My Crooner Chronicles journey recently took me into Nat ‘King’ Cole territory (courtesy of a request from a friend).
It was a real pleasure to have a go at performing the much-loved classic “Unforgettable“. I hope I’ve done it some justice.
Like so many numbers Nat Cole turned his prodigious vocal talents to, his version of this song is so definitive. He was one of a handful of vocalists to be blessed with not just a glorious, distinctive voice – but great musicality (he was a damned fine jazz pianist) and a real sense of empathy for the songs he performed. He lets the beauty of the song shine through, rather than just make it a vehicle for his talents.
I already knew a fair amount about the great man’s musical career – his progression from jazz artist, through to being a pop music “megastar” with his own prime-time TV show. However, I was interested to try and discover a bit more about the challenges the man himself would have faced. After all, here was an African-American whose music transcended the barriers of a US music scene that had distinct back-white divides. He would have toured the South in the 40s, 50s and 60s and experienced the indignities of racism first hand. So, what racism did he experience – and how did he deal with it?
The answer is a complex one. There are documented examples of appalling racism. When he moved into a smart LA neighbourhood in the 40s a burning cross was placed on his lawn. He was unable to stay at some hotels when touring because of the colour of his skin. In 1956, he was attacked on stage in Birmingham, Alabama. However, he seemed willing to tolerate much of this – at least in his public persona. He did quietly contribute money to civil rights causes in the background – but continued performing to segregated, whites-only audiences. This did lead to some accusing him of being an “Uncle Tom”. By the 1960s, perhaps stung by these criticisms and probably having reached his limits of tolerance for bigotry and racism, he had joined the NAACP, boycotted segregated venues and became visibly active in civil rights campaigns.
Nat ‘King’ Cole died in 1965. His heavy smoking habit caught up with him and cancer took him at the all too young age of 45.
He truly was one of the all-time great music artists. His great performances of songs such as “Mona Lisa”, “When I Fall in Love” and “Unforgettable” rank among the finest popular music ever made. I would recommend to any music lover they dig deeper into his back catalogue and explore aspects such as his jazz trio work.
Thank you Mr Cole. You truly are “Unforgettable”.