The 100th anniversary of Nat King Cole’s birth is this Sunday, March 17. Cole was one of America’s most remarkable entertainers. His first jazz-pop career was with his celebrated trio in the 78-era of the 1940s.
Then the pianist triumphed in the 10-inch era from 1950 to 1954 with vocal hits that included Unforgettable and Penthouse Serenade. Then came the 12-inch LP era, starting in 1955 and ending with his death in 1965. A number of these albums featured Cole illustrated in suburban settings featuring white couples in love. Cole had crossed over and then some.
In the early 1950s, Cole’s popularity as a singer exceeded Frank Sinatra’s, and the success of his albums contributed mightily to the cost of the cylindrical Capitol Tower in Los Angeles. For years, the office building and studio complex was known as The House That Nat Built. Cole even hosted an elegant national television variety show from November 1956 to December 1957. If Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s segregation barrier in the late 1940s, then Nat King Cole did the same for pop music and the charts starting in the early 1950s.
I still remember when Cole died of lung cancer in 1965 at age 45. I was 9. In my neighborhood in Manhattan, his passing was as big a shock as Kennedy’s two years earlier. Women wept and men gave up smoking cigarettes. Cole’s voice filled the air where I grew up, especially. But as we know, he wasn’t always well produced. Some of his albums are overly sentimental or thickly sweet with strings, while song choices could be dull (obvious, worn-out standards) or painfully obscure.
So, to help re-introduce you to Nat King Cole or give you an entrance point if you never bothered to dig into his catalog, here are my 10 favorite Nat King Cole 12-inch albums, in order of preference based on the quality of arrangements, song choices and the feel of Cole’s voice. All can be found at Spotify or at Amazon:
2. Night Lights was arranged by Nelson Riddle and recorded between Christmas and New Year of 1955. Strangely, it was never released until 2001, when the album was re-assembled. Instead, tracks back in the 1950s were released as singles.
4. Nat Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays (1962) climbed to #27 on Billboard’s pop album chart. The backing orchestra was arranged by Ralph Carmichael. Cole’s round vocal tone and Shearing’s cool piano made for a perfect pairing.
5. After Midnight (1957) was an early morning studio recording with Cole backed by jazz stars as special guests, including alto saxophonist Willie Smith, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, trombonist Juan Tizol and violinist Stuff Smith.
6. Let’s Face the Music and Dance (1964) was arranged by Billy May. Recorded in 1961, the album wasn’t released until three years later. It’s something of a bookend to May’s Just One of Those Things. High points include The Rules of the Road, Day In Day Out and Something Makes Me Want To Dance With You, one of Cole’s finest tracks.
7. The Piano Style of Nat King Cole (1956) features Cole at the piano backed by an orchestra arranged by Nelson Riddle. His playing is chilled and shrewd in the jazz-pop realm. This LP would be Cole’s final instrumental album as the demand for his vocals soared nationwide.
8. Penthouse Serenade (1952) was originally a 10-inch album but reissued in 1955 as a 12-inch LP with 12 tracks and then 19 tracks in 1998 in the CD era. The album provides a neat roundup of Cole’s early-’50s pop grand slams. Unforgettable remains intoxicating.
10. Welcome to the Club (1959) is an unusual album. Dave Cavanaugh arranged and conducted the Count Basie Band, minus Basie. While it should have been better given the concept, the album has its swinging moments.
Bonus: My favorite Nat King Cole song is That Sunday, That Summer from Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer (1963), arranged by Ralph Carmichael. Cole singing the song on a BBC TV special broadcast in the U.K. in 1963…
For more, you can read my interview my WSJ interview with the late Natalie Cole and my 2011 JazzWax interview with arranger Ralph Carmichael.