The L-O-V-E of Nat King Cole

Since this column is being posted around Valentine’s Day I thought we would examine L-O-V-E. No, not the word “love” but the classic Nat King Cole record of 1964.

If it weren’t for Cole’s holiday perennial “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” people under 50 would have little awareness of him and his legacy in popular music.

Yet anyone who drives by the iconic Capitol Records building on Vine Street in Hollywood should know that its nickname is “The House That Nat Built” due to the amount of money Cole made for the record company since its inception in 1942.

Starting out as a pianist in his jazz combo the King Cole Trio, Cole soon transitioned from jazz musician to popular vocalist. He was the first African American to host a network television show in 1956. “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Unforgettable” represent a sampling of his memorable songs.

“L-O-V-E” was written by Bert Kaempfert and Milt Gabler, becoming a hit in the summer of 1964. The rest of the album (named after the song’s title) was recorded in December 1964. Released in January 1965, Cole died the following month.

Ralph Carmichael was the arranger and conductor in Cole’s final recording years.

Still active at age 87, Carmichael has worked with some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century including Count Basie, Glen Campbell, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, and Johnny Mathis.

Carmichael has “fond memories” of Cole describing him as having “a natural gift of music.”

He vividly recalls those December sessions. Nat King Cole had an engagement at the now defunct Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos so Capitol brought up musicians from Los Angeles to record in San Francisco on December 1-3.

I asked Carmichael if he detected anything at all not well with Nat.

“He had quit smoking, but during breaks he would smoke a cigarette,” Carmichael recalled. Other than that, “Nat showed no hesitancy, no weakness, he was amazing.”

Carmichael remembers that Cole “came dressed in a suit and that was unusual. Later I realized that that was his way of celebrating whatever life he had left.”

If you listen to the whole “L-O-V-E” album, you would never detect from his singing that he had only 72 days left to live. His vocals are strong, his holding of notes impressive at the end of songs.

Knowing how little time Cole had left, there is a melancholy eeriness to some of the lyrics.

From “Thanks to You” he sings “each day that I’ll be living.”

From “More” he sings “I only live to love you more each day.”

From “Three Little Words” he sings “to hear those three little words that’s all I’d live for the rest of my days.”

From “How I’d Love to Love You” he sings “you’ll always be with me till life is through.”

Freddy Cole, Nat’s youngest brother, still performs live in concert at age 83 singing some of his sibling’s songs. He fondly recalls his older brother as “a hell of a nice guy.”

So, while exchanging Valentine’s Day gifts, listen to some Nat King Cole.

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of his death at St John’s Hospital in Santa Monica.

If he had lived, he would have been 95 years old.

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