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'Hittin' The Ramp' Traces Nat King Cole's Early Artistic Development

Nov 7, 2019
Originally published on November 7, 2019 7:09 pm

An anthology devoted to early Nat King Cole recordings was recently released, and it offers a new window into his artistic development. The collection is called Hittin' the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943), and this massive 7-CD, 10-LP package is clearly aimed at obsessives. It's a deep dive that traces Nat King Cole's evolution — from smooth, unflappable piano player into a singing star with an endearingly smooth style all his own.

Before hits like "Unforgettable" made Nat King Cole one of the most ubiquitous singers of the 1950s, he actually didn't sing much at all. Cole was focused on jazz piano, leading the King Cole Trio in Los Angeles and developing his craft playing nightly in bars. And what a craft it was: playful, scampering solo lines and chordal jabs, delivered with neatnik attention to detail.

The nightclub gigs put the King Cole Trio on the front lines of changes in music. Big-band swing was on the decline by the early '40s, replaced by agile small groups specializing in blues and boogie. Cole followed the lead of Louis Jordan and others; he began singing riff-like original tunes that celebrated dancing, drinking and jiving.

From 1936 until late 1943, when he signed with Capitol Records, Cole supplemented his income by doing quick recording sessions for radio transcription services. (The precursor to syndication, these services sent discs of music, comedy and other content to subscribing radio stations.) The radio services expected the musicians to come in and knock out tunes rapidly – the trio was paid around 70 dollars to record about eight tunes in an hour. And like many entertainers at the time, Cole lent his music to the war effort, recording sides for the Armed Forces Radio Service.

Hittin' The Ramp shows how the regular, almost-daily opportunities to perform accelerated Cole's development. His group sometimes backed up other singers, and from those experiences he developed a style of crisp, no-frills accompaniment that became essential to his later vocal recordings. We also hear Cole mixing it up with jazz greats like saxophonist Lester Young.

By the time Cole signed with Capitol Records, he was a fully-formed musician, and a confident bandleader, able to brawl with big bands and soar over studio orchestras. Now we can hear, step by step, how he got there.

Hittin' The Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) is out on Resonance Records.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Nat King Cole that most of us know was a crooner.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Unforgettable, that's what you are.

CHANG: But that was the '50s. By then, Cole had been a working musician for years, and his early career was far less glamorous. He was a jazz pianist working a grinding schedule of gigs at Los Angeles nightclubs and recording for syndicated radio shows. A new anthology of recordings from those early years has just been released, tracing Cole's work back to the late '30s. Tom Moon has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT KING COLE'S "RIB TOWN SHUFFLE")

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Nat King Cole didn't just wake up one day and discover his velvety crooning style. At first, he didn't sing much at all. He was focused on jazz piano, developing his craft playing nightly in bars. And what craft - playful, scampering solo lines and chordal jabs delivered with a neatnik's attention to detail.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT KING COLE'S "RIB TOWN SHUFFLE")

MOON: The nightclub gigs put the King Cole Trio on the frontlines of changes in music. Big band swing was on the decline by the early '40s, replaced by agile small groups specializing in blues and boogie. Cole followed the lead of Lewis Jordan and others and began singing riff-like originals that celebrated dancing, drinking and jiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCOTCHIN' WITH THE SODA")

COLE: (Singing) Scotching with the soda, scotching with the soda. Chasing my misery away, scotch, scotch, scotching with the soda today.

MOON: The radio services expected the musicians to come in and knock out tunes rapidly. The trio was paid around $70 to record eight or so tunes in an hour. And like many entertainers at the time, Cole lent his music to the war effort, recording sides for the Armed Forces Radio Service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLE: Our boys will get there in any kind of plane and every plane as long as they straighten up and fly right.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT KING COLE SONG, "STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT")

MOON: His group sometimes backed up other singers, and from those experiences, he developed a style of crisp, no-frills accompaniment that became essential to his later vocal recordings. We also hear Cole mixing it up with jazz greats like saxophonist Lester Young.

(SOUNDBITE OF LESTER YOUNG'S "BODY AND SOUL")

MOON: This massive 7-CD, 10-LP package is clearly aimed at obsessives. It's a deep dive that traces Nat King Cole's evolution from smooth, unflappable piano player into a smooth singing star with an endearing style all his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NAT KING COLE TRIO SONG, "PITCHIN' UP THE BOOGIE")

MOON: By the time Cole signed with Capitol Records, he was a fully formed musician, able to brawl with the big bands and soar over studio orchestras. Now we can hear, step by step, how he got there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PITCHIN' UP THE BOOGIE")

COLE: (Singing) Pitching up the boogie, boogie, woogie, woogie.

CHANG: The anthology of Nat King Cole's early years is called "Hittin' The Ramp." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PITCHIN' UP THE BOOGIE")

COLE: (Singing) Jack is really mellow. Straighten up and be a solid fellow. Let's regard the hip cat's rule and get up off that stew, you fool. Pitching up the boogie, boogie, woogie, woogie. Pitching up the boogie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.