Giving Voice to a Tradition : Freddy Cole, brother of the legendary Nat, is an established pianist- singer who is fond of the Swing Era style.
Being Nat King Cole’s younger brother hasn’t always been peaches and cream for Freddy Cole. Even though he has his own distinctive voice, people continually say he sounds like Nat when he sings.
“So I even wrote a song in 1962 called, ‘I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me,’ ” Cole says in an interview from his home in Atlanta.
Although Freddy is proud of his elder brother, he is careful to distinguish his own career from that of Nat, who died 30 years ago. In particular, he doesn’t like to have to defend his tenor-range voice, which is a shade darker than his brother’s. His voice is splendidly showcased on “Always,” a new album on Fantasy Records, as well as on Grover Washington’s best-selling “All My Tomorrows” on Columbia Records.
“How am I different than Nat? That’s for you to decide, but I feel there’s a distinct difference,” says the 63-year-old singer-pianist, who appears tonight and Saturday at Legends of Hollywood. “But I don’t worry about it. What I worry about is sounding good. I go and play music and do the best show I can do.”
A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music with a degree in music education, Cole says he learned a lot about performing, not so much from Nat, who was 12 years older, but from other jazz giants, such as pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Sonny Greer, who played with Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, respectively.
“I found out from them that approach, the way you present a song is so important,” he says. “You can be a great singer, but if you don’t know how to get your material across, it means nothing. Each song has to be sung its own way.”
Cole draws on vocal traditions that have been time-tested. His favorite singers are Billy Eckstine and Dick Haymes, both products of the Swing Era. “Billy was a particular favorite of mine,” he says. “I liked his demeanor and his phrasing, which were very distinctive. Haymes was very melodic, very easy with his delivery.”
Those latter two qualities are at the core of “Always,” a bouquet of love songs from such classics as Irving Berlin’s “Remember” and Tommy Wolf and Frank Sinatra’s “I’m a Fool to Want You,” to more contemporary vehicles--Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” and David Gates’ “If.”
The tunes are almost all done slowly so that the lyrics take on greater emotional import than if they are sung faster. “A lot of people claim they can’t find any new songs to sing, but I think there are a lot of gems,” Cole says. “Doing them slower gave me a chance to present a different side of these tunes.”
Selections from the album will be on tap at Legends, where Cole appears as part of his trio--Jerry Byrd, guitar, and Tom Hubbard, bass--using the same drumless configuration that was popularized first by Nat Cole, and then later by Oscar Peterson. According to Freddy Cole, “Without drums, you can hear everything.”
A solid pianist, Cole has drawn on many masters in formulating his style. He loves Teddy Wilson, whose lines have been likened to long strands of pearls. And he favors the luxuriant melodic grace of Tommy Flanagan, the “soulful feeling that Horace Silver gets, and the clarity of John Lewis,” the leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Cole calls his show “From Broadway to the Blues,” and he recently gave listeners at Legends a sample of it when he sat in at the room. “I thought he was wonderful, a very mellow and sensitive artist,” says Bob Marks, who owns the club.
Born in Chicago into a family of musicians, except for his father, who was a minister, Cole started playing at age 5. “The piano was just there, and everybody played it,” he says.
He moved to New York in 1953 to attend the Juilliard School of Music, and returned to Manhattan after graduating from the New England Conservatory. There, he says, “I worked 1,000 different joints. I did everything--club dates, bar mitzvahs, weddings, played on jingles, made records with everybody from the McGuire Sisters to Perry Como. I was trying to survive.”
Cole also worked the jazz field, performing with Greer, trombonist Benny Green and saxophonists John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt. “Sonny was one of the playingest musicians I ever heard,” he says, “and working with him could be frightening. He would take you all kinds of ways.”
After moving to Atlanta in 1971 so that his son, Lionel--now a successful film soundtrack composer--wouldn’t have to grow up in New York, Cole began to tour the world. He’s been all over--to Europe, Japan, Brazil, the Far East. “I work a lot, 35 to 40 weeks a year,” he says.
Cole is asked if he tires of life on the road. “Well, it beats not working,” he says. “That’s what I do, it’s in my blood, and let’s face it, they like to eat steak around here,” he adds, laughing.
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WHERE AND WHEN
Who: Freddy Cole.
Location: Legends of Hollywood, 11720 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.
Hours: 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Price: $8.50 cover, two-drink minimum.
Call: (818) 760-6631.