June 19, 2019

Nat King Cole at 100 — “To Love and Be Loved in Return”

By Stuart Mitchner

While the St. Louis Blues were on the way to their first Stanley Cup with Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” as their victory anthem, I was celebrating the centenary of Nat King Cole (1919-1965) with submersive listenings to the 4-CD set, Cool Cole: The King Cole Trio Story. My message for the Blues’ crosstown brothers the St. Louis Cardinals was delivered by repeated playings of Cole’s hit from 75 years ago, “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” I’d convinced myself that the song deserved some credit for the April surge that lifted the Redbirds from the depths to the best record in baseball. Alas, true to the song’s built-in warning, “Cool down, papa, don’t you blow your top,” the Cards cooled way down and blew it, losing every series they played in the unmerry month of May. Nat gave me a message for that, too, in “Lost April,” which played in my mind with a slight change in the lyric, “I thought a single win could lead to heaven, but the month had numbered days, and winning couldn’t last.” In the actual lyric, it’s “kiss” for “win” and “love” that couldn’t last, but the way Nat sings it, there’s more to life than winning and losing, the healing has begun, and life goes sadly smiling on.

As a devoted follower of the National Pastime who once lost his voice cheering for his team, Cole knew the bumpy road from high to low, the symbiotic relationship of baseball and the blues. He loved all sports, and having played W.C. Handy in the 1958 biopic The St. Louis Blues, he’d have undoubtedly been delighted when the NHL expansion team from St. Louis was named for Handy’s most famous composition.

Welcome to the Neighborhood

In 1948, “Lost April” appeared as the B side of the number one hit “Nature Boy,” the song about a “strange enchanted” seer whose message was “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” In August of the same year, as that message was being heard by Americans on radios, phonographs, and juke boxes, east and west, north and south, the singer and his pregnant wife Maria bought a house in Hancock Park, an exclusive all-white Los Angeles neighborhood.

When word got out that the Coles were moving into the community, the realtor who handled the $85,000 sale was theatened with “a serious automobile accident,” a cross was burned on the singer’s lawn, stones were thrown through his windows, his dog was poisoned, and racist signs befouled the front yard. A lawyer representing the neighbors filed an affidavit forbidding the Coles to move into their home because they were not “Christian Caucasians.” The lawyer’s way of alerting the neighborhood to the approaching catastrophe suggests a cartoon of white postwar paranoia: “How would you like it, if you had to come out of your home and see a Negro walking down the street wearing a big wide hat, a zoot suit, a long chain, and yellow shoes?”

There it is, the “Straighten Up and Fly Right” side of the unprecedented dynamic Gary Giddins articulates in Visions of Jazz: “No other performer in history had two such profoundly different public personalities … the hip and jivey leader of a black jazz combo” and “the eminent crooner” with a predominantly white following.

Cole called a press conference to explain his position (“My wife and I like our home very much and we intend to stay there the same as any other American citizen would”), which led to a meeting with the Property Owners Association. When he was told that the people of Hancock Park did not want any “undesirables moving in,” his answer was to promise that if he saw any undesirables moving in, he’d be the first to complain.

Five children were raised in the house on Muirfield Road, including the singer Natalie Cole (1950-2015), who told the Wall Street Journal, “I loved growing up there … I loved when my dad was home. He liked to sit in the living room and watch boxing and baseball on TV.” According to Cole’s biographer Marianne Ruuth, in time the same residents who had been “up in arms were bragging about having Nat King Cole for a neighbor.” He lived in the house until his death in 1965, Maria remained there until the early 1970s.

In 2003 the residents of Hancock Park named the local postal branch the Nat King Cole Post Office at a ceremony attended by his daughters Carole and Natalie, who thinks her father “would be flabbergasted and probably pleased.” She remembers people “putting firecrackers in our rose bushes” and “a burning cross on our yard” as late as the 1950s.

Who is Aye Guy?

Natalie brought her dad back to life in 1991 for a time-and-space-defying duet 40 years after he first recorded “Unforgettable.” In one video, where she appears to conjure her father with one of his signature songs, what’s unforgettable is the vocalist and the voice. The surge of interest in Cole inspired by the spectral duet also led to the general reevaluation of the pianistic genius described in Giddins’s account of the “resurrection” — his “wit and speed, lightning reflexes that hardly ever call attention to his technique but constantly spice his solos, interludes, intros, and codas.” Referring to his “lucidity and swing,” Giddins points out that on “practically every one of those relatively rare occasions in which he performed with major jazz soloists, he stole the limelight.”

One of those rare occasions was the April 1946 trio session with Lester Young and Buddy Rich, which is what made me want to write about Cole as a pianist long before I realized it was his centenary. David Stone Martin’s striking red and yellow Leaning Tower of Pisa cover design caught my eye back in the era of 10-inch LPs when jazz was a new world for a 14-year-old to explore. When I picked up the record in those adolescent days and saw “Aye Guy” listed as the pianist, I thought a player by that name actually existed and may have gone around asking “Who’s Aye Guy” until someone older and wiser put me right.

In 1946, the man disguised as Aye Guy was more famous than Lester Young, as Bill Kirchner points out in his liner notes for the 1994 CD reissue, where Cole is a “musician’s favorite” like Young, and a singer “of wide popularity” as well as “one of the most important jazz pianists of the day,” with his “advanced harmonic concept and impeccable swing.” Among the “disparate piano stylists” influenced by Cole are Bud Powell and Bill Evans, who called Cole “the most underrated jazz pianist in the history of jazz.” The qualities Kirchner attributes to Lester Young — “romantic, poetic, dreaming, urgent, melancholy, humorous, cheerful, aggressive, showing great drive” — are no less applicable to Cole, whose playing redefines “accompaniment.” On the first track, a Young composition called “Back to the Land,” Cole creates a blues and boogie roadhouse ambiance, his solo a song within a song, actually two songs, one solid, strong, and funky, the other playful and sportive.

The Abiding Voice

The “strange enchanted” truth is that King Cole could never have afforded his castle in Hancock Park had he given his playing priority over his singing. But then I doubt that he had a choice. His voice was him, his spirit, his humanity. What ultimately made him rich and famous and beloved was his abiding presence, the way he seemed to live a song beyond merely performing it. No matter how old you were, he spoke to you as a thoughtful, caring companion, which meant a lot if you happened to be a teenager eating your heart out over a failed romance or the death of a pet or not making the football team. It finally beggars all the ironies and idiocies of racial prejudice that this “undesirable” neighbor is the same familiar household spirit singing hearthside holiday lullabies like “Christmas Song” to families who loved the voice and wanted nothing to do with the man.

No wonder I only had room for Cole the singer in those days, having grown  up in a house haunted by “Nature Boy,” which my parents played constantly, and sometimes even “Lost April,” thanks no doubt to my more-blue-than-not mother’s sentimental susceptibility to a song about the month of her birth. To be honest, I didn’t actually connect “Lost April” with the Cardinals’ losing streak (at the moment they seem to be flying again) until I listened to it a few days ago on the Bose Wave and was undone by one of those heart-turning-over phrasings where the “numbered days” of April coalesce with the aching resolution of “So when they passed,” simple words lighting the way to “I lost love and you, and April, too.” There’s enough enlightened melancholy in that sublime interval to mend broken hearts everywhere.

The quotes about Hancock Park are from “When Nat King Cole Moved In” by Hadley Meares; the Dec. 20, 2018 article, which includes photographs by Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin, can be found at la.curbed.com. I found the CD set, like all good things, at the Princeton Record Exchange.