove of this album remains a universal theme; Cole’s last great torch album.

The Very thought of you (Capitol 1958)

This album contains arguably the definitive reading of Ray Noble’s “The very thought of you”. My musical leanings have never been towards “the obvious” and so for me it’s “But Beautiful” that makes this collection essential.

Nat king Cole sings/George Shearing plays (1962)

Nat only sings on this album but the mutual appreciation between Cole and George Shearing (arguably Britain’s greatest post war jazz pianist) is evident throughout each of the album’s twelve titles. As ever I find myself drawn to the less obvious titles like “Serenata” and “A beautiful friendship”. Ralph Carmichael distinguishes himself with a wholly appropriate “less is more” lush orchestral approach which allows both performers the opportunity to ‘breathe’ and extemporise.

Recommended viewing

Nat King Cole – “After Midnight” in Japan (10/5/1961)

Some technical problems early on (the producers forgot to mic Nat’s jacket), but this minor error is more than compensated for by the small combo live session where Nat runs down his trills and fills repertoire for an object lesson to anyone in jazz piano accompaniment. “It’s only a paper moon”, “Sweet Lorraine” and an instrumental version of “Tea for two” remind the casual viewer of how Cole antagonised the keyboard jazz purists by moving more into mainstream popular singing; you really cannot please all of the folks all of the time. For novelty value we even get “Autumn leaves” rendered in Japanese. Cole was nothing if not a phonetic genius.

An evening with Nat King Cole (BBC Tv special 1963)

Available in its original monochrome format but also a colourised version, this is Nat Cole at his best. I personally recorded a version of “Let there be love” on 16 track digital in 2007 and found it impossible to perform George Shearing’s piano track whilst vocalising at the same time. How heartening therefore to see Nat’s more economical piano phrasing on this live version – perhaps he was bedevilled with the same problem. Still let’s not get delusional here – as a musician I’m not fit to share the same air as him let alone shine his shoes; life is surely all about knowing one’s place!

Recommended reading

Nat King Cole (Daniel Mark Epstein)

First published in 1999 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this is in my opinion the best available volume on Cole and Epstein does himself credit as a biographer by recounting multiple interpretations of events and conflicting accounts. A useful index yet no discography which is a shame since the most basic listing would greatly assist the casual reader. After all the objective of any musical biography is surely to send the reader back to the original recordings and to listen to them from a new perspective.

Surfing

Youtube – Type his name in , seek and ye shall find…

http://www.apileocole.alongthehall.com

This website is a superb repository of musical information for anyone wishing to discover more about Nat and his music and it’s logged on my favourites list. It’s permanently “under construction” (I know the feeling!) but boasts a wonderful sessionography detailing recording dates and personnel. I only wish I knew who was writing it to thank them.

http://natkingcolefoundation.org/

A worthy foundation established by Casey and Timolin Cole, twin daughters of Nat King Cole, to honor the legacy, music and life of their legendary father. The Nat King Cole Generation Hope, Inc. mission is to provide music education to children with the greatest need and fewest resources. This aim is achieved by funding programs which provide for instruction, mentoring and resources.

Every child should have the opportunity to experience the joy of creating music. My father funded my classical guitar lessons and I worked to build up my studio when I was older. Not everyone is so fortunate.