The Nat King Cole Harvest Is In

Resonance Records’ latest deluxe archival set presents a hidden early history of the great pianist and singer in captivating fashion

Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole (photo: Charlie Mihn/courtesy of LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries)

He was a superstar. A beloved singer with over 100 hit records to his name, the world’s highest-selling recording artist between Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley, and the host of his own national television show. Today, a century after his birth and 54 years after his death, he remains a household name.

Yet even if you know all that about Nat King Cole, you only know half the story.

By the time “Straighten Up and Fly Right”—Cole’s breakthrough hit at the head of the King Cole Trio—reached Billboard’s pop Top 10 in the spring of 1944, the 25-year-old had already been a professional musician for a decade. In those early years, though, he was not primarily a singer, but a pianist … a brilliant one.

“Nat Cole is easily one of the greatest jazz pianists ever,” says author, music critic, and historian Will Friedwald. “On a par with Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Bud Powell. And we know that he was an extremely influential piano player from the testimony of the players he influenced: George Shearing, Erroll Garner, and Oscar Peterson himself.”

Friedwald is a co-producer of Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years 1936-1943, a seven-CD/10-LP boxed set released November 1 on Resonance Records. The package is designed to put a new spotlight on that underappreciated side of Cole. “If you want to hear Nat in his purely jazz phase, then this is the period,” Friedwald says.

Many jazz fans are surely aware of Cole’s career as a pianist. (The man himself rarely discussed it; once he was a star, his focus was on promoting his newest releases.) They may have heard his famous sessions with Lionel Hampton or Lester Young, or even the sides by his King Cole Trio. But they’re not getting the full story either. Cole made dozens of recordings between 1936 and 1943, piling up more than 150 titles in that time. The vast majority of them were never intended for commercial release. They have long circulated anyway, thanks to collectors and archivists, but in shoddy bootlegs and cheap reissue packages.

Hittin’ the Ramp changes that. Its production team has exhaustively collected, researched, and remastered every known Cole recording from his career before 1944 (when Cole signed to Capitol Records, which made him a superstar). In so doing, they’ve gathered some rare documents—and even found a few previously unknown recordings, which are also included in the set just in time to mark Cole’s centennial year.

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“This is a really important mission,” says Zev Feldman, Resonance’s co-president (and another co-producer on the set). “Nat has achieved this greatness, but we don’t talk about it. We needed to right this wrong; it’s jazz justice, if you will.”

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.