Frank Sinatra. Sam Cooke. Elvis. Ray Charles.
Nat King Cole.
As singer, legend, as representer, as song stylist, as musical influence, Nat King Cole, silvery-voiced, haunting and as the title of one of his biggest hit suggests, “Unforgettable” had every bit the hit-making virtuosity that his contemporaries did.
Cole, who passed away from lung cancer at age 46 in 1965, is less well remembered today, although he could be said to have had another top hit when his gifted daughter Natalie Cole resurrected his sound and image with a powerful, moving video “duet” of “Unforgettable”.
At the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Minnesota’s Penumbra Theatre Company brings its production of “I Wish You Love,” (the title of another of Cole’s numerous ballads and hits), a play which focuses on Cole at the height of his career when he was seen nation-wide in his own television musical show, and, not coincidentally, when the first stirrings of the civil rights movement were making themselves heard.
Lou Bellamy, the founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre, is directing the production, written by Dominic Taylor, and starring Dennis W. Spears as Cole, singing some twenty songs, a kind of musical hit parade.
“It’s not meant to be necessarily a one-man show recreating Cole’s music, although Spears does a wonderful job embodying Cole,” Bellamy said in an interview. “This play is about a moment in time, when the Ku Klux Klan made public statements threatening Cole, when Cole was one of the most popular musical performers in the country, with black and white audiences, but still had to deal with an atmosphere of racism. You have to remember, Cole was basically alone on television, in terms of that kind of musical show, so there was an enormous amount of pressure on him.”
Cole stretched boundaries and overcame barriers at least partly because his music was basically irresistible and omnipresent, much like Ray Charles, in the sense that their performances, songs and music was transcendent of race, as love songs and blues usually are.
“If you were growing up in the 1950s, or were young then, then you listened to Cole’s music,” Bellamy said. “Heck, it was something I could share with my daddy, who loved his songs. But as African Americans, we listened to the music and understood the pressures he faced. Racism wasn’t just a southern thing, it was everywhere.”
“The Nat King Cole Show” which made him famous debuted in 1956 as a 15-minute musical program (similar to other singers of the day like Patti Page), and expanded to half an hour a year later. His friends in the music industry appeared often on the show, making for a quite a roster of top talent—Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Frankie Laine, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt and Mel Torme among them.
Yet the show, while popular, lasted just under three years, lacking major advertising, according to Cole himself. Yet his recording star continued to shine brightly with such hits as “Lazy Hazy Days of Summer,” “Unforgettable,” “I Wish You Love” (also made popular by Keely Smith), “When I Fall In Love” (which he sang in an appearance on the Jack Benny show), “Mona Lisa,” “Nature Boy,” “”If I May,” “Smile” and “Pretend.”
Cole worked with some of the top arrangers in the business including Nelson Riddle (also Sinatra’s go-to guy) and while he did not record rock songs per se, he was nevertheless inducted into the Rock and Role Hall of Fame, and had a Grammy Lifetime Achievement, was a member of the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
His achievements were enduring and ground-breaking and voluminous: consider the fact that in 1991 Mosaic Records released “The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Trio,” which along included 349 songs.
“This play will I think satisfy Nat King Cole’s fans, in musical terms,” Bellamy said. “But I think it also places Nat King Cole, the musician, the performer and the man in the stream of history, a presence when all of our lives began to change.”
Bellamy founded Penumbra Theatre in 1976, as a company which specialized in plays by African American playwrights and with African American themes. August Wilson, the late Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (“Fences” “May Rainey’s Black Bottom” “The Piano Lesson”) was produced often by Bellamy and in fact, had one of his first plays staged there. “I Wish You Love” was produced with the assistance of the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays.