She said, "I never really got into him."
So I asked, "Why?"
And she said, "He sang for white folks. Not enough soul for me."
My homegirl, little Miss Funky Soul Sista, and I were talking about Nat "King" Cole. When she called me at home, I was chillin', and "Nature Boy," one of my favorite songs, blared in the background. After my hello, she had asked with much attitude, "What you listenin' to?"
"Nat wasn't a white singer," I said.
"I didn't say he was white," my friend retorted. "His music was."
When he strolled the Earth, the man and his artistry were misunderstood. And nearly 40 years after his death, much hasn't changed. Folks of my generation knew hardly anything about the legend until his daughter, pop star Natalie Cole, won a barrel full of Grammys for her 1991 multiplatinum tribute album, Unforgettable With Love. The title track was all over pop and urban radio at the time, the video a regular on VH1 and BET.
Sometimes, during Black History Month, it's mentioned that Nat was the first African-American with his own national TV show (back in '56). Around this time of the year, DJs dust off his beautiful take of "The Christmas Song." The singer's voice warms the air, thawing the ice on the coldest heart when he sings, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire / Jack Frost nipping at your nose ...
Still, Nat is often relegated to the background -- pleasant, unobtrusive aural wallpaper. But he was much more than that, much more complex. The new four-disc box set, Nat "King" Cole: The Classic Singles, reintroduces us to the man and his music: His mastery of nuance, style, phrasing and -- dare I say it? -- soul.
His oldest daughter, Carole, was executive producer of the project. Calling from her office in Los Angeles, she says, "I think first and foremost my father was a music lover. He didn't put any restrictions and parameters around himself. Doing the project, I realized that he was a far more ambitious artist than I realized."
The collection chronicles the singer-musician's hit-filled years with Capitol Records, from 1942 to 1965. (The company's famed tower in L.A. is often referred to as "the house that Nat built.") The set runs close to five hours and contains 101 tracks. The sound throughout is remarkably clear, and the accompanying booklet features striking color and black and white shots of Nat on stage, in the studio, at the piano.
"When he was home, if he wasn't at a baseball game," Carole says, "he was at the studio. In all his time there, he gave us a wonderful catalog of his work."
The fine points of Nat's music are often overshadowed by his image: a sophisticated, mild-mannered man with patent-leather hair, slacks and sweaters. The Alabama-born, Chicago-raised artist started his career in the late '30s as a jazz pianist, a celebrated one whose tricky, graceful style had been influenced by the great Earl Hines. But in the '40s when Nat concentrated more on singing than tickling the keys, he became a major pop star. Such blues-suffused numbers as "That Ain't Right" and "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" gave way to such lush string affairs as "Mona Lisa" and "Too Young."
The incredible success of those records boosted Nat's profile considerably. He toured the world, played in exclusive supper clubs and made mad loot. In '48, he moved his family into Hancock Park, a moneyed, all-white section of L.A. Of course, he wasn't welcomed. And the neighbors made sure he knew it by poisoning the family pet and scorching racial epithets into his manicured lawn. Nat played it cool, though. His process intact, his suit tailored and crisp, the man didn't get loud. He didn't go looking for his "piece," cussing and fuming along the way. No. Nat dismissed his haters, pimp-slapped them with a quiet-fire gaze and a dignified manner. He sang his songs, and women -- black and especially the white ones -- swooned over his hot-chocolate voice.
They didn't mess with Nat anymore.
Author Lynell George wrote the liner notes for the Classic Singles. "Beyond African American families, our circle, he had found a home in the world," she writes. "That ability to carve out a space -- fit the contours of whatever household, style, tempo, mood -- was Nat Cole's art ... Cole indeed advanced his career by skimming over the beat, not always meeting it head-on, but always aware of it, set in motion by it."