Freddy Cole: Jazz musician who emerged from shadow of brother Nat King Cole

The pianist spent decades in relative obscurity before he began more forcefully to assert his musical independence with the 1990 record ‘I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me’

Adam Bernstein
Thursday 02 July 2020 10:53
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Cole in concert in Athens, Greece in March 2014
Cole in concert in Athens, Greece in March 2014

Freddy Cole was a jazz pianist and balladeer who long performed in the shadow of his older brother Nat King Cole but enjoyed a late-career blossoming with four Grammy nominations and the jaunty number “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me” as his anthem.

He died on 27 June in Atlanta, Georgia. He was 88. The cause was complications from a cardiovascular ailment, said his manager, Suzi Reynolds.

Nat Cole, a dozen years Freddy’s senior, was a towering jukebox star of jazz and popular music who sold more than 50 million records before his death from lung cancer in 1965 at age 45. He also lent his cool-cat charisma and warm-velvet voice to the new medium of TV, becoming in 1956 the first African American performer to host a nationally televised variety programme.

By contrast, Freddy Cole – whose vocal texture was eerily similar to his brother’s – spent decades in relative obscurity, playing in lounges, hotels and nightclubs with an understated, languid charm. One of his early albums was pointedly called The Cole Nobody Knows. From his base in Atlanta, he fronted trios and quartets that played much of his brother’s repertoire, including the song “Mona Lisa”, inviting comparisons that made it difficult for Cole to form a distinct identity.

“Everything has its own bottom. I sit on mine. Nat sat on his,” he told The New York Times in 1978. “Club owners have always wanted me to do Nat’s songs. I tell them I’m not my brother – I’m me.”

He was pushing 60 when he began more forcefully to assert his musical independence with the 1990 record I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me. The title song, wry and bluesy, featured a lyric that put Freddy at the centre of the Cole musical legacy:

“I’m here to entertain you in my own special way.

“Hey, if Nat sounds like me – well, what can I say?”

Shortly thereafter, Cole played on saxophonist Grover Washington Jr’s 1994 album All My Tomorrows, including the Stevie Wonder-penned number “Overjoyed”. “It was a most important thing to happen to me, to bring me up front with a lot of people who weren’t aware of what I was doing,” Cole told The Washington Post of that recording. “I consider it a coming-out party.”

He was signed by progressively larger labels and recorded such well-received albums as This Is the Life (1993); To the Ends of the Earth (1997); Love Makes the Changes (1998); and Le Grand Freddy (1999), an homage to composer Michel Legrand.

That year, music writer David Hajdu wrote a tribute to Cole in The Times praising his “impeccable sense of swing” and calling him “the most maturely expressive male jazz singer of his generation, if not the best alive”.

Cole earned Grammy nominations for Best Jazz Vocal Album with Merry Go Round (2000), Music Maestro Please (2007), Freddy Cole Sings Mr B (2010) – a collection of songs popularised by baritone crooner Billy Eckstine – and My Mood Is You (2018).

But one of the albums dearest to him, he said, was A Love Affair: The Music of Ivan Lins, a 2000 tribute to the Brazilian musician that featured Cole keeping company with Dianne Reeves, Sting, Chaka Khan and Vanessa Williams. “It felt really good to walk into the Tower Records here in Tokyo,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “and the first thing I see is the Ivan Lins CD. I knew I’d arrived.”

Lionel Frederick Coles – like Nat, he dropped the “s” in their last name – was born in Chicago on 15 October 1931, and grew up in Waukegan, Illinois. He was the son of an ordained Baptist minister and the youngest of the five Coles children, of whom Eddie and Ike also became musicians.

Their mother played piano, directed the church choir and insisted on piano lessons for all her children. Freddy Cole recalled Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Lionel Hampton among the bandleaders who stopped by the home to visit as Nat became a national hitmaker. But unlike his older siblings, Freddy said he mostly aspired to play professional sports.

“I can’t say I didn’t receive some accolades about having a famous brother,” he told the music magazine DownBeat. “But most of my friends knew me as a good football and basketball player. ... That Nat was getting famous really didn’t matter one iota. I saw my future in football. That was what I wanted to do. I was All-State football and basketball and had about 19 sports scholarships. Nat would come home and be real excited about my sports reputation.”

His gridiron ambitions ended with a left-hand injury during a high school game that left him convalescing for nearly two years. “But I could still play the piano,” he told DownBeat. “And that was what amazed the doctors. I couldn’t even make a fist with the injured hand, but I had enough movement to play the piano. The diagnosis was tuberculosis arthritis, and I had several operations. But I never considered it a handicap.”

He turned his attention fully to music and began playing piano and singing at Chicago nightclubs. After moving to New York in 1951, he studied at the Juilliard School before receiving a master’s degree in 1956 from the New England Conservatory of Music, with tuition assistance from Nat’s success, he said.

Meanwhile, he had a modest regional hit in Chicago with “Whispering Grass” in 1953, and spent years as a studio musician and sideman, working alongside saxophonists Earl Bostic and Benny Golson as well as drummer Sonny Greer.

He established himself as a solo act with the 1964 release Waiter, Ask the Man to Play the Blues and developed a small fan base in Europe while touring with Petula Clark and Charles Aznavour.

He cultivated a bigger following in Brazil, particularly with his 1978 record One More Love Song blending samba and disco rhythms. For years he pressed and sold his records on a private label he called Dinky. “That’s the name Nat gave me when we were both growing up,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I guess he called me ‘Dinky’ because I was smaller than he was.”

Cole’s wife of more than 50 years, Margaret Jones Cole, died in 2015. Survivors include two children, Lionel Cole, a musician who co-wrote with Mariah Carey the hit song “Through the Rain”, of Sydney and Crystal Cole of Atlanta; and four grandchildren.

Cole, whose final performance was in February at Dizzys Club NYC – Jazz at Lincoln Centre, said he worried for years that he would be remembered as strictly a journeyman, a faint echo of his brother. His niece Natalie, who became a Grammy-winning singer and whose tribute album to her father sold millions of copies, was always the marquee draw when they performed together. But as he aged, he became more sanguine about his place in his family, and in music.

“You don’t want to play all you know in the first two choruses,” he told DownBeat in 2001. “So I hit my stride at 70. ... It’s just a matter of keep on plugging. ... Sheer persistence.”

Freddy Cole, jazz musician, born 15 October 1931, died 27 June 2020

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