'Hittin' The Ramp' Traces Nat King Cole's Early Artistic Development Before Nat King Cole became known for his velvety singing voice, he was a pianist working nightly gigs to hone his craft.
NPR logo

'Hittin' The Ramp' Traces Nat King Cole's Early Artistic Development

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/777175035/777352830" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Hittin' The Ramp' Traces Nat King Cole's Early Artistic Development

'Hittin' The Ramp' Traces Nat King Cole's Early Artistic Development

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/777175035/777352830" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Nat King Cole that most of us know was a crooner.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Unforgettable, that's what you are.

CHANG: But that was the '50s. By then, Cole had been a working musician for years, and his early career was far less glamorous. He was a jazz pianist working a grinding schedule of gigs at Los Angeles nightclubs and recording for syndicated radio shows. A new anthology of recordings from those early years has just been released, tracing Cole's work back to the late '30s. Tom Moon has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT KING COLE'S "RIB TOWN SHUFFLE")

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Nat King Cole didn't just wake up one day and discover his velvety crooning style. At first, he didn't sing much at all. He was focused on jazz piano, developing his craft playing nightly in bars. And what craft - playful, scampering solo lines and chordal jabs delivered with a neatnik's attention to detail.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT KING COLE'S "RIB TOWN SHUFFLE")

MOON: The nightclub gigs put the King Cole Trio on the frontlines of changes in music. Big band swing was on the decline by the early '40s, replaced by agile small groups specializing in blues and boogie. Cole followed the lead of Lewis Jordan and others and began singing riff-like originals that celebrated dancing, drinking and jiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCOTCHIN' WITH THE SODA")

COLE: (Singing) Scotching with the soda, scotching with the soda. Chasing my misery away, scotch, scotch, scotching with the soda today.

MOON: The radio services expected the musicians to come in and knock out tunes rapidly. The trio was paid around $70 to record eight or so tunes in an hour. And like many entertainers at the time, Cole lent his music to the war effort, recording sides for the Armed Forces Radio Service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLE: Our boys will get there in any kind of plane and every plane as long as they straighten up and fly right.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT KING COLE SONG, "STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT")

MOON: His group sometimes backed up other singers, and from those experiences, he developed a style of crisp, no-frills accompaniment that became essential to his later vocal recordings. We also hear Cole mixing it up with jazz greats like saxophonist Lester Young.

(SOUNDBITE OF LESTER YOUNG'S "BODY AND SOUL")

MOON: This massive 7-CD, 10-LP package is clearly aimed at obsessives. It's a deep dive that traces Nat King Cole's evolution from smooth, unflappable piano player into a smooth singing star with an endearing style all his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NAT KING COLE TRIO SONG, "PITCHIN' UP THE BOOGIE")

MOON: By the time Cole signed with Capitol Records, he was a fully formed musician, able to brawl with the big bands and soar over studio orchestras. Now we can hear, step by step, how he got there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PITCHIN' UP THE BOOGIE")

COLE: (Singing) Pitching up the boogie, boogie, woogie, woogie.

CHANG: The anthology of Nat King Cole's early years is called "Hittin' The Ramp." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PITCHIN' UP THE BOOGIE")

COLE: (Singing) Jack is really mellow. Straighten up and be a solid fellow. Let's regard the hip cat's rule and get up off that stew, you fool. Pitching up the boogie, boogie, woogie, woogie. Pitching up the boogie.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.