Early Nat Cole, “Hittin’ the Ramp”

cover

HITTIN’ THE RAMP / N. COLE: Honey Hush (3 tks). Stompin’ at the Panama. Bedtime (Sleepy Moan). Thunder / Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers: Kenneth Roane, tpt; Tommy Thompson, a-sax; Bill Wright, t-sax; Nat Cole, pno; Eddie Cole, bs/voc; Jimmy Adams, dm

MERCER: Mutiny in the Nursery. ROME: F.D.R. Jones. SNYDER-WHEELER-SMITH: The Sheik of Araby. J. STRAUSS II: The Blue Danube. BOLAND-REICHNER: Button, Button. PIERPONT: Jingle Bells. FOSTER: Swanee River. WARREN-DUBIN: With Plenty of Money and You. McHUGH-FIELDS: Don’t Blame Me. SAMPSON-HIRSCH-PROFIT-GOODMAN: Dark Rapture. WARREN-LESLIE: By the River St. Marie (3 tks). JACOBS-OPPENHEIM-PALMER: The Wiggly Walk. Flea Hop. DeLULLI: Chopsticks. WALLER-RAZAF-JOHNSON: Patty Cake, Patty Cake. BERLIN: Blue Skies. G. & I. GERSHWIN-KAHN: Liza. TRAD.: Three Blind Mice. TIZOL-ELLINGTON-MILLS: Caravan. M. WALKER: There’s No Anesthetic for Love. GRIFFIN-CALLENDER: Dixie Jamboree. JOHNSON-BOURNE: Ta-De-Ah. The Land of Make-Believe.1 N. COLE: Riffin’ at the Bar-B-Q. Riffin’ in F Minor. I Like to Riff (3 tks). Fallin’ In and Out of Love. Early Morning Blues (3 tks). Bedtime. Honey Hush. Love is My Alibi. This Side Up (2 tks). Jumpin’ With the Mop. The Romany Room is Jumpin’ (3 tks). Call the Police. That Ain’t Right. LAKE: Harlem Swing.1 KAUFMAN-COLE: I Lost Control of Myself.1 SLOAN: That Please-Be-Mineable Feeling. NORRIS: Dancing in the Street.2 LESLIE: You’re So Different.2 BRYANT-COLE: I Wouldn’t Have Known It.2 ARONS: Let’s Get Happy. SHAVRS-ROBIN: Undecided. OLIVER-YOUNG: ‘Tain’t What’cha Do. VAN HEUSEN-BRYANY-SELSMAN: Do You Wanna Jump, Children? CAHN-CHAPLIN: Ol’ Man Mose Ain’t Dead. SAMPSON-MILLS: Blue Lou. SIMONS-GILLESPIE-WHITING: Honey. BERLIN: Russian Lullaby. UNKNOWN: Georgie Porgie. The Limp. MALNECK-LOESSER: Snug as a Bug in a Rug. Fidgety Joe. LISZT: Liebestraum. GILBERT-MEROFF-POLLACK: Two Against One. BIONDI-LOESSER-KRUPA: Some Like it Hot. KAHN-MEYER-CAESAR: Crazy Rhythm.3 HUDSON-DeLANGE-MILLS: Moonglow.3 MONACO-BURKE: Don’t Let That Moon Get Away.3 DONALDSON-WHITING: My Blue Heaven. G. & I. GERSHWIN: I Was Doing All Right. DUKE-I. GERSHWIN: I Can’t Get Started.3 CARMICHAEL: Old Man Moon.3 BLAND: Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.3 COSLOW-JOHNSTON: Moon Song. WARFIELD-WILLIAMS: Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home. BURWELL-PARISH: Sweet Lorraine (4 tks). HINES-WOODE: Rosetta. ROBERTS-ROMERO: Trompin’. UNKNOWN: You’re My Life. Hoy Soy. Music’ll Chase Your Blues Away. I’ll Gather Up My Memories. A Fool’s Affair. I Knew a Time. Mine You’ll Always Be. Doin’ the Bow Wow. Lilla Mae. Slew Foot Joe. Crazy ‘Bout Rhythm. Off the Beam. King Cole Blues. Jivin’ With the Notes. French Toast. Vine Street Jump. B Flat. You Send Me. Pogo Stick Bounce. Jam Man. Fudge Wudge. Smokey Joe. Windy City Boogie Woogie. Ode to a Wild Clam. Love Me Sooner.4 ROBERTS: Jump, Jack, Jump.   COLE-MOORE: Black Spider Stomp (3 tks). McHUGH-FIELDS: On the Sunny Side of the Street. GABLER-JENKINS: 1-2-3-4. APOLLO: I’m a Perfect Fool Over You. HAL HAMPTON: Never Mind, Baby. HEATH-LeROUX: Lovely Little Person.4 WATERS: Goin’ to Town With Honey. DeCOLA: Syncopated Lullaby. HUNT-GREEN; Jumpy Jitters. L. MORGAN: Nothing Ever Happens. LAWRENCE: Sentimental Blue.4 T. GEORGE: What’cha Doin’ to My Heart? DRAMIN-PRINCE-COLE: Gone With the Draft (6 tks). YOUNG: What’cha Know, Joe? (2 tks). WALLER-RAZAF: Honeysuckle Rose. HAMMOND-MOORE: Let’s Try Again. RILEY: Scotchin’ With the Soda (4 tks). HAMMOND-MOORE: Let’s Try Again.5 CARMICHAEL-ARODIN: Lazy River.5 CARMICHAEL-GORRELL: Georgia on My Mind.5 CARMICHAEL: Rockin’ Chair.5 YAW-WATERS: A Little Jive is Good For You.5 FISCHER-CAREY: You’ve Changed.5 AHLERT-YOUNG: Babs. EVANS: Slow Down. HIGGINBOTHAM: This Will Make You Laugh. J. MILLER: Stop! The Red Light’s On. COLE-MOORE: Hit the Ramp. COLE-SIGMAN: Are You Fer It? ALSTON-HALBERT: Hit That Jive, Jack (2 tks). / King Cole Trio: Nat Cole, pno/voc; Oscar Moore, gtr/voc; Wesley Prince, bs/voc; add Johnny Moore, gtr on a few tracks. 1Bonnie Lake, 2Juanelda Carter, 3Pauline and her Perils (Six Hits and a Miss), 4Maxine Johnson, 5Anita Boyer, voc.

