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Gregory Porter On Channeling Nat King Cole: 'Nat Got Me Through Some Moments'

Jun 29, 2018
Originally published on August 20, 2018 1:51 pm

When Gregory Porter began his career as a jazz singer, he was told to start by covering the standards. But Porter diverted from the path most new jazz artists take and produced original albums instead. "When you have something to say, you can't really keep it down," he says.

Two of those original albums, Liquid Spirit and Take Me To The Alley, earned him a loyal fan base and two Grammys for best jazz vocal album in 2014 and 2017 respectively. Now, he's circling back to the standards through his musical idol Nat King Cole in his latest album Nat "King" Cole & Me.

As part of NPR's live interview series, Porter spoke to NPR's Audie Cornish about interpreting Cole's music as well as working with unexpected collaborators like electronic music duo Disclosure. Read the edited conversation below and hear their full conversation at the audio link.


Gregory Porter: This record — I don't want to sound insensitive — it's for you, but it's for me. Nat got me through some moments, you know what I mean? When my mother was sick, when she did pass, I went and re-medicated myself with his music. It has an important place in our household. I can smell the greens on the stove and the cornbread in the oven when I hear Nat's music. I wanted to have his music come through my body, come through my vocal cords, and sing it as an expression of appreciation for him.

Audie Cornish: Back during that time, and for some years after, there was criticism of Nat King Cole, right? People thought his music was saccharin, especially during the racial climate he was singing in. He got obviously a hard time from black audiences as well as white audiences for different reasons. So how does his music speak to you today?

You know, I think it should even be re-evaluated for that time, the '50s and the '60s.

It was rough, right? I mean the attitude was kind of like, "Well, white people like Nat King Cole, so ..."

Think about the time. My mother had always been a fan of his music. This is something I did one day: Imagine her, after coming home from some protest movement or march and putting on, "Smile though your heart is aching, smile even though it's breaking." Imagine her putting on, "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again." I see the optimism and the strength and the resurrection of spirit in his music.

I like to think, without question, Nat knew who he was. He knew he was a striking, tall, dark-skinned black man. He was performing in the South, and they let him know who he was by calling him names and attacking him and breaking his piano bench and injuring him a little. He knew who he was, but I have to think he knew that maybe his songs had one meaning and one feeling for one group of people. For that suburban 30-year-old white woman in the suburbs, it had one feeling, one meaning, and for my mother it had a different meaning. He put something in there for her.

When you were first starting out, people wanted you to do a standards album, right? When you do your big debut as a jazz singer, you're supposed to show, "Look, I can nail it on the standards," and then you totally didn't do that. What was the discussion like? How did people try and convince you? Why did you reject that argument?

Pretty much everybody was like, "Don't come out trying to write your own music. You're a jazz singer. Do the standards and then after maybe the second or third record, then you can get into your own writing." But there's something in the artist — and in people, period — that when you have something to say, you can't really keep it down. I had a plan, but I had some things that I wanted to say. Writing from a personal experience can bring about this emotion and power of emotion that can be instantly connected to the instrument, my voice. I don't have to conjure up an idea of standing on a hillside with my hair blowing in the wind. When I sing "Mother's Song," "Insanity," even "Holding On," all of these things I have a connection to.

I'm glad you brought up "Holding On" because you have not shied away from letting other people interpret your music. That is a great example of an instance where somebody did that, and this is from the group Disclosure. This is like Ibiza Gregory Porter. You perform this in your sets, right? What do you do, you're like, "Now for something different?"

The way that this song came about was they called me into their studio and was like, "Hey, let's write a song together." Essentially I wrote this song and they went into the laboratory and electrified it.

The song is essentially a soul song. "Weight of love on my shoulders. I thought that it would be easier than this." How does this song connect to Nat King Cole? The optimism. The optimism about the power and the strength of love. This connects to the greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.

What I'm saying in this song is that I tried to kill it, tried to stomp it out, tried to get rid of it, tried to burn it, and it wouldn't die. Love is holding on. I can't get rid of it. I also like the fact that I can have 17 to 25-year-olds all over the world jumping and dancing to this song. They're still getting the message. They're still getting "Love is holding on." And I can take it and do it in my own set and do it as a jazz song. And the jazz lovers, guess what? Can I get an amen? Because ultimately I'm a child of a preacher.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The last time we heard from Gregory Porter, he was an up-and-coming jazz singer making his name with his songwriting. He's now a celebrated artist with four albums and two Grammys to show for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONA LISA")

GREGORY PORTER: (Singing) Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you.

CORNISH: Gregory Porter is now on tour. The kind of album that he has avoided making for years - classic jazz standards. It's an homage to the singer he's been compared to since childhood, Nat King Cole.

PORTER: How I came to love Nat's music was very early. I was 6 or 7. I made a song on a tape recorder. "Once Upon A Time I Had A Dreamboat" was the name of the song.

CORNISH: Porter sat down with us at NPR before a live studio audience to talk about those roots and how this album, "Nat King Cole & Me," came to be.

