The full name of this “Best of” digital release is Straighten Up and Fly Right- The Best of Hittin’ the Ramp – the early years (1936-1943). These 21 songs, one of which has never been issued (not available in the 7CD/10LP set of early Nat King Cole, Hittin’ the Ramp, issued by Resonance Records last November). 15 of the 21 have never been available digitally. The pre WWII and WWII sides of pianist/vocalist/composer Nat King Cole have been sought after by jazz historians and fans for years. Because Nat King Cole was the one of the biggest pop stars of the ‘50s (‘our parents’ music’) when he was mostly a vocalist, many are unaware of how gifted a pianist he was and that he holds an important place in the legacy of jazz pianists – a spiritual descendent of Earl ‘Fatha” Hines and Art Tatum and a huge inspiration for Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Erroll Garner, and many others. These tracks document where Nat King Cole’s career began.
This digital compilation was curated by Will Friedwald and coincides with his new biography Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole coming in June on Oxford University Press. The momentum is clearly in place as the box set (183 tracks) was one of the year’s best sellers. This collection includes several of the previously unreleased studio sides, transcriptions, and private recordings of Cole’s earliest work from the box set. It is being produced in conjunction with Cole’s estate. The transcription version of “This Side Up” makes its debut here.
The towering reputation of Cole as a pop singer unfortunately obscured his immense piano talent. Friedwald writes, “At the height of his fame in the 1950s and ‘60s, Nat King Cole (1919 -1965) was primarily known as a popular singer –the biggest-selling artist of his generation, no less –who occasionally played piano.” Friedwald also adds, “We’re covering this quintessential American artist from his very first stirrings at the start of the swing era to the very precipice of universal fame during World War Two, with dozens of fascinating detours along the way. This is the incredible but true origin story of a sound and a career that would change the world.”
Most of these are transcriptions, cut for servicing to radio stations, as well as wartime recordings produced for American servicemen by the Armed Forces Radio Service. In 1937, Nat King Cole arrived in Los Angeles where he formed the original lineup of the Nat King Cole Trio. The trio consisted of Nat on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Wesley Prince on double bass – the absence of a drummer making the combo unique among the swing/jazz outfits of that time. Both Moore and Prince were dazzling soloists as well, Considering the era, the musicianship of these players is remarkable.
These 21 selections span from 1938 to 1943, a mix of instrumentals and vocals. They include the humorous call and response “There’s No Anesthetic for Love” which must have influenced the jump-blues/R&B outfits like Louis Jordan and Amos Milburn, the famous “Sweet Lorraine” here in a 1939 session, the topical humor of “Gone with the Draft (1940) and “What ‘cha Know Joe (1940)” and at least one that must have influenced Cab Calloway “Slender, Tender, and Tall” (1943). “Hit That Jive, Jack” (1942) inevitably had to lead to Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack.” The title track, of course, is a standard, later covered by Sinatra and many others. Blues fans will find “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home” (1939) and “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” (1942 or 1943 a live recording) early harbingers of tunes countlessly covered by artists in subsequent years.
This is where it all started for Nat King Cole. The sound fidelity is quite good. This should be a great option for those unable to afford or unwilling to explore the vastness of the box set. Of course there ae those also who may want to dive into the full set of recordings and/or Friedwald’s upcoming book.