Freddy Cole, a pianist and vocalist who emerged in later life from his famous older brother Nat “King” Cole’s shadow after decades of making consistently high-quality art, died June 27 at his home in Atlanta, Georgia. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by his manager, Suzi Reynolds, who told the Washington Post that the cause of death was complications from a cardiovascular disease.
Cole bore a vague physical resemblance and an uncanny musical resemblance to his brother, particularly in his velvety vocal delivery. (The younger Cole was more understated but also a touch more rough-hewn, retaining the vernacular accent that Nat largely smoothed away.) He was the more erudite brother, studying at the Juilliard School and the New England Conservatory in contrast to Nat’s high-school-dropout status. Nevertheless, he spent nearly 40 years in relative obscurity, resisting promoters’ attempts to turn him into a tribute act for his brother (who died in 1965) and working steadily to build his own identity—in part by entrenching himself firmly in the blues.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when Cole was in his sixties, that he became a major figure on his own terms; the title of his 1991 album I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me was playful and celebratory rather than frustrated and complaining. (Although the title song became Cole’s signature tune, the album also included a medley of Nat “King” Cole hits, demonstrating Freddy’s comfort with his familial legacy.)
“Until you can get to where your peers respect what you do, that is when you are making progress,” Cole told the Huffington Post in 2013. “When I was playing at Bradley’s this one night, who comes in but Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, George Coleman, you name it. You know, I said to myself, ‘They’re all coming to see me.’ Never knowing that they respected me, what I did.”
Lionel Frederick Coles was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 15, 1931. He was the last of four sons—he also had a half-sister, Joyce—all of whom learned piano from their mother, Perlina, and all of whom ultimately pursued careers in music. Brothers Eddie and Nat were already performing professionally together when five-year-old Freddy began playing. Between the family’s musical success and his own early immersion, Cole would later say that it never occurred to him that he would do anything else with his life.
At 18, he entered Chicago’s Roosevelt Institute to study music; however, his superstar brother told him he had the talent and chops to seek his fortune on the New York jazz scene. In 1951, Cole took that advice, enrolling at Juilliard. Within two years, he had a minor hit for OKeh Records: “Whispering Grass,” the kind of string-laden pop record associated with his brother. It initiated several years of work as a session pianist with the likes of Earl Bostic and Benny Golson, while the pianist at the same time pursued a master’s degree from New England Conservatory. (He completed it in 1956.) Cole also grew friendly with vocalist and bandleader Billy Eckstine, who became his idol.
Another modest recording success, this time for Dot Records with 1960’s “The Joke Is on Me,” enabled Cole to record his debut album with that label. Released in 1964, the moody, ballad-oriented Waiter, Ask the Man to Play the Blues is highly regarded today but was not a success in its time—although touring the album in Europe did gain him a following there. Cole would record only once more under his own name during the next decade. He became more prolific in the 1970s, though almost entirely on small European labels.
The untimely death of his brother in 1965 may have given his bookings a boost, but it also forced the younger Cole into an uncomfortable position. “Club owners have always wanted me to do Nat’s songs. I tell them I’m not my brother—I’m me,” he said in 1978. Although he always insisted that the situation caused no resentment of his brother, he did record a quartet album in 1976 with the somewhat melancholy title The Cole Nobody Knows.
By that time he was living in Atlanta, having moved his family there in 1971 as the jazz scene struggled in New York. Cole continued playing and touring from his southern perch, forming an independent label (Dinky Records) to release his own product and finding more international success, this time in Brazil, in the 1970s and ’80s. “I was doing okay,” he told the Huffington Post about that time. “[B]ut I was on the same road. I was just going round and round in circles.”
1991’s I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me was a statement of purpose that also began a new level of success for Cole. His bookings and price tag both increased significantly, and he found himself working with major figures like Grover Washington, George Mraz, and Houston Person (the tenor saxophonist became a regular collaborator). By the mid-2000s, Cole had formed a working band with guitarist Randy Napoleon, bassist Elias Bailey, drummer Curtis Boyd, and deputy pianist John Di Martino.
Cole gained a reputation in this late-career surge for having an enormous repertoire of songs. Notably, however, he never drew up setlists; he would simply gauge the audience and spontaneously decide what to play at each performance. He increasingly focused on singing, leaving the piano to Di Martino, but he never wavered from his spur-of-the-moment approach to programming.
Cole was predeceased by his wife, the former Margaret Jones, who died in 2015. He is survived by a son, musician and songwriter Lionel Cole; a daughter, Crystal Cole; and four grandchildren.