PORTER: (Singing) Once upon a time, I had a dreamboat. Once upon a time, I had a love.

You know, I had never loved anything, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

PORTER: But my mother said, boy, you sound like Nat King Cole.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NATURE BOY")

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NATURE BOY")

PORTER: (Singing) There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy. They say he wandered very far, very far over land and sea.

For me, this record - I don't want to sound insensitive. This record is not - it's for you, but it's for me.

(LAUGHTER)

PORTER: Nat got me through some moments. You know what I mean? When my mother was sick, when she did pass, I went and remedicated myself with his music. And so it has an important place in our household. I can smell the greens on the stove and the cornbread in the oven when I hear Nat's music.

CORNISH: One thing I want to ask about is - I think back during that time and for some years after, there was criticism of Nat King Cole, right? Like, that people thought his music was saccharine, that - especially during the racial climate he was singing. And he got obviously a hard time from black audiences as well as white audiences for different reasons. So how does his music speak to you today?

PORTER: You know, I think it should even be re-evaluated for that time, the '50s and the '60s.

CORNISH: 'Cause it was rough, right? I mean, the attitude was kind of like, well, white people like Nat King Cole, so...

PORTER: Yeah, but think about the time. My mother had always been a fan of his music. This is something I did one day. Imagine her, after coming home from some protest movement or march or - and putting on (singing) smile though your heart is aching, smile even though it's breaking. Imagine her putting on (singing) pick yourself up; dust yourself off; start all over again, you know?

I see the optimism and the strength and the resurrection of spirit in his music. And I like to think without question Nat knew who he was. He knew he was a striking, tall, dark-skinned black man. He was performing in the South, and they let him know who he was by calling him names and attacking him and breaking his piano bench and injuring him a little. He knew who he was.

But I have to think that he knew that maybe his songs had one meaning and one feeling for one group of people. For that 30-year-old white woman in the suburbs, it had one feeling and one meaning. And for my mother, it had a different meaning. He put something in there for her.

CORNISH: I want to get to some modern music and some of your modern choices. But before I do that, I just had one other question, which is that when you were first starting out, people wanted you to do a standards album, right?

PORTER: Yeah.

CORNISH: Like, when you do your big debut as a jazz singer, you're supposed to show, look; I can nail it on the standards. And then you totally didn't do that. Like, what was the discussion like? How did people try and convince you, and why did you reject that argument?

PORTER: Pretty much everybody was like, you know, don't come out trying to write your own music. But, you know, there's something in the artists and in people period - it's like, you know, when you have something to say, you can't really keep it down, you know? I had a plan, but I had some things that I wanted to say.

Writing from a personal experience can bring about this emotion and power of emotion that can be instantly connected to the instrument - my voice. I don't have to conjure up an idea of standing on a hillside with my hair blowing in the wind, (laughter) you know? You know, if - when I sing "Mother's Song," "Insanity," even "Holding On," all of these things I have a connection to.

CORNISH: I'm glad you brought up "Holding On"...

PORTER: OK.

CORNISH: ...(Laughter) Because you have not shied away from, like, letting other people interpret your music now.

PORTER: Right.

CORNISH: And that is a great example of an instance where somebody did that. And this is from the group Disclosure. Some of you may be familiar with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLDING ON")

PORTER: (Singing) Oh, weight of love on my shoulders. I thought that it would be easier than this.

CORNISH: So this is, like, Ibiza Gregory Porter.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: And you have - you've performed this in your sets, right?

PORTER: Right. Right.

CORNISH: What do you do? Like, now for something different.

(LAUGHTER)

PORTER: No. No. No. Listen. Listen. Listen. The way that this song came about is they called me into the studio and was like, hey, let's write a song together. So I wrote this song. And then they went into the laboratory and electrified it. You know what I'm saying? So basically, the song was essentially a soul song. (Singing) Weight of love on my shoulders. I thought that it would be easier than this.

How does this song connect to Nat King Cole? The optimism - the optimism about the power and the strength of love. This connects to the greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return. What I'm saying in the song is that I tried to kill it, tried to stomp it out, tried to get rid of it, tried to burn it, and it wouldn't die. Love is holding on. I can't get rid of it.

I also like the fact that I can have 17- to 25-year-olds all over the world jumping and dancing to this song. They're still getting the message. They're still getting love is holding on. And I could take it and do it in my own set and do it as a jazz song. And the jazz lovers - guess what? - can still get the - what? Can I get an amen?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Amen.

PORTER: Because ultimately, I'm a child of a preacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME TO THE ALLEY")

PORTER: (Singing) Take me to the afflicted ones. Take me to the lonely ones that somehow lost their way.

CORNISH: Jazz singer Gregory Porter - he's currently on tour with his latest album "Nat King Cole & Me." We spoke to him for our series NPR Presents.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME TO THE ALLEY")

PORTER: (Singing) Oh, I am your friend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.