Thursday, February 5, 2015

Nat King Cole and Billy May: An Odd Couple

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


You ever get one of those tunes going in your mind? The one that you keep hearing over and over again? Maybe it goes away for a day or two, but then its back again, with a vengeance.

Lately, that’s been the case with me and the song Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.

Not just the song itself, but Nat King Cole’s version of it set to Billy May’s arrangement is the one that's been haunting “my little grey cells” [Sorry, Hercule.].

So I set out to make the video that closes this piece using Nat and Billy’s version of Walkin’ as its soundtrack and to do some research about the - to my mind - unusual pairing of the silky song stylings of Nat King Cole [whom one usually thinks of with Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins or Ralph Burns] and the pow, bang, crash arrangements of Billy May.

You would think that the distinctive trademark sounds of Nat King Cole and Billy May would sound perfect together. Cole moved the world with his soft, romantic love songs, May got millions of fans jumping to his explosively punch orchestrations. But of course, Cole had his roots in Jazz, and at the same time May, had a sentimental streak a mile wide. And both were artists whose supreme, multi-faceted musicianship was not confined to stylistic boundaries.

Their most widely heard collaboration, Just One Of Those Things (1957), appropriately draws on both sets of strengths: a happy sad album, colored with a swinging yet melancholy feeling. It's a set of ballads without strings and of uptempos with brooding underpinnings.

The rest of their work together, including one further full-length project Let's Face The Music And Dance in 1961, as well as 16 singles and assorted rarities, covers an equally wide stylistic purview: from straight ballads to two-beat dance numbers, from rhythm and blues to the eloquently cerebral film noir feeling of "Angel Eyes."

Nat Cole and Billy May just missed each other in 1939: May first arrived on Cole's turf as a trumpeter-arranger in Charlie Barnet's band, when that great unit came to Los Angeles to play the Palomar that October. Instead, the ballroom burned down. That left most of the band with nothing to do but check out the local music scene, whose most prominent group was the rapidly rising King Cole Trio. Unfortunately, May was sequestered, trying to rewrite Barnet's decimated library. They finally met two years later when May returned to Hollywood as a member of Glenn Miller's orchestra to film the first of that band's two cinematic epics, Sun Valley Serenade. Cole was working, May recalls, at the Swannee Inn on La Brea Blvd. in Hollywood, CA (later known as the Pirate's Den), the self-same historic spot where the King Cole Trio had first come together four years earlier. May was immediately impressed with Cole's prodigious skill as a pianist in the Earl Hines mode and enjoyed the group's jive-style unison vocalizing.

Cole and May became friendly and would encounter each other occasional!}' throughout the '40s, especially after May settled in California. Both men entered into long-term relationships with Capitol Records and, at one point, even wrote a song together, "Ooh, Kickarooney." The King Cole Trio recorded this typical and typically excellent novelty in 1947.

They finally got together on records thanks to the intervention of two other men: Carlos Gastel and Lee Gillette. Gastel had been Cole's manager since about 1942. A and R [artists and repertoire] man Gillette was producing both artists for Capitol. By 1951, Cole and May were each enjoying careers they had never counted on - Cole as a chart-topping vocalist, May who had been a nearly anonymous sideman and uncredited orchestrator for so many years was a recording star in His own right.

Unrelated events conspired to produce the first Cole-May hit, "Walkin’ My Baby Back Home." The year before, Gastel had teamed Cole with his other star attraction, Stan Kenton's orchestra and the resultant single, "Orange Colored Sky," had proved a resounding cashbox success. Then, around 1950 or '51, Gastel and Kenton parted company. Finding himself without a major band to book, he realized that May was enjoying considerable Billboard chart activity with a series of dance records on Capitol. Gastel persuaded the arranger that he could be the next top-billed leader if he would only put together a regular working band and take it on the road.

"Carlos was a promoter," May says. "You know, he was always looking out to make a buck." That may sound like a criticism, since May and Gastel were only professionally involved for about a year. However, the two were actually quite close for three decades, up until the time of Gastel's death. (The two eventually wound up marrying each other's ex-wives.) "He was a lot of fun," May continues, “but he never took care of himself. You know, he kept drinking and-kept smoking. He went in to have an exam, and the doctor told him that his heart was four times as large as it should be. I said, 'Why don't you stop smoking?' And he said, 'If I just think about it, I have to have a drink.'"

