Once upon a time, when I was an impressionable teenager, I saw a TV documentary about a man called Dean Martin. This was around 1997 or 1998 when suddenly (or rather, part of a marketing strategy), the Rat Pack dudes were back everywhere. Dino's tune "That's Amore" was used in a Pizza Hut commercial here and suddenly everyone was singing it. It must not have been long after Sinatra died and the coverage that got… and since then, marketing people have been misusing swing/easy listening/lounge to their selling advantages.
Anyway, I liked it. I loved Dean's voice. Wrote poems about it at one point. I was screwed up, OK? After awhile listening to Dean, and somewhat to Frank and Sam, and boosted by seeing Ken Burns' Jazz when I was in my first year at Lancaster, I started to stumble more onto another fantastic voice
Nat King Cole. Love that voice. Love the piano too. Just a fantastic performer, even when made-up what I can only really describe as 'whiteface' (see here) or any number of humiliations. However, this post is not about that. Better-qualified people than I have discussed the racism Cole endured and the ways in which he dealt with it.
It's a live track, nearly eight minutes long and is called "Mr Cole Won't Rock and Roll". Recorded aroundabout 1960, during the last true great hurrah of the old singers.
Let me exlain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.*
Rock and roll was to singers like Sinatra what Sinatra was to Crosby. Rock and roll was to Sinatra and his pals what punk was to the rock giants of the late 70s. A fresh new sound which made everything before it sound old and fusty whether it truly was or not.
Picture this: Elvis, in his pre-army gloriosity: slick quiff, jeans, sports jacket, smouldering gaze and curled lip. Most of all, recall his barely-caged, hip-swinging masculine sexuality on stage. Now set that next to Frank Sinatra in his tuxedo, baldness-covering fedora, middle-aged swing. I happen to think both Presley and Sinatra were hitting music peaks in 1956, but they're very different notions. The gorgeous Nelson Riddle strings-and-swing of Songs for Swingin' Lovers is for grown-ups. Elvis Presley, featuring "Blue Suede Shoes" is for the young.
Tom Lehrer hilarious refers to "rock and roll and other children's records" on one of his comedy records. He's right, of course. Early rock and roll was simple and sometimes crude. There were some real stinkers released, especially once the big labels got hold of the genre. A lot of the crap then deserves lampooning.
Enter Nat King Cole, 1960. What I love about "Mr Cole Won't Rock and Roll" is that it is hilarious. The mockery is spot on. The versions of his old tracks – "Pretend" becomes "Pretend you're sloppy when you're blue.." and "Answer Me" becomes "Answer Me, Daddio" and "Mona Lisa" becomes "Moaning Lisa, you're too wholesome. Won't you dig me at the coffeehouse tonight? Many cats have been drug on your doorstep…"
But the one I love most is "Nature Boy": "There was a cat, a very strange enchanted cat. They say he traveled very far, played guitar, in his hopped up car. He said come dwell in Heartbreak Hotel, I think Elvis was his name. And then one day, the crazy day he passed my way. And while we spoke of many things, hot rod kings, Daddio said he. The greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to rock and be rolled in return."
The first time I heard the song I thought I might die laughing. I love rock and roll music to the core of my soul. It is the first music I loved, the first stuff I had spinning on my record player. Once upon a time, Elvis was music to me. But you see, I love the older stuff too. Again, not all of if. There's as much rubbish, commercial "swinging" music as there is the same for rock and roll… both can and should be lampooned. For me, there's enough room for the good stuff of both.
I loved that "Mr Cole Won't Rock and Roll" was so funny but didn't seem to be bitter. It wasn't churlish or contemptuous as so many people were at the time. It was clever (written by Jimmy and Noel Sherman) and did a good job of exposing some of the weaknesses in those early rock and roll tunes. It even poked a little gentle fun at Nat's music.
But then right at the end, as he's singing that "Mr Cole won't rock and roll!" he says "…could if I wanted to, though."
I suppose that if he really wanted to, Cole would've made some passably good rock and roll-style songs. But I can't see how it would work. His "thing" was neat, cool, swinging music. HIs piano-playing was bright and delightful. He could do dark, of course, but it's all very dignified and grown up. He was forty in 1960. Elvis and Jerry Lee were 25; Little Richard was 28. Frankie Avalon and the Everlys were in their very early 20s.
So, I'm not convinced he necessarily could have rock and rolled… but I wouldn't have wanted him to. Music doesn't have to be one genre all the time. It doesn't have to be rock OR swing OR punk. The endless variety of music is what makes it so beautiful. On my iPod Enrico Caruso and John McCormack share space with Rory Gallagher and Howlin' Wolf. There are one-hit wonders like Baccara and "Whispering Grass" by Don Estelle & Windsor Davies next to The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. Dean Martin has his own dedicated playlist, as does Julie London. The dark psych-pop of Love sits near Luke Kelly. A broad church from A-Ha to "Zorba the Greek", Abba to the Yardbirds. Bernard Cribbins. Betty Hutton, Big Bill Broonzy. Cream, The Clancy Brothers, The Connaught Rangers. You get the idea.
Mr Cole wouldn't rock and roll, but he didn't need to. Being Nat King Cole was much more than 'enough.' It's about playing the music you love to the best of your ability. His abilities were extraordinary, just as Elvis was a great purveyor of his music. There's room enough in my heart for both of them, and many more besides.
Music at its best transcends everything, including labels, genres and pigeonholes. All that matters is this: do you love it?
*Thanks to Inigo Montoya
Part 16 – Rory Gallagher – "A Million Miles Away"
Part 15 – The Shadows – "FBI"
Part 14 – Marilyn Monroe as Elsie Marina – "I Found A Dream
Part 13 – Kenneth Williams as Ramblin' Syd Rumpo – "The Ballad of the Woggler's Moulie"
Part 12 – Chas and Dave – "Rabbit"
Part 11 – The Beatles – "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You"
Part 10 – Duke Ellington – "The Mooche"
Part 9 – The Doors – "Who Do You Love?" featuring Albert King
Part 8 – Queen – "These Are The Days Of Our Lives"
Part 7 – Thin Lizzy – "Don't Believe A Word"
Part 6 – The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band – "Monster Mash"
Part 5 – Craig Ferguson – "Doctor Who Cold Opening"
Part 4 – The Bees – "Who Cares What The Question Is?"
Part 3 – Marvin Gaye – "Got To Give It Up"
Part 2 – The Dubliners – "Octopus Jig"
Part 1 – The Allman Brothers Band – "Statesboro Blues"