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Nat King Cole: Top 10 Albums

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The 100th anniversary of Nat King Cole's birth is on March 17. Cole was one of America's most remarkable entertainers. His first jazz-pop career was with his celebrated trio in the 78-era of the 1940s. Then he triumphed in the 10-inch era from 1950 to 1954 with hits that included Unforgettable and Penthouse Serenade. Then came the 12-inch LP era, starting in 1955 and ending with his death in 1965. Many of these albums featured Cole illustrated in suburban settings featuring white couples in love.

In the early 1950s, Cole's popularity exceeded Frank Sinatra's, and the success of his albums contributed mightily to the erection of the cylindrical Capitol Tower in Los Angeles. Cole even hosted an elegant television variety show from November 1956 to December 1957. If Jackie Robinson broke baseball's segregation barrier in the late 1940s, then Nat King Cole did the same for pop music starting in the early 1950s.

I still remember when Cole died of lung cancer in 1965 at age 64. I was 9. In my neighborhood in Manhattan, his passing was as big a shock as Kennedy's two years earlier. Women wept and men gave up smoking cigarettes. Cole's voice filled the air where I grew up.

Here are my 10 favorite Nat King Cole albums, in order of preference based on arrangements, song choices and the feel of Cole's voice:



1. Just One of Those Things (1957) is hands down Cole's finest album. On this one, Cole was paired with superb big band arrangements by Billy May. I've worn out three copies.



2. Night Lights was arranged by Nelson Riddle and recorded between Christmas and New Year of 1955. Strangely, it was never released until 2001, when the album was re-assembled. Instead, tracks back in the 1950s were released as singles.



3. Tell Me All About Yourself was recorded in 1958 but held back until 1960. Arranged by Dave Cavanaugh, the album featured a relaxed Cole backed by a jaunty big band.



4. Nat Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays(1962) climbed to #27 on Billboard's pop album chart. The backing orchestra was arranged by Ralph Carmichael. Cole's round vocal tone and Shearing's cool piano made for a perfect pair.




6. Let's Face the Music and Dance (1964) was arranged by Billy May. Recorded in 1961, the album wasn't released until three years later. It's something of a bookend to May's Just One of Those Things. High points include The Rules of the Road, Day In Day Out and Something Makes Me Want To Dance With You, one of Cole's finest tracks.



7. The Piano Style of Nat King Cole (1956) features Cole at the piano backed by an orchestra arranged by Nelson Riddle. His playing is relaxed and shrewd in the jazz-pop realm. This LP would be Cole's final instrumental album.



8. Penthouse Serenade (1952) was originally a 10-inch album but reissued in 1955 as a 12-inch LP with 12 tracks and then 19 tracks in 1998 in the CD era. The album provides a neat roundup of Cole's early pop grand slams. Unforgettable remains intoxicating.



9. The Touch of Your Lips (1961) was a romantic group of songs arranged perfectly by Ralph Carmichael—strings that were moody, not maudlin.



10. Welcome to the Club (1959) is an unusual album. Dave Cavanaugh arranged and conducted the Count Basie Band, minus Basie. While it should have been better given the concept, the album has its swinging moments.



Bonus: My favorite Nat King Cole song is That Sunday, That Summer from Those Lazy-Hazy Days of Summer (1963), arranged by Ralph Carmichael. Here's Cole singing the song on a BBC TV special broadcast in the U.K. in 1963...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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