John Pizzarelli Names Nine Favorite Nat King Cole Tunes

The guitarist and singer's list includes popular favorites and deep cuts

John Pizzarelli
John Pizzarelli (photo: Perry Joseph)

Nat Cole is the reason why I do what I do. When I was led in the direction of the trio records by my father, Bucky Pizzarelli, I heard songs that directly related to what I wanted to do as a jazz musician. I was not ready to sing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” or “Lush Life” at 20. I was able to sing “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Frim Fram Sauce,” and “Route 66,” and also have a platform for playing jazz through those tunes. To this day, it’s material that speaks to this errand boy for rhythm, for sentimental reasons. Nat Cole’s music will never be irrelevant because of his musical and vocal sincerity; it will continue to be vital through the vast corridors of time.

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Listen to a playlist featuring all of the songs mentioned. 

“Body and Soul”—I think Oscar Moore’s chorus on this tune rivals any chorus played on it with the exception of what Nat plays after him. Truly 3 minutes and 18 seconds of heaven.

“Paper Moon”—I’ve asked Freddy Cole, Nat’s younger brother, where this arrangement came from and he said, “I don’t know, but it’s my favorite!” What a way to start a tune. This was the first thing I heard the NKC trio play on my father’s hi-fi.

“Pick Yourself Up” (Nat Cole with George Shearing)—Sir George told me the story of Nat wanting to do this song and George thinking he’d already played it enough. But it wasn’t until Nat suggested the slower tempo that George became a believer. Two geniuses at work.

“This Will Make You Laugh”—One of the early trio ballads recorded at Decca, written by Irene Higginbotham. It’s typical of the ballads from that time. Nat never gets the girl and there’s always a bittersweet punch line.

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“Beautiful Moons Ago”—Again a bittersweet love song, but this one written by the guitarist of the trio, Oscar Moore. He’s a hidden treasure for many reasons, his songwriting being one of them. I’m a fan of “Tell Me You’ll Wait for Me,” which Oscar wrote with Charles Brown (recorded by Ray Charles).

“Jumpin’ at Capitol”—Based on the chords to “I Found a New Baby,” this features the group at its swinging best. We also get to hear Johnny Miller play a walking bass solo. The use of half-time in the closing bars is something I’ve stolen many times. So dramatic and effective.

“Straighten Up and Fly Right”—I learned this song from a record called …As the Time Flies by singer/songwriter Frank Weber. Upon playing what I learned for my father, he straightened me out and I flew right to Sam Goody to get the real deal.

“Candy”—From the After Midnight sessions. This track was held off the record, along with three others, for 35 years. The unreleased track that got all the attention was “I Was a Little Too Lonely (And You Were a Little Too Late)” by Livingston and Evans. I remember listening to “Candy” with Scott Robinson back then, the two of us wondering why it was left off. Upon listening, after trading with Nat and guitarist John Collins, Harry Edison comes in solidly on a D7 chord on the bridge and then a G7. Unfortunately, the correct chords were C7 to F7. Scott thought at the time it was pretty deep and all these years later, mistake or not, I happen to agree.

“That Sunday, That Summer”—Written by Joe Sherman and George David Weiss and published in 1963, a great example of the material that was solely Nat Cole’s. Will Friedwald has pointed out that Nat had a little “stable” of writers providing him with unique material: along with Sherman and Weiss there were Noel Sherman (Joe’s brother), Marvin Fisher, Livingston and Evans, and eden ahbez. If you should get the chance to hear Freddy Cole—and you should do that whenever you can—you’ll hear songs like “A Blossom Fell,” “Wild Is Love,” and “Blue Gardenia,” all from that group of composers.