Nat Cole ranks with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra as one of great names among American pop singers--though many admirers of his early, jazz-minded works dismiss most of the hits for which Cole is best remembered today.
In his book, "The Great American Pop Singers," critic Henry Pleasants agrees that Cole--who first gained attention as a pianist--lost some of his artistic focus by moving in the '50s and '60s to a more conventional pop framework. Still, Pleasants finds much of value in Cole's pop ventures.
"Even as a pop singer, (Cole) was an original. No one had ever sung quite like that before," he writes. That view is supported by the best moments of Capitol Records' new "Nat King Cole," a 20-song compact disc that will be released this week to mark the 25th anniversary Thursday of the singer's death.
The selections on the album range from the early, critically admired hipster spunk of 1944's "Straighten Up and Fly Right" through Cole's remarkable string of 1946 hits with the Nat Cole Trio ("Route 66," "I Love You for Sentimental Reasons" and "The Christmas Song") and on to the more pop-oriented '50s ballads ("Mona Lisa," "Too Young," "Pretend").
In his final decade, Cole, who died of lung cancer in 1965, registered hits in various styles--from the R&B punch of "Send for Me" to the county underpinnings of "Ramblin' Rose." The first thing that hooks you about his style is the precise enunciation. Where so many vocalists in the rock era express character by an aggressive blending or slurring of words, Cole sang each word with a deliberateness that made the words seem part of a conversation rather than formal lyrics.
Once dubbed "a singer of intimate conversations," Cole achieved his character by the nuances in his phrasing, the way he would caress certain words or cling briefly to others for extra emphasis.
Even if the material and arrangements were sometimes corny near the end of his career, there was a dignity in the vocals themselves that gave even the worst concepts a touch of authority and class. Beyond the debate of jazz vs. pop, an intimate trio backing and a lush orchestral support, one thing remains indisputable: Cole was a magnificent vocal stylist.