Little wonder that Nat King Cole is revered as one of the towering crooners of the recorded-sound era; he sang as if his lungs were lined with silk. An earthly balladeer whose voice always seemed to be flirting with contrails, he stands alongside a select few in the top tier of American entertainment icons: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, James Dean, Babe Ruth. And of course we have “The Christmas Song,” in any one of four versions—go with the first, from 1946—which is as festal as wreaths and crèches, and probably more central to the holiday season for many.
I became a hardcore Cole guy in college, which is when I started to mull something that I thought needed redressing. When you’re known as a crooner, and enough time passes after you’re gone, you can become song-typecast, known only for a few indelible works. But as March 17 marks Cole’s 100th birthday, it seems a good time to venture back to the 1940s, before that pigeonholing process began, when he was one badass piano player with worlds in his fingers, leading one of the greatest small units in jazz history.