Now here is a blast from the past. What has happened? I am now 40, and found myself at a loose end, so I thought I would pick up my opinionating pen again. Will pop in from time to time and write stuff.
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I don't sing - I have style and I put it across!
Smooth, beautiful lyrics from a great singer
Shame he didn't last longer
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Who on earth would believe that the words of the title of this opinion were once uttered by one of the world's most popular singers. a man who was a very successful jazz pianist before he even sang a note. A man who was the first truly successful black artist in history. a man who died at far too young an age. This is a review dedicated to him.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born on March 17th 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama. He was the son of a baptist preacher and the church pianist. His family had to put up with a great deal of prejudice living in the American south, and moved to Chicago in 1923. By this time young Nathaniel had learned his first song on the piano, the delightful 'Yes! we have no bananas'. He was growing up in the era of swing music, and had formed his first band whilst still at high school, a school of which he was to be the first famous alumnus, with the likes of Sam Cooke to follow.
Nat was, in his mind especially, first and foremost a jazz pianist. that was his aim in life, and he only became a singer after being asked to sing in a bar in Chicago.
This was a time of deep prejudice against the blacks of America. Nat appeared on television and film at this time, but had to have his skin lightened in make-up, which is something that, in my eyes, is abhorrent to someone with 21st century opinions.
Nat married Nadine Robinson in 1938, a woman ten years his senior. They divorced and he married again. He was to be married to his wife Maria until his death. They had 5 children, two of whom were adopted.
In 1948 the family moved to the Los Angeles district of Hancock Park, where they were not accepted in any way. The word 'nigger' was burned into their lawn with acid and their dog was poisoned. In 1952 an IRS investigation into Nat's finances almost took his house, and the revenue officers even considered taking his piano- something that should have been unthinkable.
In 1954 Nat was performing concerts to segregated audiences in Birmingham, Alabama when he was attacked on stage by a white man. He was also the first black personality to have his own television show, which ran for 68 weeks from 1956 until 1957. However it was difficult to attract sponsors. A spokesman for Max Factor was quoted as saying that it was difficult for a negro to sell lipstick. Someone else commented that it was really a case of:
"You can sing and dance your heart out, just don't marry my daughter."
Cole's own comment was "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark".
Nat 'King' Cole went on to tour Cuba, and to appear at the 1960 Royal Variety Show. He made films, most notably appearing with Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin in 'Cat Ballou'. However his health was suffering due to a heavy smoking habit. On February 15th 1965, at the age of 45, Nat 'King' Cole died of lung cancer. His was truly a star-studded funeral, attended by such personalities as Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald and Danny Kaye.
So- enough about the man, what about the music? Nat 'King' Cole sold more than 50 million records during his career, so it is difficult to single a lot of them out, but I will try.
There are really two distinct groups of songs. Firstly there are the songs that have their roots in jazz, and feature strong instrumentals by Nat and his musicians. The most notable amongst these include 'Paper Moon', 'Route 66', 'Straighten Up and Fly Right' and 'Sweet Lorraine'.
The other type is the song that features Nat's honey-coated vocals. Songs such as 'The very thought of you', 'Mona Lisa', 'Nature Boy', 'When I fall in Love' and 'Unforgettable' all make my heart melt.
It may not seem fashionable to like the music of Nat 'King' Cole, but I feel that there are several reasons to do so. Firstly the music is rhythmic and catchy, and you find yourself humming it all day long. Second, Nat 'King' Cole was a great singer, and third he was the first truly great and accepted black artiste. He broke down a lot of barriers, and paved the way for the artists of today.
By the way, the title of the opinion comes from when Nat was asked to sing. He said he could not, and added:
"I can't sing. I just have style and put it across."
Strange, but I have to disagree with the great man there. What do you think?
Neil June 2004
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