‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ Review: Unforgettable
All of America fell for his warm, close-grained baritone, but jazz aficionados swooned over his piano playing.
By Terry Teachout
Wall Street Journal Aug. 14, 2020 6:10 pm ET
“Walk into any Starbucks in America and listen to the canned music. If the first thing you hear is a standard from the ’30s or ’40s, it’s likely that the vocalist will be Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald or Nat King Cole, the three common denominators of pre-rock pop singing—and a trio of artists who have little in common beyond their posthumous ubiquity. Sinatra was a singer-actor, by turns breezy and despairing; Fitzgerald was the world’s kid sister, a bred-in-the-bone jazzer who sang with a smile on her face and in her voice. As for Cole, his warm, close-grained baritone was as persuasive on romantic ballads as it was on swing tunes. What set him apart from Sinatra and Fitzgerald, though, was the other rabbit in his musical hat: Cole was also one of the half-dozen finest pianists in the history of jazz, a peer of Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Bill Evans. Even after he disbanded the King Cole Trio, his hugely successful combo, to concentrate on stand-up singing in 1951, he continued to feature his playing in small but tasty doses on record, in concert and on TV.
Cole’s switch-hitting is all but unique. Save for Louis Armstrong, he is the only major jazz musician to have been equally distinguished and influential both as a singer and as an instrumentalist. Yet his youthful career as a pianist is no longer well remembered, and he is now mostly thought of as a pop singer, one of the most famous of the 20th century. In a time when much of the U.S. was still segregated, Cole’s appeal vaulted across racial lines, though racism was always an ugly, sometimes dangerous fact of his life. A cross was burned on his lawn when he and his family dared to move into an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles, and he was physically attacked by three members of the North Alabama Citizens Council while giving a concert in Birmingham in 1956—the same year in which he became the star of NBC’s “Nat King Cole Show,” among the first TV variety shows to feature a black host. Unable to sell commercials because of Cole’s race, NBC cancelled the program a year later. His tart response: “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
Johnny Miller, Cole and Oscar Moore in the 1940s.
PHOTO: NBCUNIVERSAL/GETTY IMAGES
STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT
By Will Friedwald
Oxford, 633 pages, $34.95
Such a man is self-evidently worthy of a full-scale primary-source biography, but while several books have been written about Cole, none has come close to filling the bill. Now, however, we have the book we need, Will Friedwald’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole.” Mr. Friedwald, who writes about music and popular culture for the Journal, is the author of several much-admired books about jazz and pop singers, and he has gone to endless trouble to pin down the facts about Cole’s life and work. While his prose occasionally runs to the slapdash, Mr. Friedwald knows everything there is to know about his subject and presents it in a readable fashion, and his biography will be the last word about Nat King Cole for many years to come.
The story told by Mr. Friedwald is emblematically American, but in a way with which most white Americans are unfamiliar. Nathaniel Adams Coles (he dropped the “s” from his last name when he became a bandleader) was born in 1919 in Montgomery, Ala., the second of four sons of a Baptist preacher who moved with his family to Chicago four years later, part of the Great Migration that brought 6 million blacks from the Deep South northward in search of a better, freer life. The Coles settled in Bronzeville, Chicago’s biggest black neighborhood, where young Nathaniel studied piano with their mother, a church organist, and in due course became a professional musician, as did all three of his brothers.
The classical training that Cole received from his mother served him well—his playing had a technical finish that impressed all who heard him—but it was his first encounter with Earl Hines that showed him the way to go. Hines’s “trumpet-style piano,” developed over the course of his association with Louis Armstrong, combined bright, ringing right-hand solo lines played in octaves with jagged left-hand accompanying patterns that broke free from the tick-tock regularity heard in the playing of such Harlem-based stride pianists as James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. To this, Cole added a feel for the blues that Hines lacked, plus a forward-looking harmonic vocabulary all his own. By the time he worked his way from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1937, the style that would make him a household name was already taking shape.
In 1947, he disbanded the trio and became a solo act. As a pop singer, Cole was Sinatra’s only male peer.
While Cole’s playing would have made an impression in any setting, it was the one he created for himself, a drummerless trio consisting of piano, electric guitar and double bass, that showed it off to the best possible advantage. Full-time jazz combos were rare in the ’30s—jazz and pop music would be dominated by big bands for another decade to come—and the King Cole Trio, as the group was billed, would have stood out for that reason alone. But the absence of a drummer gave the trio’s sound a feather-light texture that allowed Cole and Oscar Moore, his first and best guitarist, to toss musical ideas back and forth with carefree abandon, supported by nothing but the swinging bass lines of Wesley Prince and, later, Johnny Miller.
All that was missing was the element of contrast that Cole supplied when he started singing with the group. He described his decision to do so as an “accident,” explaining in 1945 that “a trio is so limited by lack of instruments that I sort of had to sing to add to the group. All of a sudden, people decided that they liked my voice.” That they did, though a few more years went by before he matured into the matchless balladeer who recorded such hits as “For Sentimental Reasons” and “What’ll I Do?” Nevertheless, industry insiders noticed the King Cole Trio early on, and one of them, Johnny Mercer, signed the group to a contract with Capitol, the record label headed by Mercer himself that soon emerged as a powerful force in pop music.
Cole’s first record for Capitol, his own “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” was a delightful novelty based on a black folk legend that the pianist’s father had once used in a sermon. Sung by the 24-year-old Cole with easy charm, it became an overnight sensation, putting the King Cole Trio on the road to stardom. In addition to recording prolifically, the trio made frequent guest shots on radio, ultimately appearing on its own weekly series. Though its hit records were all vocal sides, Cole, Moore and Miller also cut numerous instrumental numbers of the utmost brilliance, ranging from an exquisite “Body and Soul” to a version of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” in which Cole’s chiseled playing reflects the influence of Hines while adding modern touches of his own.
By 1947, the year in which Moore left the group, the King Cole Trio was one of the most polished acts in pop music. To Cole, that meant it was time for a change, one that had been foreshadowed the previous year when the trio recorded Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” (that’s the one about chestnuts). The producer added four violins and a harp to the regular lineup, the first time Cole had sung with string backing, and the results led both Cole and his colleagues at Capitol to start thinking of him not as a singer-pianist but as a stand-up vocalist who played piano on the side. Cole’s second wife, Maria Ellington (no relation to Duke), agreed. Born into Boston’s notoriously snooty black bourgeoisie, she was determined to put a coat of upper-middle-class lacquer on her husband, who still spoke and sang with a touch of the Southern accent he had acquired from his parents. Not only was the Los Angeles house to which she and Cole moved the family featured on Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person,” but she pushed Cole to fire his expensive sidemen and turn the group from the “King Cole Trio” into “Nat King Cole and His Trio,” persuading him that it was his singing that was the draw.
While jazz fans regretted the new direction in which Cole was moving, he saw it as a way of staying fresh: “You need to do it for you—to keep growing. You also need to do it for the public.” True or not, he became one of the best-loved pop singers of his generation, Sinatra’s only male peer. He sang with a slight but striking touch of gravel that came from the cigarettes he chain-smoked, and his wide-open pronunciation of vowels like “i” and “o” was a trademark so familiar that Sammy Davis, Jr., wittily exaggerated it in his uncanny impression of Cole.
His jazz roots never quite disappeared, especially when he recorded hard-charging swingers with arrangers like Billy May, one of Sinatra’s regular collaborators. (“Do you want to know the difference between Frank and me?” Cole said with a smile. “The band swings Frank. I swing the band.”) But it was his balladry, at once intimate and direct, that made him beloved. Perhaps the most beautiful of all his ballad recordings is the version of “Stardust” that he taped in 1956 and sang on his TV show a year later. It opens with an out-of-tempo reading of the verse that Cole sings with tiptoe delicacy, after which he slips almost imperceptibly into a very slow tempo for the chorus. Each phrase is laid out like diamonds on black velvet, each note is sung with dead-center intonation and each syllable comes through with deep-etched clarity. No one, not even Sinatra, has ever sung “Stardust,” or any other song, better than that.
The cigarettes that contributed to the distinctive timbre of Cole’s voice would bring his life to an untimely end. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in December of 1964, two days before his last recording session, and died the following February at the age of 45. Yet his passing did nothing to diminish his fame: Nearly all of Cole’s records remain in print, and more and more listeners are discovering that he was as great a pianist as he was a singer. That miraculous versatility was one of the secrets of his greatness. As Mr. Friedwald puts it in “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “He could do almost anything that any other artist could do, but no one else could do what he did.”
—Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, is the author of “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong” and “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington.” Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.