I WANT A SMILE FOR CHRISTMAS / COLE-FINCKLE: I Want a Smile for Christmas. PIERPONT: Jingle Bells. BERLIN: White Christmas. HAYES-JOHNSON: Blue Christmas. STOCK-BRYAN: A Cradle in Bethlehem. PARKER: Jack Frost Snow. Jingles, the Christmas Cat. Old Days, Old Times, Old Friends. REDNER-BROOKS: O Little Town of Bethlehem. TORMÉ-WELLS: The Christmas Song. GRUBER: Silent Night / Freddy Cole, pn/voc; Joe Ford, sop-sax; Joe Locke, vib; Larry Willis, pn; Jerry Byrd, gt; Tom Hubbard, bs; Steve Berries, dm/perc. / Fantasy FCD-9672-2
Nat “King” Cole was not quite 46 years old when he died of lung cancer in February 1965. I was so traumatized by his death, though only 14 at the time, that I could hardly accept it. I walked around in a daze for nearly two weeks, saddened beyond words by the loss of this beautiful man with the warm, burry voice and such exceptional piano skills that even masters like Bud Powell and Art Tatum learned a few things from him. And when I went to the movie theater that July to see Cat Ballou, I almost lost it when a bigger-than-life Nat Cole jumped up before me onscreen with Stubby Kaye to sing “The Ballad of Cat Ballou.” It was as if he had never died; there he was, smiling and singing, looking as well as ever.
Well, I experienced deja-vu as soon as I started listening to this album. I must have been living under a rock for the last half-century, because I swear to you, I never knew that Nat had a kid brother who sounded just like him. Did you? Lionel Frederick “Freddy” Cole, born in 1931, was 12 years younger than Nat and did not make his first recordings until 1954, but even so, where has he been all these years? Apparently on Fantasy Records, since this is one of six albums by him on that label, as well as Warner Jazz, which has at least three of them in their catalog.
Freddy’s voice has the same slightly burry, velvety warmth as his brother’s. He also plays piano, and very well, too, though his style is not as innovative as Nat’s. But the wonderful thing about Freddy, and this album, is its laid-back jazz feel that permeates throughout. Unlike his brother’s Christmas album, which was filled with manymore traditional songs (Deck the Halls, I Saw Three Ships, Adeste Fidelis, O Tannenbaum, The First Noel, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Hole Night, Joy to the World, etc.), Freddy gives us only five. The rest of the album is made up of more contemporary material, from Elvis Presley’s hit Blue Christmas to several songs probably new to most listeners. But his personal warmth and gently swinging piano permeate throughout.
Judging from this disc, made in 1994 when he was 63 years old, Freddy’s voice is slightly huskier than Nat’s, but so close in timbre that you’d be easily fooled—or easily fool someone else into thinking this record was by Nat. And maybe that was his problem in gaining traction as his own person all these years. Many female jazz singers, from Marilyn Moore to Madeleine Peyroux, have been knocked by critics for imitating Billie Holiday (although Moore always insisted that she wasn’t consciously trying to do so), so what room is there for Freddy in a world in which Nat’s recordings still sell almost as well as when he was alive? Mind you, I’m not trying to be mean-spirited or sarcastic, but you have to realize that this is how marketers will look at it. Freddy is quite talented but he’s not unique. He sounds a lot like Nat. And that is that.
Still, if you’re looking for something hip but a little different this Christmas season, I recommend that you give ole Freddy a spin. You can’t beat this style of jazz, particularly if you are a Nat Cole lover. It’s just so ingratiating that you feel as if you are transported to another world. By the way, he’s still with us at age 85, Lord bless him. So give Freddy a smile this Christmas; listening to him sing and swing, it’s not going to be hard to do.
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley