“Unforgettable” – Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole, 1991.
Duet – from the Latin “duo,” meaning two, and the Italian “duetto,” a short composition for two voices. Yet just because you can combine two voices doesn’t necessarily mean those voices are meant to go together. Blending a pair of distinct tones can create either a transcendent melody, or an unendurable cacophony. Some seem meant for each other, while others will remain as incompatible as oil and water, no matter how vigorously they are mixed. So does the same seem to be said for human connections. We are forever trying to combine our voice with that of another, to see if we can create music. We’ve had the first dates that peal like delicate glass bells, and frustratingly, as they become relationships, evolve over weeks and months to a conclusion as sour and clunky as an out-of-tune piano. We rewind to the start and sing the first bars again with a new partner, and hope that this time we can sustain the harmony. Often we go through a lot of bad songs before we create the right one.
“Unforgettable” was first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1951, and again in 1961. The latter version was edited and remixed (and supplemented with a saxophone solo) to create a duet with his grown daughter 26 years after his death. What could be accomplished today relatively easily with home audio software was revolutionary in 1991, and remains haunting still. Determined to carve out her own way in the business, Natalie Cole had long refused to cover her father’s hits, but finally relented, and “Unforgettable” was the crown on Unforgettable… with Love, which featured twenty-two of the elder Cole’s standards and won the Grammy for Album of the Year. The idea of duets crafted in the editing room spread to Frank Sinatra’s people, who famously released an entire album full of them the following year (to massive sales, but just as much criticism that Frank hadn’t actually met anyone he was singing with). What the Sinatra album lacked, and what any great duet needs, is chemistry. That concept remains resistant to definition; like a paraphrasing of the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark, you just know it when you see it, or feel it. Though he had died when she was only fifteen, Nat King Cole’s voice had a chemistry with his adult daughter’s that sounded as though this electronically-forged duet was always intended to be.
“Unforgettable” has come to call to mind two distinct periods in my life. When it first came out it was one of those favorite songs of my grandmother’s, played up at the cottage as twilight stole the sun behind the island across the lake. I recall one evening my sister and I crouching behind a couch, pressing play and having a couple of stuffed animal puppets lip-synch it for the amusement of the rest of the family. Occasionally, we’d sing it for real, with squeaky young voices matching the notes but none of the emotion; reciting syllables with mechanical intonations. At that age, all you can do is imitate. You haven’t lived enough or felt enough to understand what songs like this are meant to evoke. Years, a few girlfriends and episodes of heartbreak later, “Unforgettable” came to mean something else.
Even on our worst days, my wife’s voice never fails to enchant me. Her heart beats with the refrains of the Great American Songbook, and deep, pure feelings bubble over her lips as she breathes life into old songs that emerge refreshed and soulful. When we were first dating, on one of our trips to our favorite karaoke bar (the place we’d met, in point of fact), she invited me to sing “Unforgettable” with her. While no one is ever going to mistake me for an Idol prospect, the chance to add my voice to hers – literally – was impossible to turn down. And like the song says, it remains incredible that someone so unforgettable thinks that I am too. The chemistry was there from the beginning; we knew it when we saw it. Best times and abysmal, our harmony continues to sound as harmony was intended. Because we’ve discovered that the composition of this life was written for the two of us to sing together. That doesn’t mean that on occasion one of us (usually me) doesn’t go off key, or muck up the lyrics. Regardless of that, we keep singing. And the song becomes a movement, the movement a symphony, with different themes and motifs that we discover together and add to the ever-growing pile of pages of sheet music.
When you consider the randomness of our encounters – the glance across the crowded room, the brush past on the street, the friend of a friend of a friend’s cousin’s roommate’s former colleague, the matching by computer algorithm – it’s something of a miracle that we find ourselves connecting at all. I guess you could look at it as throwing enough darts at a board and hoping that inevitably one will find the target. How do you account for chemistry then? How is it then that people do often end up finding their soulmate, that individual who is uniquely, for them, unforgettable? That’s not a question I’ll be able to answer here, after all, thousands of years of literature that both precede and follow me are, like this, mere speculation on a common theme. Perhaps it’s enough to be grateful that we are able to find that perfect duet partner, and take solace in the idea that perhaps the music was pointing us that way all along.