Gregory Porter Celebrates Nat King Cole

Vocal-jazz superstar makes good on the life-changing impact of Nat “King” Cole

Gregory Porter (photo by Erik Umphrey)

For Gregory Porter, Nat “King” Cole & Me has been a long time coming. “I’ve wanted to do these songs with an orchestra for seven or eight years,” the California-based singer says of his new album. “Even when I had the opportunity to do some Nat songs with a small group, I’d be like, ‘Let me hold off. I want to do a project of weight and seriousness.’”

Nat “King” Cole & Me—Porter’s third Blue Note release following the Grammy-winners Liquid Spirit and Take Me to the Alley—is a lavish tribute to the African-American singer-pianist who conquered the entertainment mainstream in the mid-20th century with swing, elegance and a firm, quiet pride. The album is also a debt of lifelong wonder and gratitude repaid with sumptuous invention and intimate commitment. “It’s not a joke when I say that Nat was there from the origins of my understanding of music,” Porter, 45, says over the phone from Paris during a rare break in his touring grind. “I was singing gospel music, and there was music on the radio. But the first record that I laid the needle on was a Nat ‘King’ Cole record.”

The deluxe version of Nat “King” Cole & Me features 13 songs originally recorded by Cole between the 1940s and his early death in 1965, from lung cancer, at age 45.

There are also new versions of two songs—one of them Porter’s own “When Love Was King,” from Liquid Spirit—that he vividly associates with his idol. Accompanied by the gently sympathetic trio of pianist Christian Sands, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., Porter sings against sweeping, radiant orchestrations by Vince Mendoza, who conducts the London Studio Orchestra. But it is a deceptive luxury. A veteran of sessions for Joni Mitchell and Elvis Costello, Mendoza frames Porter’s supple baritone in “Mona Lisa,” the earth-child anthem “Nature Boy” and the Rogers-and-Astaire bauble “Pick Yourself Up” with angular, noir-ish tensions that heighten the blues and yearning even in Cole’s most comforting chestnuts.

“What you hear is that consideration,” Porter says of Mendoza’s arrangements. “Vince would ask me the backstory of every song—my story.” Born in Sacramento, Calif., Porter—a gentle giant with a natural, melodic flow in his speaking voice too—was one of eight children largely raised by their mother, a minister. Porter’s father was “straight-up absent,” the singer told this magazine in 2012, a void he filled with the jazz and consolation in Cole’s recordings. A hot college-gridiron prospect until a shoulder injury inspired a turn to music studies, Porter covered Cole as a guest on a 1998 album by flutist Hubert Laws. In 2004, Porter, who performed on Broadway in a Tony-nominated blues revue in 1999, premiered an original theatrical production about the impact that Cole had on his life in lieu of a father. The critically acclaimed show was also called Nat “King” Cole & Me.

“I’m now the same age Nat was when he passed, meaning that he was younger than me when he made the meat of these songs,” Porter says. Yet “even now he feels like a father figure.”

Gregory Porter performing in Madison Square Park on June 27, 2012 (photo by Alan Nahigian)
“I left an opening to revisit this concept. … I’m not done with Nat’s music.” (photo by Alan Nahigian)

JazzTimes: The album’s title suggests a connection, beyond influence or inspiration, to someone you never met or heard in his lifetime. You were born six years after Cole died.

Gregory Porter: It’s a spiritual connection through records. When I was 6 and 7 years old, when my head was wide open for words and inspiration from my father, [he] wasn’t there. I just sucked these lyrics in. This music—the cool style, the grace and beauty—went hand in hand with messages that my mother was giving me constantly: “Be on your best behavior. Guard your heart.” She would give me these little nuggets on my way out the door, and Nat’s music had plenty of those nuggets, things to live by and think about.

Didn’t you hear those nuggets in contemporary funk and R&B? You were born during a golden era of black popular music: Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, the progressive Marvin Gaye.

Later on, I heard that in Marvin and Donny Hathaway. But Nat “King” Cole was more profound. My mother sanctioned it, and it was readily available in the house. My mother was always working. We were kind of latchkey kids, but we didn’t have a key [laughs]. I used to just hop in the back window. That was my time, before my older brothers and sisters came home. And I put on Nat “King” Cole records.

Did you have other vocal role models, especially as you began singing in church?

It was Marvin, Donny, Joe Williams, Billy Paul, Leon Thomas—emotive, expressive singers. You know what’s funny? Everybody that I’ve mentioned is a church archetype. I went through the experience of hearing them all through local voices that were never famous. Some person would get up in church to sing and you’d go, “Oh, wow, that’s like Billy Paul.” I ran into a couple of Sam Cookes [laughs]. You don’t know their names; they never made a record. But they influenced me.

Given your size and physique, were you surprised that you could sing with delicacy and nuance?

There are a lot of scenarios when you’re trying to become a professional singer. You find yourself at bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. You find an appropriate voice for all of these things. When I was doing musical theatre, I had to figure out how to sing all of the human emotions.

In church, there are times when the gospel “belt” is necessary. But there are times when the spirit is moving in a quiet way, and you have to find it: [sings] “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place.” You find a way to whiper what you want to say. And as your voice matures, you’re like, “Oh, I have this now.”

There are some surprising, popular omissions on Nat “King” Cole  & Me—no “Unforgettable” or “Ramblin’ Rose.” How did you decide what to cover and what to leave aside?

You have to do some of the songs that he made great, like “Smile” and “Nature Boy.” “Mona Lisa”—I don’t hear it done that much. But there is a story here. I used to swear I saw a movie called Miss Otis Regrets, but it was in my head. I was 9, listening to “Miss Otis Regrets,” and a movie played in my head. That’s the reason why it’s here.

That song was written by Cole Porter in 1934, about a woman hung by a mob after she kills the man who wronged her. But when Cole recorded it in the ’60s, it suddenly had another context: a black man singing about a lynching.

I’m fully aware of that. But I was thinking of the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the ugly—the pain. It’s described in the lyric: “And the moment before she died/She lifted up her lovely head…” Who cares if the head is lovely? It’s about to hang.

In the beginning, how aware were you of Cole’s success and controversial stature as a black icon? He was quietly active in the civil-rights movement but harshly criticized by the NAACP and in the black press for his success in the white mainstream.

It wasn’t until I did a thesis on Nat “King” Cole for one of my music classes [in college]. I learned that he was one of the first African-Americans to have a television show, and the fate of that show. [Cole ended his NBC variety program, The Nat “King” Cole Show, in 1957 because of the lack of a national sponsor, later noting, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”]

I dug into some of the archival video of that show. He was so graceful and elegant, saying something to America: “This is who we are.” There was a lot of civil rights in that entertainment. People didn’t understand his personality and everything that he was doing.

Your tribute arrives at a very potent time. You can look around and wonder how much—and how little—has changed since Cole’s day.

There is a reason why my song “When Love Was King” is on the record. It’s my politics. [sings] “He showed respect for every man/Regardless of his skin and clan.” I sell most of my records outside the United States, but the message is for the leaders in my country, if they ever get a chance to hear it.

By placing it among songs so associated with Cole, you also suggest that he could have sung “When Love Was King”—and taken it to the limit.

I felt like I was writing a song for Nat “King” Cole. Structurally, the little pre-verse is something Nat would have done: [sings] “Once was a kingdom far, far away/Love was the rule of the day…” It’s what I believe, but Nat’s inspiration is there.

The other song on your album not recorded by Cole is “I Wonder Who My Daddy Is,” which you first heard sung by his younger brother Freddy.

When I heard Freddy do that [on his 1996 album, A Circle of Love], I was like, “That song is me.” I came to Nat’s music in the absence of my father. Nat’s music filled this void of a male sound saying something encouraging and thoughtful to me. “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again”—that meant something to me. I had this pool of love lost. I was sad about my father not being in my life, and I listened to Nat’s music in that way. He may have been talking about a romantic love lost, but I was listening in another way.

Do you consider Cole a jazz artist? As a pianist he came from jazz, and he never lost the invention and swing in his playing or singing, even on his most commercial records. But that pop success defines his image for many people.

People used to say, “Nat went completely pop.” But Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan were pop singers—and the greatest of our jazz singers. So Nat’s definitely a jazz singer for me. It does sadden me that there aren’t more trio records by him or piano work in that period when he became a stand-up singer. There should be more. But maybe he was thinking, “I’ve got many more years to do this.”

Did you consider doing more in the trio format on Nat “King” Cole & Me? The orchestral treatments dominate, but there is that wonderful stripped-down version of “L-O-V-E” with Terence Blanchard stepping out on trumpet.

I knew the small-group stuff would be limited. I left an opening to revisit this concept with Volume Two, maybe a Volume Three. I’m not done with Nat’s music. The small-group stuff feels good. I enjoy that flexibility. And we gotta get some Jack Costanzo-type percussion going on. [The Chicago-born Costanzo, now 98, played with Cole during the late 1940s
and early ’50s.]

Your own success has come at a price—300 days a year on the road. What is the strain on your voice?

Being on planes every day, physically it can wear you out. But I haven’t had vocal problems; just when I have a normal cold or sore throat. I recover well. And I do my writing on the road. I’m most inspired when I’m in motion—on a train or plane, in a car. But the family? My son has been to 15, 16 countries already. Sometimes we have to travel together to make it work.

Last year, your concert schedule included a performance for a huge, young audience at England’s Glastonbury Festival. As a jazz singer, what was it like to take the main stage in front of that classic-rock and modern-pop crowd?

If you go on a stage like that completely unknown, you have to win people over with the power of your voice. But being on the Jools Holland TV show and on BBC Radio has given me some acceptance in the U.K., so I could do ballads like “No Love Dying.” I’m known as the jazz guy who has his songs remixed, who performs with pop artists and who does the straight-ahead thing. Once you create a relationship with the audience, you can do whatever.

I’m not saying the jazz fan is low-hanging fruit, because they’re not; you gotta come with something. But to get that 17-year-old ear that has written off jazz is an important challenge, because that’s the future of the music. If we don’t get them, then we don’t have careers 10 years from now.

What have you learned about Nat “King” Cole’s music and legacy that you didn’t know before you made this album?

I always assumed that to be a genius you had to create a wealth of material that is your own. Nat just chose songs very well. That’s why, as a young person, I was like, “This cat picked songs just for me.” Nat had an ability to choose great material that complemented his voice, his style and the message he wanted to get across—the silent messages that I appreciate in his music. Could it be that I’m reading too much into it? But I think he was saying something about himself as a man and for black people.

These were love songs to love, and you couldn’t miss it in that expressive tone and great diction. That’s what my mother loved about him. You could always understand what he was saying.

What have you learned as a songwriter from this experience? Where do you go as a writer after you have sung the best?

Listening to “When Love Was King” next to “Nature Boy” and “Pick Yourself Up” has given me confidence. The songs that are the most fulfilling for me to sing are those that have a message, however simple. Performing “No Love Dying” in Jerusalem and places that are considered difficult—like Bahrain, North Africa or St. Louis, for that matter—people feel me putting more into the song than just the lyric.

When I get to the part that says, [sings] “There’s some doubt that’s out about this love/But I won’t let it be/There will be no love that’s dying here for me,” they understand that I’m pushing the same message Nat sang [in “Nature Boy”]: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return.”

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Nat “King” Cole & Me by Gregory Porter on iTunes.