HANLEY-MacDONALD: Indiana. DUKE-I. GERSHWIN: I Can’t Get Started. YOUMANS-CAESAR: Tea for Two. GREEN-HEYMAN-SOUR: Body and Soul / Nat Cole, pno; Lester Young, t-sax; Red Callendeer, bs.

SCHERMAN-JAXON: Vom, Vim, Veedle. SCHERMAN: All for You / Cole, pno/voc; Moore, gtr/voc; Callender, bs/voc.

PALMER-WILLIAMS: I’ve Found a New Baby. HINES-WOODE: Rosetta. BURWELL-PARISH: Sweet Lorraine. EDISON: I Blowed and Gone / Harry “Sweets” Edison, tpt; Dexter Gordon, t-sax; Cole, pno; Callender or Johnny Miller, bs; Clifford “Juicy” Owens, dm.

ALSTON-TALBERT: Hit That Jive, Jack! WELDON-RAZAF: I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town. NEMO-EBBINS: Hip Hip Hooray. YOUMANS-CALDWELL: I Know That You Know (3 tks). O. RENÉ: Let’s Spring One. I’m Lost. MOORE-COLE:L Beautiful Moons Ago (2 tks). N. COLE: Pitchin’ Up a Boogie. I’m an Errand Boy for Rhythm. F.S.T. (Fine, Sweet and Tasty). WALLER-RAZAF: Honeysuckle Rose (2 tks). JACKSON-PRINCE: Slender, Tender and Tall. RAYE-DePAUL-PRINCE: Solid Potato Salad (3 tks). COLE-MILLS: Straighten Up and Fly Right (3 tks). SCHERMAN-SIEGEL-MAY: My Lips Remember Your Kisses (3 tks). SCHERMAN-MAY: Got a Penny. SCHERMAN: Let’s Pretend / Nat Cole Trio: Cole, pno/voc; Oscar Moore, gtr/voc; Johnny Miller, bs/voc.

