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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)
Nat King Cole
Nat Cole, Oscar Moore, and Johnny Miller at Radio Recorders, Los Angeles, in the mid-1940s (photo: courtesy of Capitol Records Photo Archive)

Session Men

Most music in the golden age of radio was broadcast live. Still, there were the odd times when stations needed to fill dead air. For this, they subscribed to what was called a transcription service: a company that produced its own recorded music specially for broadcast. Standard Radio Service, the largest of these, was headquartered in Hollywood, just a few miles from where the hot new jazz trio was making a splash.

Cole, Moore, and Prince surely jumped at the chance to record for Standard. While there were no royalties or licensing fees, and probably no union registration, they did pay cash on the barrelhead, and in relatively hefty amounts.

“$25 or so a guy,” says Seth Berg, who manages Cole’s estate. “It would have been, ‘Here’s some bucks, come in and make an album for us.’” For an hour of work, four to eight tracks, the band would make nearly five times its nightly rate at the Swanee Inn.

Between September 1938 and February 1941, the King Cole Trio cut 126 records for Standard, several of them as accompanists for vocal groups. The lack of formal arrangements also meant no exclusivity; in the same period, they furnished 12 titles to Davis & Schwegler Transcription (who later released some commercial 78s), another 12 to Keystone, and seven to MacGregor. Most of these were again in service of a featured vocalist, though occasionally the trio, or Cole himself, did the singing.

Yet if their exposure on record was (at best) ephemeral, they were hardly anonymous. They had a sustained, successful run in the entertainment capital of the world, and had begun to venture into theaters and other venues in L.A. They’d also begun a series of regular appearances on radio’s NBC Blue network in 1938.

Finally, in 1940, they made their commercial recording debut. In February there were four sides for Ammor Records, a jukebox servicer. They accompanied Lionel Hampton on two sessions that summer. Then Decca Records got wind of “Gone with the Draft,” a novelty tune Cole had written about America’s first-ever peacetime conscription. Impressed with the musicianship, and knowing they could sell a topical record, Decca signed the Cole Trio specifically to get a commercial version of “Gone with the Draft.”

That first session also yielded “Sweet Lorraine,” the King Cole Trio’s first hit; their third Decca date, in October 1941, produced a bigger one in “That Ain’t Right.” These led to audiences requesting more solo vocal numbers, elevating Cole’s reputation as a singer.

In October 1942, skirting a ban that the American Federation of Musicians (i.e., the union) had imposed on recording, they made another hit, “All for You,” on the tiny Excelsior label. Capitol Records bought the rights from Excelsior, re-released it, and scored a No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart. They immediately signed the Cole Trio (with Johnny Miller having replaced Prince on bass), who in November 1943 recorded “Straighten Up and Fly Right”—and the rest is history.

The trio disbanded in 1947, by which time Cole had begun recording as a soloist anyway. He remained with Capitol until his death in 1965 from lung cancer; by then he was one of the most famous men in the world, a millionaire many times over, and a pioneer, the first African-American to host nationwide radio and TV programs.

Capitol Records didn’t fare too badly in the bargain, either. Its legendary circular office tower in Hollywood is known as “The House that Nat Built.”

A Lasting Legacy

The King Cole Trio’s first major influence was by virtue of its novel piano/guitar/bass configuration. “For a while in the mid-’40s, everybody wanted to have a trio that was inspired by Nat, it was just so popular,” Friedwald says. Oscar Peterson’s first trio was with bass and guitar; so were Ahmad Jamal’s, Page Cavanaugh’s, and dozens of others. Even Art Tatum, by consensus the greatest of all jazz pianists, often used a guitar-and-bass trio after 1942.

Cole’s piano playing was also a benchmark in that instrument’s development. He happily credited Earl “Fatha” Hines as his greatest influence. “His was a new, revolutionary kind of playing,” Cole said in 1957. “He broke … the barrier of what we called ‘stride piano.’” That influence is reflected in the younger pianist’s sound, but Cole was far more steeped in the blues than Hines. He also extended his idol’s refinements of stride, doubling down on Hines’ emphasis on melody over ostinato. By the ’40s, Cole had developed a new vocabulary from which the beboppers would borrow.

He was an early adopter of the “block chord” technique that Milt Buckner had introduced; he also was among the first to write contrafacts, building new melodies on familiar chord changes. In particular, he helped popularize the idea of composing on the chords of the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm,” writing several variations himself.

Cole was Peterson’s favorite pianist, and even fellow singer Johnny Mathis claims to have first fallen in love with his playing. Daniel Mark Epstein, who published a Cole biography in 1999, told National Public Radio earlier this year that “if Cole had never crooned a note, he would still be an important figure in jazz…. one of our top five greatest and most influential jazz pianists.” Originally Published

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.