Freddy Cole’s beauty shone in the magic of his shows. They were free of fireworks and vocal gymnastics. To me, those wonderful evenings were full of wisdom, class, wit, and a full life well lived. He transitioned hypnotically from one song to another. Some of the tunes recognizable (anything from his famous brother’s catalogue), and some leaving you shaking your head saying, “How did he do that?” (Like a devastating “You and Me Against the World” or a swinging Bill Withers “Lovely Day.”) Each set was a master class. If you were lucky enough to hang with him, he’d give you wonderful song recommendations. He’d say, “Here’s a good one for you” and start singing for hours.
Technically Freddy could sing and play anything, but he could also make that song dive into your heart. He was without artifice and he did not suffer fools.
On one particular Saturday evening after a performance with him at Tanglewood, which is a beautiful venue in a rural town in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, we found the only place serving late-night food. It was a dark roadside bar. We were all dressed to the nines from our gig and we were getting some aggressive side-eye from the five or so drunk guys from town who were playing pool. They became louder and more profane as we quietly ate our wings. They made it very clear that they knew we weren’t from around there, especially Freddy. He grew more quiet with each expletive. There were ladies present, after all, and he was a gentleman through and through. He kept right on eating as a man drunkenly addressed our table. Then Freddy looked up and, with his smoky baritone and without making eye contact, said, “Sir, you gonna make sure you can get up and go to church tomorrow? ’Cause you better get up and go to church tomorrow.” The drunk laughed, we laughed, and it became achingly clear that wasn’t Freddie’s first time at that particular rodeo.
We had an ongoing gag that he started that involved a can of corn. Freddy told me a story of Billy Eckstine backstage rolling a can of corn onstage to Al Hibbler after he had been telling several overly long stories as if to say, “Cut the corn!” Freddy always gave me a hard time about the corny stories and jokes I told during my performances. One night after doing a concert in Palm Beach, a woman came in who had just seen Freddy at another venue. She said that Freddy had given her something to give to me. She opened her purse and took out … a can of corn! This became a running prank for years. Cans of corn appeared in venues all over the country. Once at Birdland in NYC, I placed a can of corn on the piano keys while Freddy was getting ready in his dressing room. He was introduced and walked onstage and sat down at the piano and right in the middle of the keyboard was a can of Del Monte. He slowly moved the can, and when the tune was over he just whispered into the mic, “John Pizzarelli…” The bit became more and more elaborate and surprising. In fact, I may or may not have dressed up like Santa and pulled a can of creamed corn out of my sack in the middle of his holiday show in New York City.
The last time I saw him was at a concert we did in Toronto as part of his brother’s centennial. Inexplicably, he opened the show and my trio followed. He sat in the wings and we called him up at the end and he sang “If I Had You” and “For Sentimental Reasons,” bringing down the house. I have a picture of us bowing to a standing ovation. We’re both laughing because I had just said to him, “Once again you’re gonna make me miss last call ’cause you had to come out and destroy the place!”
It was a moment I treasure. I was very fortunate to call him friend.
In Memoriam: Tributes to 2020’s Departed Jazz Greats