Resonance Records HCD-2042

WP 2019 - 2Earlier this year, I reviewed Resonance Records’ 3-CD issue of rare Eric Dolphy recordings, and while I gave them great praise for the quality of their remastering and the fact that they unearthed some alternate takes not previously known, I did point out that although the stereo masters no longer existed, the stereo recordings still do and thus, master tapes or not, the stereo takes should have been issued.

In this set, Resonance has done a mind-boggling job of collecting all of Nat Cole’s known existing recordings from 1936 to 1943, excluding his early Capitol masters. But it’s not ALL of Cole’s recordings from that period. Missing are seven sides recorded for RCA Victor on May 10 and July 17, 1940 with Lionel Hampton (and Goodman vocalist Helen Forrest on two tracks):

RCA labelsMay 10:
House of Morgan
I’d Be Lost Without You (voc: Helen Forrest)
Central Avenue Breakdown
Jack the Bellboy

July 17:
Jivin’ With Jarvis
Blue (Because of You)
(I Don’t Stand a) Ghost of a Chance (voc: Helen Forrest)

While it’s true that these recordings are not the “pure” King Cole Trio because a drummer is used (Hampton on Jack the Bellboy, Al Spieldock on the others), they were major-label releases that got Cole a lot of attention in circles that had not yet heard of him, and in my view should have been included. After all, they did include two live performances of The Romany Room is Jumpin’ with Spieldock on drums, and the trio’s second Decca date also had Spieldock—possibly at Jack Kapp’s insistence, trying to make this drummerless trio more commercial.

Other than that, however, this set, along with the LaserLight set of airchecks from 1943 to 1948 (mostly from the C.P. MacGregor Transcription Service), will give you about as much of the King Cole Trio as you’re likely to want to own in a lifetime. I’m not even sure that the Capitol recordings are all that necessary unless you really love Nature Boy and The Christmas Song and want to hear Cole’s transformation from jazz pianist-singer within his own trio to pop ballad artist.

These transfers are pretty good. Resonance has managed to remove most of the surface noise (a little left in on some tracks where further removal would have damaged the musical quality) and use the correct width styli to play these incorrigible old records and broadcast acetates to elicit the very fullest sound. On the downside, they did not compensate for the dullness inflicted on Cole and the trio by the limited sound of the old records by boosting treble, and in certain recordings they left too much surface noise in. By the time you reach the November 1943 Premier series, the surface noise and fuzziness/distortion are hard to take. Yet as for the performances, they’re marvelous. Did Nat Cole ever make a bad record? I’ve yet to hear it.

Despite the presence of about a dozen tracks with blah female vocalists, one or two of them pretty bad (particularly one Juanelda Carter), the focus here is on the jazz and entertainment aspects of Cole’s career. It has always been irksome that, from its earliest days, jazz latched on to popular music forms—rags, waltzes, marches etc.—because it gave classical snobs the chance to dismiss it as just “noisy popular music,” and at least up through the mid-1960s jazz was still somewhat tentatively tied to pop songs. I’ve always referred to jazz as “the casual art” because of this. Jazz is the guy at your square masquerade party who just doesn’t quite fit in; his costume is just a little too outré and his manner of speaking rather too glib on the hip talk, yet he looks pretty much like everyone else.

In later years, Nat liked to say that he really hated singing in the beginning but the club owners insisted on it because the patrons liked his voice, which he didn’t think much of. If that’s true, then he must have started singing on his second or third gig, because he almost never stops singing through most of these selections. Interestingly, in the early years, all three trio members sang, often together, either in unison or in harmony, and I really liked the effect.

original trio, March 1941

The original trio in March 1941: Wesley Prince, Cole and Oscar Moore (without his more familiar mustache)

