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On The Corner Masthead

Nat King Cole In 5 Songs

August 8, 2018 | by Ross Eustis

Portrait of Nat King Cole, New York, N.Y., June 1947, by William P. Gottlieb

Called "the best friend a song ever had," jazz pianist and vocalist Nat "King" Cole is one of the greatest interpreters of the Great American Songbook. Throughout his 30-year career, Cole recorded well over 100 songs (many becoming pop hits), performed in films, television and on Broadway, and was one of the first African American hosts a TV series in the U.S. With an eye toward vocalist Gregory Porter's heartfelt tribute to Nat "King" Cole (who Porter calls his "surrogate father") on August 18 at Davies Symphony Hall in the closing weekend of SFJAZZ Summer Sessions 2018, we look at Cole's monumental legacy through five songs.

Note: We've intentionally left out Cole's work with his iconic and influential jazz trio, here focusing chiefly on his work as a vocalist, the focus of the August 18 tribute.

1. "Sweet Lorraine" (1940)

Recorded in 1940, "Sweet Lorraine" was Cole's first hit. The story goes that one night, while performing in a club, a drunk customer loudly requested that Cole sing. Not knowing the specific song requested, Cole instead sang "Sweet Lorraine," and so his vocal talent was "discovered." In Cole's own words: "I started out to become a jazz pianist; in the meantime I started singing and I sang the way I felt and that's just the way it came out."

2. "Mona Lisa" (1950)

Composed by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston for the 1950 film Captain Carey, U.S.A., Nat King Cole's performance of "Mona Lisa" won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, topped the Billboard singles chart for eight weeks, and was eventually inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame (1992). Cole repeatedly referenced "Mona Lisa" as one of his absolute favorite songs. A testament to the song's timelessness, Gregory Porter fittingly introduces his album Nat "King" Cole & Me with "Mona Lisa."

3. "It's A Good Day" (The Nat King Cole Show, 1956)

You could pick any song from Nat "King" Cole's TV variety show on NBC, which was one of the first ever hosted by an African American, which stirred much controversy. Despite high ratings, the show lasted just a year due to the lack of a national sponsor, even though many of Cole's colleagues and guests (including Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt and Tony Bennett) worked for little or no pay to help the show cut production costs.

4. "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" (1958)

"Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" (translated as "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps") is a classic ballad and hit written by Cuban songwriter Osvaldo Farrés in 1947. Cole traveled to Cuba in 1958, and subsequently recorded Cole Español (sung entirely in Spanish) and it's popularity in both Latin America and the U.S. sparked two followup albums in Spanish. "Quizas" is another song Gregory Porter selected for his Nat "King" Cole album.

5. "When I Fall in Love" (1964)

Cole's 1964 performance of the Doris Day hit "When I Fall in Love" on The Jack Benny Program would mark on of his final TV appearances and documented performances, before his untimely death from lung cancer the following year. The song's significance to Cole is perhaps best embodied in a posthumous "duet" in 1992 with his daughter Natalie Cole, who combined her vocals with Nat's 1956 recording, which won two GRAMMYs.