The Soulful Smoothness of Nat King Cole

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Nat King Cole at 100 at the Kennedy Center through Oct. 18.

Nat King Cole would have been 100 years old March 17.

He died from lung cancer on Feb. 15, 1965.

He was born Nathaniel Adams Coles on March 17, 1919, in Montgomery, Alabama, the son of Perlina Coles, a church organist, and Edward Coles, who became a Baptist minister. He had three brothers and a half sister. When his family moved to Chicago when he was four years ago, he learned to play the organ. His first performance was a rendition of “Yes! We Have No Bananas, ”when he was still only four.

These are some bare beginning notes on the life of the man who became Nat King Cole, an American master music man, and one of a kind, who was, as one of his most popular songs goes, “Unforgettable.”

A standard biography describes him as an American jazz pianist and vocalist.  Which he was, except that he was so much more. Even decades after his death, his videos and renditions online garners hits past one million. Go there: there’s reasons why.

It’s also why the Kennedy Center has staged a three-day (Saturday, Oct. 18 is the last performance) celebration of the life and works, style and singularity of NKC — “Nat King Cole at 100” at the center’s Concert Hall.

A National Symphony Orchestra Pops presentation with conductor Michael Butterman leading the way, the concert brings together a group of performers and vocalists who have some unforgettable themselves, including Patti Austin, Eric Benet, the surviving Cole brother, Freddy Cole, Dule Hill, Jared Grimes, Ryan Shawm and gospel and pop star BeBe Winans, under the musical direction  of Grammy Award-winning drummer, composer and band leader Terri Lyne Carrington.

Swimming and starring and singing and performing in a show business world of jazz, pop, gospel, balladeering, television, musical theater, nightclubs and film, Cole rose to permanent memory during a timespan where race was, in many ways for African American performers and their varied audience, a tough, rending time full of drama and danger.

Cole’s career— if you can count his four-year-old debut— spanned the high and low water marks of Jim Crow in the South and significant parts of America. It saw black artists make inroads of spectacular success in many arenas, especially jazz and pop, and recordings.

Cole in the end would become the first black star of a regular nightly national television show, where his singing, style and song and persona made their way into the national mainstream memory.  Impeccably dressed, smooth in gait, he sang romantic classic songs in a way that were, years later, still stuck in the minds of collective audiences. Many people—Frank Sinatra, high among them—have performed and sung the songs, but Cole’s voice and rendition remains his.

If you’re not 12, you’ll get instant flashes from some samplings, many of which swing with love:  “Just One of Those Things,” “Love Is the Thing,” “When I Fall in Love,” “The Very Thought of You,” “Wild Is the Love,” “Mona Lisa,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Smile,” “L-O-V-E” and “Smile.” Cole also found time to make into movies like “Cat Ballou” and “The Blue Gardenia.”

In the end, it was always the songs, millions of records sold, albums and always the man in person — or, at least on video, with his gifted and late daughter Natalie Cole.

He came out of the unique world of jazz — rueful, romantic pop, full of nighttime cigarette smoke — and from that rich tapestry of popular American music that also includes blues and gospel.

That’s where BeBe Winans comes from, the gospel world where he is a major star and vocalist, along and part of the larger Winans family that includes his sister CeCe, his brothers and a much larger family of fans.

Among online treasure troves is a video of BeBe singing with his brothers, all duded out in suits, making a remarkable portrait of coolness and style, something Cole had too, but in a different way.

“I guess in that picture, sure, I AM a cool dude,” Winans says over the phone, laughing.

“Being able to be part of this, I’m just honored,” he says.  “Cole, man, you have to talk about voices, and that voice, in particular. There’s a smoothness there, a style. It’s really unique, and he was really unique. I can’t think of anybody, maybe Donnie Hathaway. But really, his voice and style, that was unique. It had soul.”

Winans has that easy energy about him. He’s smooth, beguiling and kinetic — as in “He Promised Me,” “When I Found You”  or “Lost Without You” — singing alone or with siblings, especially with his sister. His music comes from somewhere, too, the same source that Aretha Franklin’s or Marvin Gaye’s came from. It is a sometimes rousing, emotional music that invites or demands embrace.

Nat King Cole is just as universal. The heart’s longing, the soul, becomes not exactly soul music but a soul’s exposure. Watch Cole’s version of “When I Fall In Love,” a pop classic. In his clean rendering, you can see a heartbeat and a heart beat. Gospel has similar effect. “We all come from somewhere,” Winans says.  “Gospel is about the meaning of hope, of peace and of love. We all need to be reminded of that.”

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