Tag Archives: Nat King Cole

With a Song in My Heart: U is for…

“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.

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With a Song in My Heart: Q is for…

“Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” – Doris Day, 1956.

It was one of those conversations for which I don’t remember the context, originating most likely in a typical child’s naive question about the way of the world.  The location was my grandfather’s cottage on Lake Muskoka, the hard sun of late afternoon stippling the crests of the waves rolling past the dock.  I was wet and cold and sitting on a bench set back from the shoreline, a towel draped over my shoulders.  My grandmother sat next to me, and as a response to whatever it was I had asked, she offered the words of this song, welcoming the unknown future and suggesting that I should do the same.  Much like her son – my father – Nana could be counted upon to fall into song given the slightest opportunity, and her advice was usually musical in its delivery.  Got a problem?  There’s a Gershwin number for that.

Everyone has memories of the scary grandmother’s house, the creaky place an hour’s drive away on a Sunday you would have preferred spending with your toys and television, whose front door was a horrifying portal into the rock-hard furniture and industrial strength ribbon candy of the 1940’s.  Nana’s home, a more modern (for the time, anyway, with its decor more comfortably lodged in the 70’s and 80’s) apartment, was Carnegie Hall, a venue for the most revered performers of the golden age of American music, whether through the radio or the record player.  Though her son’s tastes were rooted in rock & roll, Nana remained loyal to the music she’d grown up with, to timeless singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra.  And there wasn’t a number of theirs whose words she didn’t know and couldn’t sing along with, matching them note  for note, phrase for phrase.  I recall my mother once complaining that she could never hear any music while Nana was in the room because Nana would always sing to it.  While I might have groaned a few times and wondered why we couldn’t put on Duran Duran or any, you know, popular songs, whether I wanted it to or not Cole Porter was getting under my subconscious, Rodgers & Hart were bewitching and bothering my thought patterns and Harold Arlen had my soul on a string.

Thanks to Nana my family had somewhere to stay when we visited Disney World for the first time, the yellow-hued converted mobile home on Mallard Drive I mentioned a few posts ago.  Her relationship with the man who would become my step-grandfather let us play in the waters of Ontario’s famous cottage country for a few weeks every summer.  And wherever she was, this music would be playing.  As grandparents go, Nana was quite “hip,” remaining current with events, technology and popular culture, but always scoring her life with the songs of a bygone era, as if keeping a foot anchored in traditions she knew were important to pass on, carrying the flame of Irving Berlin and Sammy Cahn into an era that had replaced nuance with brashness, complexity with synthesizers.  Her old Hammond organ found its way to our house, and she was delighted when I figured out a way to depress the right tabs and program the correct beat in order to offer a passable rendition of “Begin the Beguine,” which she’d sing along to no matter how badly I messed up the rhythm.  As I grew older, the tabs on the Hammond broke one by one and I found myself drawn to the drums instead, she still loved coming to hear me play, bundling up for frigid Santa Claus parades and enduring countless dreary high school band concerts.  I think more than any other relative she appreciated my burgeoning musicality; so she should, given that she had a lot to do with helping to develop it, perhaps hoping somewhere in the back of her mind that I might go professional one day (alas).  She certainly would have loved knowing that Tony Bennett liked and shared my review of his show late last year, given that the first time I heard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was at the cottage on a warm summer night, with her providing live backing vocals.

It was telling that after she passed away suddenly in 1993 I stopped hearing that music for a long time.  A couple of decades in there I have no memory of any of its kind.  The door to that era was closed, and with it, a piece of me felt missing.  I’d become addicted to those songs without even realizing it, craving the comfort that would return to mind and heart upon hearing the first couple of bars.  When I first began dating the woman who would become my wife, and discovered that her favorite singer was Ella Fitzgerald, the door opened again.  I realized only then how much I’d missed it, how much that “Nana music” had helped me understand the lasting value in the craft of a perfect couplet, a crisply executed bar of swing, and the passion that could be expressed with a singular voice and a stellar horn section.  The title of this series has been “With a Song in My Heart,” and never was that sentiment truer of anyone than my grandmother, whose heart held a music collection to rival the Library of Congress.  My wife and I have often joked that we wish life would more often erupt into spontaneous musical numbers; though she never said as much I suspect Nana held the same hope.  Even in her sixties, she’d be the first one to grab a microphone and dance.  Though she’s been gone now for over twenty years, one supposes it’s never too late to try to realize that dream.  After all, whatever will be, will be.