Nathaniel Adams Coles, known professionally as Nat King Cole, was an American singer and jazz pianist. He recorded over 100 songs that became hits on the pop charts. His trio was the model for small jazz ensembles that followed. Cole also acted in films and on television and performed on Broadway. He was the first African-American man to host an American television series.
With Christmas fast approaching his voice can be heard throughout the land so I thought it would be fitting to explore some of his music and the stories behind the songs.
'Nature Boy' was written in 1947 by George Alexander Aberle know as eden ahbez and is partly autobiographical. It is a tribute to ahbez's mentor Bill Pester, who had originally introduced him to Naturmensch and Lebensreform philosophies, a social movement in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Germany and Switzerland that propagated a back-to-nature lifestyle.
Aberle adopted the philosophy and chose the name "eden ahbez", writing and spelling his name with lower-case letters, the followers were know as "Nature Boys". It was there, while living in a cave near Palm Springs, that ahbez wrote "Nature Boy".
In 1947, at the prompting of Cowboy Jack Patton and Johnny Mercer, ahbez approached Nat King Cole's manager backstage at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles, handed him a tattered copy of "Nature Boy", and asked him to show it to Cole. However, his pleas were ignored and a disappointed ahbez left the sheet music of "Nature Boy" with Cole's valet, Otis Pollard.
From him, Cole came to know of the song and loved it. Cole began playing "Nature Boy" for live audiences, and he received much acclaim. Irving Berlin, who was present during one of the performances, initially offered to buy the track from Cole, but Cole decided to record it for himself. He needed to get permission from ahbez, however, before releasing it as a single, but he was not able to find the songwriter since ahbez had disappeared without providing any contact details. After ahbez was discovered living under the Hollywood Sign, Cole got his permission and recorded the song.
"Nature Boy" is so otherworldly in its melody and lyric that any number of interpretations over the decades, from Nat Cole's to Alex Chilton's, have never been able to make it ordinary. It sounds like something that, from the minute it was written, existed out of time and place—all thousand and one Arabian Nights compressed into two and a half minutes as mediated by a cracked Mojave Debussy slugging down the last of the absinthe from his canteen."
- Steve Erickson, Los Angeles magazine
The recording took place on August 22, 1947, and featured an orchestra conducted by Frank De Vol—the in-house arranger of Capitol Records. He used strings and flute as instrumentation in the song, to capture the "enchanting" atmosphere of the track. The lyrics are a self-portrait of ahbez and his life. The final line—"The greatest thing you'll ever learn, Is just to love and be loved in return"—is considered a poignant moment in the song, with multiple interpretations of it.
According to author Jeffrey P. Dennis, the song presented a homo-romantic theme, with the eponymous nature boy visiting Cole on a "magic day" and explaining that "the greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return". Author Raymond Knapp described the track as a "mystically charged vagabond song" whose lyrics evoked an intense sense of loss and haplessness, with the final line delivering a universal truth, described by Knapp as "indestructible" and "salvaged somehow from the perilous journey of life".
Below is a video of Nat King Cole performing 'Nature Boy' live with just piano, guitar and bass.
"Unforgettable" was written by Irving Gordon and produced by Lee Gillette. The song's original working title was "Uncomparable"; however, the music publishing company asked Gordon to change it to "Unforgettable".
Nat King Cole recorded his version in 1951, with an arrangement written by Nelson Riddle, for his 1952 album of the same name, Unforgettable. In 1991, after Elvis Presley's musical director Joe Guercio had the idea, Cole's original 1951 recording of the song was edited and reworked to create a duet with his daughter, Natalie.
Another unforgettable song is L-O-V-E. The song was composed by Bert Kaempfert with lyrics by Milt Gabler, and produced by Lee Gillette. The trumpet solo was performed by Bobby Bryant. The song had previously appeared as an instrumental track on Kaempfert's album Blue Midnight (1964).
For international versions of his L-O-V-E album, Nat King Cole also recorded versions of "L-O-V-E" and other songs, in Japanese (mixed with English words), Italian, German, Spanish and French. In this last language, the song was renamed "Je Ne Repartirai Pas" and translated by Jean Delleme.
The song has been used in films and covered by artists ever since. English singer Joss Stone recorded a cover of "L-O-V-E" for the soundtrack to a short film for Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle fragrance, starring Keira Knightley. Stone performed a duet of the song with Natalie Cole at Frosted Pink, a 2007 benefit concert.
We end with the song that can be heard everywhere in December - "The Christmas Song"
While Nat King Cole was the first recording artist to hit the charts with the Christmas Song, the song was written by a different crooner: Mel Tormé. According to Mel's youngest son James, it was on a hot, oppressive summer day in 1945 that his father, Mel, went over the house of one of his writing partners, Bob Wells.
"Wells was nowhere to be seen," James says, "But there was a spiral pad at the piano. There were four lines scribbled down on it in pencil." Those four lines were: "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire / Jack Frost nipping at your nose / Yuletide carols being sung by a choir / And folks dressed up like Eskimos."
When Bob Wells eventually appeared, he told Mel that he had been trying to do everything to cool down on that hot day. Wells said, "I thought that maybe if I could just write down a few lines of wintry verse, I could physiologically get an edge over this heat." Forty-five minutes later, the lyrics of what would be "The Christmas Song" were finished.
The Nat King Cole Trio first recorded the song in June 1946. At Cole's behest – and over the objections of his label, Capitol Records – a second recording was made in August utilising a small string section, this version becoming a massive hit on the charts. Cole again recorded the song in 1953, using the same arrangement with a full orchestra arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, and once more in 1961, in a stereophonic version with another full orchestra arranged and conducted by Ralph Carmichael. Cole's 1961 version is generally regarded as definitive, while the original 1946 recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974.