Countless ink has been spilled trying to define Nat Cole’s piano style, and the liner notes to this set don’t even try. Perhaps that was the wisest decision. In an era (the 1930s) when all the best pianists were pretty much trying to play Distilled Earl Hines or Distilled Art Tatum (save Fats Waller and Willie “The Lion” Smith, who came out of James P. Johnson’s stride school), Nat found his own way of doing so. He simplified the left hand, as did Teddy Wilson,  often just using it to feed chords to himself but occasionally playing “running” bass lines, while the right hand was nearly as busy as his models—with a difference. Whereas Hines often played angular lines and used octave doubling to produce what he called his “trumpet”-styled piano, and Tatum was changing both rhythm and key every two beats to the bar, Cole only used octave doubling on rare occasions and pulled back on the harmonic changes, throwing them in as a show of surprise or humor. By doing so, the average listeners was able to follow him more easily than they could Hines or Tatum, and Cole did not flatten out his dynamics to produce single-volume-level choruses as Teddy Wilson did. Benny Goodman liked Wilson’s playing because he could hear all the little things that the pianist put into his solos, but they were often too subtle for the average listener to pick up. Cole’s more dramatic form of playing brought the Hines-Tatum style (Tatum, after all, came out of Hines and always listened to the older pianist) to great popularity, but for some reason only after Johnny Mercer signed the trio to his Capitol label in 1943 and pushed them heavily to make them stars.

But Good Lord, the sheer volume of recordings presented here—most of them radio transcription discs, but also commercial releases, a few on the Decca and Mercury labels but more often on small labels with limited distribution (Ammor, Philo and Excelsior)—shows that he must have been the Energizer Bunny of “failed” jazz stars. He just kept plugging away, wrote a ton of goofy riff tunes himself, jazzed up the classics now and then (Liebestraum and The Blue Danube on this set), and just played and sang, sang and David and Schweiger labelplayed his heart out. Yet he still struggled. In 1940, the Trio had a steady gig at the Radio Room, a tiny club at 1539 Vine Street in Hollywood, and it was there that they polished their act and made some headway, being signed briefly by Decca. One of the labels they recorded for, Davis & Schwegler, was a corrupt fly-by-night company that went bankrupt, leaving the recordings unreleased and the trio unpaid. Nat sued and, according to one report online, was eventually awarded $7.47 for a full day’s work. It’s more than a little ironic that one of the supposed reasons for his failure to catch on was the fact that his group had no drummer, because from 1945 onward several jazz pianists, Tatum and Oscar Peterson among them, adopted his format for themselves and had great success with it.

There’s a further irony in the fact that I don’t know of a single jazz pianist in any style or even the most casual jazz fan who doesn’t like Nat Cole’s piano style. Not one. And that’s pretty rare in a business as cutthroat as the jazz world, where performers are always pumping up their resumes to make themselves more attractive to the bigger and better-paying venues, especially nowadays when they seem to be shriveling up and dying. Perhaps the most openly worshipful of his followers was the late Ray Charles, who by his own admission “slept, ate and drank Nat King Cole 24 hours a day,” though he eventually realized that he didn’t really have Nat’s chops and would rather be himself than a Nat Cole clone anyway, but there were and are many others. As a young girl watching Nat on his 1957 TV show (I was only six at the time), I liked his singing but really loved the few times he sat down at the piano and played. Not knowing anything really about music at the time, I just instinctively felt that this was how jazz piano should sound. I cried like a baby when Nat died of cancer in February of 1965. Eventually I came to grips with his death, but I still love and admire him.

post-1941 trio with Miller on bass

The post-1941 trio with Johnny Miller on bass (and Oscar now with his mustache).

Following the chronology in this set, original bassist Wesley Prince disappeared after the October 1941 session. The next batches of records were all-star dates set up by Norman Granz on which Red Callender played bass; then, in the December 16, 1942 session, Prince was replaced by Johnny Miller. The trade-off was not a major one. Both were fine bassists if not on the level of John Kirby or especially Jimmy Blanton. The real loss to the King Cole Trio came when guitarist Oscar Moore left in the summer of 1947. I can understand why Prince left in 1941; after four years of knocking his brains out and still struggling, he probably figured he could make more money elsewhere. He did fairly well, leading his own group in clubs and on records. But Oscar Moore was something special, and musicians knew it. Although in some respects he was the first “soft” guitarist in jazz, not playing as aggressively as Dick McDonough, Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt, he absorbed all of them, and he almost had to soften his approach to fit in with Cole’s drummerless group. But just listen to his playing on these and other tracks. To quote the booklet:

