When I was a kid, I knew one thing about Nat “King” Cole, and it was this: he was the crooner that ladies of my Mother’s and Grandmother’s generations listened to. Everyone knew that he had a slew of hits in the 1950s and early 1960s, with soft romantic ballads. Sort of like the Barry Manilow of an earlier era, but with a better voice. In fact, among his generation he was second only to Sinatra in terms of his success as a singer. It was only later in life that I learned that Cole had an earlier career, that of one of the top jazz pianists in the land.
Cole had been born in Alabama in 1919, but as a young child moved to Chicago with his family. There, he took an interest in the local jazz scene which, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, featured such luminaries as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. Cole had learned piano from his mother and began performing with his own band in the mid ’30s, where he picked up the “King” in his name, as a play on the old nursery rhyme Old King Cole.
As so often happened then, he was travelling with a show that disbanded in Los Angeles. Instead of trying to get home, Cole started playing gigs in Long Beach and eventually began playing regularly with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince. Known as the King Cole Trio, the group began appearing on the radio in the late ’30s and became nationally known. There is an apocryphal story that Cole did not begin to sing until a drunk in a bar demanded that he sing one of the songs. If the story is true, I hope that Cole eventually bought that man another drink, because it changed his life.
The King Cole Trio had its first mainstream hit in 1943 with Straighten Up And Fly Right, which sold a half million copies for the newly formed Capitol Records. For the rest of the 1940s (and beyond), the King Cole Trio became one of the most popular small jazz groups in the country.
Those who remember Cole today remember him mostly for his singing, but I maintain that he might have been the most complete jazz piano player of his era. His playing displayed all of the class and elegance of Teddy Wilson, the unfailing rhythm and swing of Count Basie, and Duke Ellington’s visual showmanship. He may not have had the raw dexterity of Art Tatum (nobody did), but he was not far from it. Cole combined it all with an unerring ability to make it all eminently listenable, a trait that has become rare indeed in more modern pianists.
When YouTube first came to my attention, I wondered just it was about – besides for showing a never ending supply of stupid stunts gone wrong for the entertainment of teenaged boys. But I soon learned that it contained a treasure trove of old jazz performances taken from all sorts of sources. With a little picking and choosing, a fellow can create something like a Paleozoic MTV, only one where all of the performances are in black and white and all the performers are long dead.
This clip of Got A Penny Benny? was one of the first I saw, and it somehow wormed its way into my mental hard drive. It is a completely ordinary and obscure little song, with nowhere near the popularity of the well known Route 66. However, these guys manage to turn this little bit of nothing into something that is hard to forget. Aside from Cole, the group on this 1946 film consisted of Johnny Miller on bass and Oscar Moore on guitar. Not a lot is known about Miller (who had replaced Wesley Prince a couple of years earlier) but Moore is considered by many to be one of the finest jazz guitarists of all time, and one who sort of set the pattern for how to play guitar in a jazz trio.
This film itself is interesting in that it is a Panoram Soundie. These short 16mm films were the music videos of the 1940s and were made to play on specially made film jukeboxes which cost a dime instead of the typical nickle for a traditional jukebox. This film would have been made shortly before the technology was abandoned, as it had been quite unpopular with theater owners, who thought that musical shorts belonged in their domain, along with newsreels and cartoons.
Bebop was at full steam in 1946, but that wasn’t Cole’s thing. Instead, this Trio routinely featured a relaxed-but-solid swing beat and top-flight musicianship. Cole’s vocal is, as always, well, unforgettable. But what I really enjoy is watching him play. I suspect that this music was synced to the film, but Cole really could play without looking at the keys. His improvisation was never boring because he was a bottomless font of musical ideas which flowed so effortlessly. I particularly love the way he punctuates his vocal with short piano phrases in a way that perfectly complements one with the other, along with the balanced way he uses both hands all up and down the keyboard.
Sadly for jazz fans (but happily for Cole), his career took a turn when he began to record as a solo act in front of big, lush orchestras. Oscar Moore left the trio in the late 40s and, in a monumental waste of talent, ended up as a bricklayer. Cole, however, went on to incredible fame and wealth, which continued pretty much unabated until his untimely death from lung cancer in 1965 at the age of 46.
I suspect that most of my readers will know Nat King Cole best as Natalie’s dad. Maybe they know about the many gold records to his credit later in his career. But his many recordings with the King Cole Trio, dear readers, is my very favorite part of the Nat King Cole legacy. Some jazz artists have a few brilliant performances that stand above the rest of their work. Others take some effort to appreciate. Not Cole. With his trio, he recorded a lot of music, and almost all of it was both of high quality and easily enjoyed. If you try it, I think you’ll agree.