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Interview: Ralph Carmichael (Part 3)

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In the last years of Nat King Cole's life, he sounded comfortable in the arms of Ralph Carmichael's charts. Admittedly lighter and more commercial than Cole's earlier Capitol dates, these albums need to be put in context. Easy listening LPs like Touch of Your Lips; Lazy Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer and L-O-V-E were indeed lighter than earlier releases and silly in place, they remain period pieces—prime examples of an era when traditional pop was nearly exhausted and at the same time confused by the swell of pop-rock popularity.

In Part 3 of my three-part conversation with Ralph on Cole, the arranger talks about the stigma of Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer and the mistake on That Summer, That Sunday that aced the song:

JW: What was it like working on Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer in 1963?
RC: What do you think of it?

JW: Me? I rather like it. It's a period piece for me—the last classic pop album before Kennedy's death and the Beatles' arrival.
RC: I know. After the album was released, it became a big hit. One day soon after song was out, I had just finished a rehearsal for a project I was doing with Nat and the Merry Young Souls, a group of young singers and dancers he worked with for TV specials. I was getting ready to head home and was out on Vine Street heading for the parking lot.

JW: What happened?
RC: I ran into trombonist Kenny Shroyer. He was waiting for his wife to pick him up. We were right in front of the Lamplight Bar, which was on one side of the studio. A men's clothing store called Sy Devore's was on the other.

JW: What did Shroyer say?
RC: He said, “Come on Ralph, I'll buy you a drink." I told him I didn't drink. He said, “Come on anyway, I'll buy you a Coke." So we went in and sat at the bar. There was only one other guy in there, further down the bar. The place had one of those old nickelodeons, which were coin-operated player pianos that let you choose songs, like a jukebox. I guess the bar wanted a nostalgic sound.

JW: What was the nickelodeon playing?
RC: Lazy, Hazy Crazy Days of Summer. When the song ended, the guy at the bar got off his stool and put another dime in to restart it. Kenny made a face but we kept talking. When the song ended, the guy got up and put another dime in the slot and chose the song again. Kenny said, “If I could find the guy who wrote that chart, I'd kill him." Then I said, “Well, you just met him. It was me, Kenny."

JW: What did he say
RC: Kenny just started laughing. It was one of those songs that admittedly was annoying, but it grew on you. It was a lot of fun to arrange—with a choir, a few strings, a couple of guitars, an upright bass, keyboard and a few novelty instruments.

JW: Did Nat truly enjoy making that one?
RC: Oh, sure. You have to understand, to Nat's credit, he was going where the public was with that album. Lazy, Hazy was made first and became a hit. So we built an entire summer album around it.

JW: So they knew from the start the song and album were going to be a commercial venture.
RC: Oh sure. That's how it worked. First came the single. if it was a hit, then an album was created to wrap around it. Nat was a businessman. I was a businessman too. From a musical standpoint, I always preferred love or tenderness to corniness. But hey, what are you going to do? [laughs]

JW: That Sunday, That Summer remains particularly beautiful.
RC: That was Natalie Cole's favorite by her father. She use to pretend that her dad was singing it just to her. You know, i n those days, with all the deadlines, I'd often write all night. The copyist would keep his fingers crossed that I'd get the score to the studio on time.

JW: How did it work with That Sunday, That Summer?
RC: I wrote the arrangement but was so tired that I forgot choir parts were needed to open and close the tune.

JW: How did you find out?
RC: When I got to the studio, the copyist looked at the music and then at me and said, “Ralph, didn't you forget something?" He showed me the score with the choir section listed. But I didn't have notes written out for them for their intro and outro.

JW: What did you do?
RC: Well, first I panicked [laughs]. Then I just dictated what I wanted at the start to the copyist, who wrote it all down. Then I said, “After Nat runs through the song, we'll have the choir sing the exact same parts for the outro."

JW: What happened?
RC: After we recorded it, I figured Lee Gillette, the producer, was going to ream me out. Sure enough, Lee came out of the booth and started walking toward me, I thought that was it. But when he reached me, he said, “Man that was really a genius idea to add the intro as the ending." He never knew. [laughs]

JW: What don't most people know about Nat Cole in the studio?
RC: Nat wore a bridge in his mouth that crossed over his roof. He couldn't say the letter “L" well because of the brace. I think he wore it to hold a couple of teeth in place that were hooked on either side.

JW: How did this affect his speaking voice?
RC: Instead of calling me Ralph, he called me “Raff." He'd say “Yeah Raff." He could say the letter “L," but it was uncomfortable for him. He could sing the letter “L" but he'd have to do it by thinking hard about it. This was the case when we recorded L-O-V-E. He was such a magnificent pro that you don't really hear him struggling with the letter on the record at all.

JW: Was it painful to see Nat deteriorate in late 1964?
RC: It was so sad. Nat was so full of life and joy. I remember after Nat had been diagnosed with cancer, he came to a session in San Francisco in a suit, like he was getting ready to meet the President. Usually he dressed casually for the studio. But on this date, he was dressed up because he was relishing life.

JW: Even with all that pain.
RC: He had been given bad, bad news about his health but he was relishing every moment of his life. He had no place to go except to perform that night at the Fairmont Hotel. So tragic. And what a loss. I miss him still. Nat and I had shared a bond. We were both preachers' kids.

JazzWax list: Here are the Nat King Cole albums arranged by Ralph Carmichael:

1960 Wild Is Love*
1960 The Magic of Christmas
1961 The Nat King Cole Story
1961 The Touch of Your Lips
1962 Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays
1962 More Cole Español
1963 Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer
1964 Nat King Cole Sings My Fair Lady
1964 I Don't Want to Be Hurt Anymore
1965 L-O-V-E

*Partial

JazzWax note: For more on Ralph Carmichael, visit his site here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Nat Cole's That Sunday, That Summer, with Ralph Carmichael's last-minute intro and duplicated outro...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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