Oscar’s early work with the Trio demonstrated an array of influences. Following [Eddie] Lang’s lead, he absorbed the “chord melody” approach pioneered in the early 1930s…using small but well-voiced note combinations rather than single-note melodic lines. He also exhibited a familiarity with the playing of Paris-based Gypsy Django Reinhardt…Underpinning this, Oscar infused a unique blues sensibility that revealed his regional roots. The last major influence came late. Another Southwest swinger named Charlie Christian arrived in town in August 1939 and had an immediate impact on the established guitarist—one which Moore himself openly acknowledged. By the Standard Transcription sessions of May 1940, he had acquired and all-but-mastered a second-hand Gibson electric guitar. It was this final, crucial element that helped Oscar Moore hone his groundbreaking style, one that provided a template for how the guitar functioned in a modern jazz setting. For the first half of the 1940s, particularly after the death of his latter-day hero Christian in early 1942, Moore was the guitarist to listen to as the swing era neared its popular end.

In 1946, after two years of placing second, Moore won the Esquire All-American Jazz vote as the best guitarist in America. He was flying high, along with the Trio. So why did he quit?

Apparently, it was because he was experiencing several problems at once: health and the strain of one-night stands. Moore quit because he became sick, mentally and physically, from being on the road. He joined his brother Johnny’s Three Blazers in the early 1950s, recorded two solo albums in 1954, and then left music. He and Cole reunited for one date in 1959, but that was an anomaly. Except for a tribute album to his former partner after Cole’s death in 1965, Oscar Moore spent the rest of his life as a bricklayer and proprietor of a gas station, and died in 1981. What a loss to music! Just listen to the 1938 performance of Liza, in which Moore follows Cole down the rabbit hole of sequential descending chromatics in the introduction, then plays a break and a solo chorus quite evidently modeled on Django. It was just these kind of little touches that eventually won Moore his jazz poll awards. Why on earth didn’t he teach? I can imagine a line going around the block of guitar students who would want to learn from Oscar Moore.

But then listen to Cole’s solo on this same recording and you’ll know why he was so highly prized. He could take the fastest runs of Tatum and play them nearly as fast, but somehow manage to straighten out the wild harmonic shifts just enough to make sense to a general audience while still dazzling and delighting casual jazz listeners. Interestingly, when Moore quit the trio, so did bassist Johnny Miller. Their replacements were Irving Ashby and Joe Comfort. Ashby was a good guitarist but not anywhere near Moore’s level. By March of 1949, Nat added Jack Costanzo on bongos to make the Trio a Quartet, though they were still billed as the King Cole Trio.

My personal feeling is that, once Moore left the group, Cole realized that the Trio’s effectiveness as a unit was over. He would never be able to have the kind of kinetic interplay with other guitarists that he had with Moore, thus he added bongos for a while to add interest, but by the end of 1950 the Trio was disbanded, never to re-form again except for a recording session in 1956 (After Hours).

Several of the other recordings are, I admit, a bit overloaded with jive ensemble vocals, leaving only little windows of opportunity for Moore and/or Cole to sneak a few licks in (Three Blind Mice is one among many), and in the first chorus of Caravan Cole eschews his usual improvisatory brilliance to play a series of right-hand tremolos, but then comes an atonal break out of nowhere to remind you that he really is a thinking pianist. Best of all is when you get a pure instrumental, like Riffin in F Minor and Blue Lou, where they just shut up and play—and oh boy, how they play. Except for the John Kirby Sextet, they were clearly the tightest small group in jazz at that time.

And, of course, you have to realize just how young he was on these recordings. On the first session with his brother Eddie’s band, he was only 17 years old; on these 1938 gems, just 19. Nowadays you hear a lot about how “young” jazz musicians are coming into their own at age 26 or 28. Back then, you flew by the seat of your pants, and if you didn’t have it by the time you hit 20, you just went elsewhere.