As far as Gastel was concerned, May stepped in to fill Kenton's oversized shoes. The crafty, much-loved manager conceived of a Cole-May pairing as a sequel to "Orange Colored Sky." The initial Cole-May session included four songs, all sporting May's newly-minted slurping saxophone sound. Of these four, three constituted new novelties and likely hits: "What Does It Take," "Walkin'," and "I'm Hurtin'." The least-known item from the session, Johnny Burke's "What Does It Take," amounts to a sequel to Cole's "I Wish I Were Somebody Else."

Still, with all these new songs, the stunning hit from the date turned out to be the 21-year-old "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," which had already been in the top ten a few months earlier by Johnnie Ray. "Walkin' My Baby" helped to solidify Cole's new role as a star singer and May's as a name bandleader. It was only natural for Gastel to send them out on the road together in a package tour, as he had done with Cole's trio and Kenton in seasons past.

Unfortunately, shortly before the high point of that 1953 tour  - a performance at Carnegie Hall on Easter Sunday - Cole came down with an attack of ulcers that put him out of commission for the rest of the run. (Dick Nash, then in May’s trombone section, swears that Sarah Vaughan, who was also part of the package, filled in for Nat by doing his numbers at the piano with his trio.) For May's part, the stress of the tour helped him realize that he would do better to stick to studio work.


Fortunately, Gillette re-teamed Cole and May for two additional dates of time-tested old tunes and interesting new ones - immediately before and after the tour. (The Cole-May-Dean Martin session, from September 1954, is sampled on the four-CD retrospective Nat King Cole, Capitol 99777.) The five tunes from these 1953 and 1954 dates -"Angel Eyes," "Lover Come Back To Me," "Can't I?", "Papa Loves Mambo" and "Teach Me Tonight" - all rank as exemplary examples of pop music at its zenith.

Just prior to that tour, Cole and May cut three more tunes. "Angel Eyes," from the 1953 film Jennifer, amounts to the most significant love theme from a film noir since Laura. Cole's singing is oblique and full of mystery; May's chart is at once brash and steamy.

"Can't I?", written by Leroy Lovett, pianist and blues-oriented author of "After The Lights Go Down Low," brings our two protagonists into the land of the sultry and seductive. Originally, Cole cut this tune with a Dave Cavanaugh arrangement. Several months later, Gillette and Cole ultimately decided the tune really needed Billy May's patented reed section sound, and it was May's version that was released at the time.

The operatic ballad "Lover Come Back to Me" becomes a real swinger in the hands of Cole and May, with bongo drums, a hot alto solo by Willie Smith and the driving bass of Ralph Pena. Even the chorus - entering on the word "no!" near the end - swings heavily. May's boppish ensemble variations on the chord changes exemplify the ideal of a band playing lines that could have had their origins as a great improvised solo.

In September of 1954, Billy May arranged two tunes for the odd pairing of Nat Cole and Dean Martin. But the next real Cole session came a month later. May takes advantage of Cole's rhythmic virtuosity in his brilliant arrangement of "Papa Loves Mambo," by far the best of many; recordings [others include Perry Como and Johnnie Ray] of that 1954 hit tune. A few years earlier, in the dawning of the mambo craze, Capitol had released a series of hot Latin dance discs by a group identified only as the "Rico Mambo Orchestra"; ultimately, Mr. "Rico Mambo" turned out to be none other than Mr. Billy May.

Nat Cole was a lifetime favorite of the late Sammy Cahn, who was crazy about his record of Cahn's "Teach Me Tonight," perhaps the most sensual reading ever of a tune that Dinah Washington brought into the blues songbook. Anchoring the whole thing with Chuck Gentry's booming baritone sax, May divides up the bridge in the instrumental interlude between piercing brass and slurping saxes, as if to insinuate that the two sections are slow-dancing together.           

In 1956, Cole recorded his first 12-inch vocal albums, After Midnight and Love Is The Thing (the latter, coincidentally, also his first session with Gordon Jenkins and his first stereo outing). A resounding, chart-topping success, Love Is The Thing reconfigured Cole's recording pattern for several seasons. While his main business continued to be making pop singles with Nelson Riddle, his usual musical director, Cole would next record Just One Of Those Things with the orchestrations of Billy May as his next original album.

