Nat King Cole was at the top of his game in the winter of 1957. Already regarded as a superb jazz pianist, Cole was one of the country's most charismatic pop vocalists, serenading post-war adults with one relaxed hit after another. So beloved was the suave entertainer that he was hosting his own network TV variety series on NBC—a first for an African American.
But in early 1957, Cole had a problem. With the meteoric
rise of Elvis Presley and Fats Domino, his image as the nation's coolest crooner was under assault by younger, more energetic, dance-focused singers. The Billboard numbers
tell the tale: Between April 1956 and May 1957, Domino charted six singles in the top 10 while Presley had seven—six of which soared to #1.
Cole's best single entry during this period was Night Lights, which only peaked at #11 in October 1956. Rock threw Cole for a loop. He wasn't quite sure how to deal with the phenomenon or remain relevant in its growing shadow. Uncomfortable with rock's mechanical sound and sexually loaded lyrics, Cole had too much to lose, especially given his struggle to land a sponsor for his TV show.
Cole also believed that rock's simplistic, physical message was demeaning for someone of his polished stature. His distaste for the new music was so well known within his circle that a song was written for him, Mr. Cole Won't Rock and Roll. But Cole wouldn't touch it. According to biographer Leslie Gourse, Cole didn't like songs with hidden messages.
But when winter turned to spring in 1957, Cole had little choice. His record company, Capitol, was in a fierce battle with RCA to produce big-beat singles that disc jockeys could play for a rapidly expanding and lucrative youth market.
Cole's first stab at the new genre was When Rock and Roll Come to Trinidad. Recorded in March 1957, the song fell flat, peaking on the pop chart at an anemic #48 at the end of April. The public saw the song for what it was—a lame attempt by Cole to exploit the calypso craze sparked by Harry Belafonte's Banana Boat (Day-O), which had climbed to #5 months earlier in January.
Gourse, in Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole (1991), sheds light on Cole's discomfort with rock and what prompted the singer to give it a go:
"Cole's most pressing problem was not the criticism from the jazz world but the emergence of rock and roll, with its hard, monotonous beat and limited musicality. He grew perplexed about how he was going to stay popular.
Then [song plugger] Marvin Cane arrived with a demonstration record of Send for Me and gave it to Nat. Nat called [his daughter] Natalie into the room and asked her to listen to it. She caught its spirit and started to dance...Nat decided to record the song with Billy May and his orchestra...On June 17, 1957, Nat had a hit with Send for Me. It sold a million copies...Nat still was unsettled by the emerging power of rock and roll, because he really didn't like it."
Send for Me reached #6 in June 1957, its success built largely on an infectious beat that seems to have been lifted from Presley's Too Much, which hit #1 hit six months earlier. You can't copyright beats.
A year later Cole would crank out another rock/r&b hit— Looking Back—which soared to #5 on the pop chart in April 1958. Fashioned as a slow rocker, its tempo and hook again seem to owe much to Elvis. Compare it to Presley's Don't, which went straight to #1 months earlier in January 1958.
But Cole's rock recordings aren't the point of this blog post. Neither song is very interesting or innovative. They merely provide the backdrop to what happened in the months between their recording and release.
While After Midnight—recorded in the fall of 1956—remains a fabulous album and is frequently cited as Cole's best jazz effort for Capitol, Just One of Those Things is vastly overlooked and for my money the smarter example of Cole at his swinging, jazzy best.
Recorded between July 10 and August 7, 1957, the album of up-tempo ballads is absolute perfection from start to finish. The choice of songs on Just One of Those Things is dead on, the strolling snap-brim pace is ideal, and Billy May's charts swing and are rich with textured instrumentation.
After 1957, Cole's albums and singles would become less and less hip as he chose to compete with mainstream pop singers for the suburban market rather than with the jazz, rock or r&b vocalists of his day. But in the summer of 1957—between uncomfortable stabs at rock and roll—Cole proved with Just One of Those Things that he could still turn out a jazz classic.
One final ironic note: Cole was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 in the "early influence" category.
JazzWax tracks: Just One of Those Things was first issued on CD in 1987. While the digital transfer sounded adequate, it can't compare to the recently remastered CD release, which combines Just One of Those Things (1957) with Let's Face the Music and Dance (1964)—another Billy May session. Unfortunately, the new CD isn't available at iTunes—but it can be found here. (Note that the word "Single" in the album's title at Amazon refers to the number of CDs in the jewel case, not the number of tracks on the disc.)