Perhaps the strangest and most commercial session on this set is the series of records featuring the vocal group “Pauline and her Perils.” This was a pseudonym for Six Hits and a Miss, one of the finest vocal groups of the swing era. They performed regularly on Bob Hope’s Pepsodent Show, appeared in the famous films Topper (1937) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941), and kept on going until about 1950. Originally, Martha Tilton was the female singer in the group, but by this time, and well into the mid-1940s, it was the even hipper-sounding Pauline Byrne, who got most of the solo lines. The recordings give little latitude to Nat and his group except for intros, but they’re part of his oeuvre so here they are. (I could have lived without the “darky” and “massa” lyrics in Carry Me Back to Old Virginny. Nat and the band must have cringed when that one was recorded.) One vocal group I had never heard of before was The Dreamers, obviously an African-American combo, who recorded eight titles with the trio in August 1939. They’re certainly professional-sounding and not bad, but they’re not distinctive, either, like the Delta Rhythm Boys (who, like the Mills Brothers, kept going into the 1980s).

By this time, too, we occasionally hear Nat playing celesta, such as on Moon Song, in addition to piano. Unfortunately, he would not record on the organ until the late 1950s, whereas Fats Waller recorded jazz on the pipe organ in 1926-27 and on the portable Decca Gone with the Draftelectric organ in the early ‘40s. The February 1940 Ammor session is the noisiest on the album, full of background hiss which mars somewhat our enjoyment of these tracks. When we reach mid-1940, a lot of the riff jive and “guest vocalists” are a thing of the past. There are many more pure instrumentals by this point, and only Nat is doing the singing. I found it interesting—and a bit offensive—to discover that the group’s first Decca session was issued on labels marked “Sepia Series,” as if to underscore the fact that this was a Negro group you were listening to. Did they do the same thing with Count Basie’s records? No, they did not. I owned a couple of them.

Sometime between February and March of 1941, Moore switched from an acoustic guitar to an electrified hollow-body instrument with a pickup, influenced by his latest idol, Charlie Christian. The effect is especially startling on Scotchin’ With the Soda. With all due respect to Nat, it is Oscar’s development as an artist that is most interesting as one goes through these records because he changed his style a couple of times. The sessions with Lester Young for Philo and Dexter Gordon for Mercury, both organized by Norman Granz, are wonderful music though the transfers are a bit too noisy.

Nat Cole, photo by Charles Mihn

Nat Cole, photo by Charles Mihn

By the time we reach the October 11, 1942 session for the Excelsior label, the King Cole Trio has reached full maturity. There is still energy in Vom, Vim, Veedle, but no longer the almost manic desire to jump down listeners’ throats with fake hep jive, and on All For You we hear Nat’s mature ballad style that would later sell millions of copies of The Christmas Song, Nature Boy, Pretend, Unforgettable and Mona Lisa.

The set contains a spectacular booklet packed with photos, interesting interviews with Johnny Mathis (who, it seems, knew Nat a lot better than you’d think), John Pizzarelli and Freddie Cole, and a few comments from Tony Bennett and Dick Hyman. Resonance has also included a “bonus” CD 7 containing alternate takes and transcriptions. The notes claim that even they didn’t know that these existed, but that puzzles me, since I’ve had at least half of these recordings in my collection for several years now, including the alternate takes of both Eddie and Nat’s Decca recordings (as well as several of the transcriptions). Nonetheless, it’s still good to have them all in one place, and there are indeed some gems: a hitherto unknown track called The Romany Room is Jumpin’ (pronounced Romma-ny, not Roam-any as it should be) in which the trio is almost bouncing off the walls, a performance of I’m Moving to the Outskirts of Town in which Nat forsakes his usual urbane delivery to sing like an earthy blues singer from the South Side of Chicago, and two spectacular live performances from 1943, Slender, Tender & Tall and Honeysuckle Rose in which Nat and Oscar sound like they’re trying to outplay each other with every lick. If only they had included those seven RCA Victor sides, this set would have been truly complete, but even as it is, it’s clearly a treasure-trove for Cole fans.

The problem is to find them. I doubt that most jazz fans younger than 50 have much of an interest in Nat, and fewer still will want to hear these old Trio recordings except possibly for the marvelous things that Oscar Moore did on some of them. As for those of us 60 or older, well, that’s different. Nat Cole is an icon to most of us.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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