However, a few months before recording began on Just One Of Those Things, Cole, May and Gillette participated in a highly, unusual session. Starting with the 1954 recording of "If I May" (humorously rnis-credited on several LPs and CDs to Billy May), Cole had released a well-received series of quasi-doowop singles. May stresses that Gillette continually pushed Cole to keep recording anything that sold; the double impetus for the date seems to be Cole's desire to record two rock-oriented tunes that came at him from two different directions. "With You On My Mind" had been one of several songs; Cole co-wrote with,his wife's Sister, Charlotte Hawkins; song plugger and old friend Marvin Cane brought "Send For Me" to Cole's attention. When his children liked it, Cole decided to cut the tune.

Cole and Gillette added to Cole's regular rhythm section (guitarist John Collins, bassist Charlie Harris) drummer Lee Young) ubiquitous studio musicians Al Hendrickson, here playing rock-heavy electric guitar, Paul Smith, thumping out repetitious "Great Pretender"- style piano parts and reigning R&B instrumental virtuoso Plas Johnson, who served as the West Coast's equivalent of Atlantic's King Curtis on tenor sax. Gillette also hired Herman McCoy, another studio freelancer who would also appear on Cole's TV show, to contract a doo-woppy vocal group.

For some reason no one can remember, they picked Billy May to write the charts and conduct the date. It was the only time Cole ever employed  May strictly as a utility arranger, making him work to pre-determined specifications without asking him to bring anything of his own personality to the job. They could have easily employed any of a number of slightly lesser talents and gotten the same results. Perhaps Cole wanted someone who he trusted and respected while moving into relatively uncharted territory. Though there wasn't much for May to do, the finished tracks were at least musically proficient and danceable.

Thanks partially to constant plugging on Cole's TV show, the only two tunes released from the date both did well. "With You On My Mind," in fact, charted at the number 30 level in Billboard. "Send For Me" did considerably better. When Capitol tacked it with "My Personal Possession" (the sequel to "If I May" with the same cast, namely Nelson Riddle and the Four Knights), the single made it to number six on the mainstream pop charts and number one on the R & B listings. When Cole performed "Send For Me" in his nightclub act, he sometimes added the comment, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!" A reviewer observed that at one swanky joint, "Send For Me" elicited "a stomping reception by mink clad and otherwise expensively clothed patrons."

Still, all concerned decided against releasing the other three selections, two obscurities, "Don't Try" and "Let's Make More Love," and one standard. Cole and May's sh'boom yerson of "Blue Moon" resembles the charts being ground out by old friend Pete Rugolo for the Platters, In the rock scheme of things, Cole's version comes between Elvis Presley's rather tame '56 recording and the Marcels' hyper-agitated 1961 novelty version.

Cole and Gillette encouraged May to create the bright and expressive orchestral textures that he did best. May remembers that when Gillette originally called him to start work on an album for Cole, he told him what some of the tunes would be even though the producer and the singer hadn't finalized the list of selections.

"They'd just give me three or four to start, and they'd still be picking  them," May recalls. "It took maybe two or three days to write them. Then, I’d do a date with Nat and we'd record them, and then at the end of the week, I'd go back to doing a television show or something. Then I'd have to do something else the next week, and then maybe some more songs would come in from Nat, and so on. So I never sat down and figured out the whole thing for the package. All I did was take down the tunes, the keys, and figure out the tempos — and away we  went."

Billy May is not one of your more maudlin chaps. It's hard to imagine him getting teary-eyed even when he talks about people that meant a great deal to Him. His memories of Nat King Cole are about as sentimental as I've ever heard him get.

"Nat was just a wonderful guy," May says. "He was also a talented and a very capable musician. He had a very open mind about music ... and everything. Nat was always a good musician and he never caused anybody any harm. He was a      wonderful man."

Nat King Cole The Bill May Sessions are available as a double CD set on Capitol Records [Capitol Jazz CDP 0777 7 89545 2 1]

-Sources Will Friedwald Jazz Singing (Collier Books), Barry Kernfeld, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Daniel Mark Epstein, Nat King Cole [Farrar Strauss and Giroux], and Leslie Gourse Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole [St. Martins Press].


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