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You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody [Sings] You: Tributing Blackness

 

 

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 

 

Monday, October 23, 2017.

 

 

“Boy, you sound like Nat King Cole” -- these words from Gregory Porter’s mother are how the Grammy Award winning singer remembers being introduced to Nat King Cole as a child.  As Porter reflects, “I remember thinking how strange that name was...seeing his image: this elegant, handsome, strong man sitting by a fire.”  Porter’s introduction to Cole comes full circle with the release of Nat King Cole & Me, a collection 15 songs associated with the legendary vocalist and musician, who died of lung cancer in 1965.

 

Porter is, of course, not the first artist to record a collection of Nat King Cole standards; Cole’s late daughter Natalie Cole had her biggest commercial success in 1991 with the Grammy Award winning  Unforgettable... with Love, anchored by the then groundbreaking digital duet between father and daughter on the title track -- which Porter wisely stays clear of. A second duet with her father, “When I Fall in Love,” earned Cole a Grammy in 1996, and she won her last Grammy for a deep dig into the American Songbook, that was inspired by her father’s music.

 

Cole’s tributes to her father are, of course, deeply personal, as is Porter’s tribute, which he suggest was inspired by this idea of hearing Cole as a father figure: “I put the vinyl on the player and out of those speakers came that voice, that nurturing sound. It filled a void in me. My father wasn’t in my life.”  Yet Porter’s performance of Cole, comes at a time -- more than 50 years after his death -- when Cole’s repertoire represents an untapped resource for a generation of young Jazz audiences, drawn to Porter, who are largely unfamiliar with Cole, save “Unforgettable” and “The Christmas Song”, which Porter does cover.   

 

No one is questioning the sincerity or legitimacy of Porter’s connection to Cole’s music -- you can hear the influence in Porter’s voice. The fact that such a recording might have also been prompted by the commercial desires of  Porter’s label Blue Note Records to mine Cole’s catalogue cannot be dismissed though -- both Blue Note and Cole’s longtime label Capitol Records are owned by the Universal Music Group. Nat King Cole & Me is Porter’s third album for the “major” label after recording two stellar albums on the independent Motéma Music label.

 

The tensions at play in the commercial impetus for tribute albums, were certainly there, in an earlier tribute recording to Cole.  Less than 10 months after Cole’s death in February of 1965, Motown released Marvin Gaye’s A Tribute to the Great Nat "King" Cole.  The Cole tribute was released between Gaye’s How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You (1965) and Moods of Marvin Gaye (1966) -- albums that produced four top-15 pop singles, and Gaye’s first number one R&B singles (“I’ll be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar”). A Tribute to the Great Nat "King" Cole, in contrast, produced no singles, and was generally overlooked in the context of Gaye’s ascent as a pop star.  

 

Yet Motown’s desire to market Gaye as the heir Cole’s legacy -- even before Cole’s death, Gaye had recorded several Cole-like pop standard albums such as The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, When I'm Alone I Cry, and Hello Broadway -- was also major reason for the relative fast tracking of the recording. In the 1960s, Gaye was long rumored to portray Cole in a biopic of his life.

 

The genius of Berry Gordy and Motown Records, was Gordy’s ability be self-reflexive about commercial opportunity yet remain attentive enough to the everyday within Black culture to know when to give pause to those ambitions, given the tenor of the era. Certainly this was the case with Motown’s Black Forum label, which issued spoken-word poetry performances and political speeches or one of the label’s more obscure recordings, We Remember Sam Cooke,  a tribute album recorded by The Supremes.  Though seemingly an odd choice -- Cooke was killed months before Cole, so why not Gaye or The Four Tops? -- Cooke set a path to the mainstream that Motown and The Supremes very much admired. The trio’s The Supremes at the Copa (1965) -- a venue that Gordy long craved for the label’s flagship act -- was released a year after Cooke’s own Copa recording was released.

 

The commercial aspects of tribute recordings notwithstanding, within the economies of Black cultural production, particularly in the era when Black artists were largely marketed to segregated Black audiences, such recordings took on greater significance and relevance. In his book Soul Covers: Rhythm and Blues Remakes and the Struggle for Artistic Identity (Duke University Press), which examines Aretha Franklin’s tribute to Dinah Washington, Michael Awkward, note that Dinah Washington had anointed Aretha Franklin as the “next one.”

 

But “having failed to that point to produce recordings that proved indisputable that she was worthy of such praise,” Awkward writes, “Franklin’s remakes of songs associated with the recently deceased Queen of the Blues can be seen as her attempt to demonstrate that she was indeed ready to wear her idol’s crown.” (17)   According to Awkward, Franklin’s Unforgettable: a Tribute to Dinah Washington (1964), is a “compelling manifestation of this singer’s early attempts to master the nuances of black vocal traditions.” (28)

 

At the time of her death, Dinah Washington might have also felt the pressure to fill the stilettos of the previous “one”; When Billie Holiday died in July of 1959, Washington was the most natural heir her legacy, and thus of heir to a broader tradition Black vocalists.  That Franklin’s tribute to Washington was called Unforgettable, is a reminder that even Cole  cast a shadow over Washington, as Unforgettable was also the title of a 1961 album of pop standards by Washington, that included covers of Cole songs like the title track and “When I Fall in Love.”  The album, her second for the Mercury label, after string of recordings on Mercury’s Jazz subsidiary, was a deliberate attempt to cross Washington over to a pop audience. Indeed, Washington's most well known songs “What a Difference a Day Makes” and “This Bitter Earth” were recorded with Mercury in this period.

 

In the late 1950s, Washington recorded tribute albums for Bessie Smith and Fats Waller, in what might be an example of Washington apprenticing within the Black Blues songbook -- still yet to be correctly identified as The American Songbook. Such an apprenticeship might have been what Sam Cooke had in mind when he recorded a tribute to Billie Holiday in 1959, shortly after her death.  Tribute to The Lady is easily the most obscure of his recordings as a pop singer, and Cooke’s stilted execution of Holiday’s catalogue only adds to the oddity of the recording.

 

Yet what Cooke reminds us, is that for the generation of Black artists prior to the incorporation of independent Black music into the mainstream of popular music, the politics of crossover had less to do with individual access to a larger audience, but was born out of a communal ethic to broadly share the aesthetic and spiritual practices of Blackness or what might more applicably be described as Negro-ness.  

 

This is what you hear in Cooke’s tribute album to Billie Holiday; clean, smooth, playful even, Cooke’s versions of Holiday’s classics don’t attempt to overshadow the spirit -- the darkness and the trauma -- of her own recorded history, but aims to make the genius of Holiday palatable, even legible, to an audience that could never -- even still, some almost sixty years after her death -- see, hear or feel Holiday’s genius for what it was.  

 

That Cooke largely fails in this endeavour -- that he is indeed still finding his voice is not lost here -- only highlights the difficulties of refracting such brilliance.  Yet it is the gesture that most matters, and a gesture that still matters as Gregory Porter introduces the music of Nat King Cole -- a Holiday contemporary -- to a whole new generation.

***

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books and Professor of African and African-American Studies, and Professor of English at Duke University.

 

You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody [Sings] You: Tributing Blackness

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