Ella Fitzgerald had as good an enunciation of English, certainly as a vocalist, as I have ever heard. Not all baby boomers would be familiar with Ella – but they will all remember Nat King Cole, and his unforgettable style and articulation. ( ‘Unforgettable’ was one of his big hits. ) His style helped to define the 50’s and carried on into the ’60’s. People forget that Cole started as a pianist, and developed a trio that became famous. I have a CD of twenty songs done by the trio, all first recorded in 1947.
While setting up to record the qualifying sessions of the Grand Prix, I came across a TV documentary that I could not turn off. It had comments from Tony Bennet and Sinatra, and the two sons of the great Nelson Riddle. Cole had a voice and style that is now as instantly recognisable as that of Louis Armstrong. Although Cole was a jazz musician, his vocals were closer to those of Tony Bennet than Ella Fitzgerald. He was a popular singer or crooner. He was immeasurably assisted by the arrangements of Nelson Riddle, a man whose genius – the word is not too strong – was recognised and employed by Sinatra. With uncharacteristic modesty, Sinatra wondered whether he and Riddle ever reached the same plateau that Riddle and Cole had.
This country has not had a good record with racism, but we have no idea what it was like in the U S. I can remember the Nat King Cole TV show. This kind of show was common then – remember Perry Como? – but he was the first black man to have his own show. It was a revelation and a revolution. The production was seamless. There was a skit where Tony Bennet insisted on introducing himself, and another where Sammy Davis Junior told Cole he had to have a style, and then proceed to mimic it flawlessly. The great Ella Fitzgerald swung by with her inimitable ease and grace. All these people gave their time for free. They finally found a sponsor. A plainly moved Harry Belafonte spoke of how much it meant to people of colour. It was number one in its time slot – but the South hated it, and killed it after 60 episodes. Cole said that Maddison Avenue was afraid of the dark.
It is shocking to recall this now. Shortly after, Cole suffered badly from a bleeding ulcer. He was hospitalised, and the doctor forbade him to go on tour in the South – they worried that if he fell ill, no hospital would admit him. This happened in my lifetime, to a gentle man and supreme artist. When Cole did get to Alabama, he was assaulted, and then his own people turned on him for being meek.
Cole died of cancer before he reached sixty. He had smoked heavily all his life, as so many did then. So far as I know, he had not succumbed to the darker scourge of the jazz world in his time.
Opinions vary on Mr Obama as President. I have a very high opinion of the man, and I am glad that I celebrated his swearing in with a number of Blood Marys starting at 4 am. But whatever else might be said of Mr Obama, the shocking cruelty handed out to Nat King Cole, and recent events in Ferguson in the South, show the colossal importance of the mere fact that Mr Obama was elected at all – and twice. Many have tried, but they have not been able to turn his show off.