Nat King Cole: Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943)
As far as most of the listening public was aware, the 24-year-old singer and pianist who called himself Nat “King” Cole was a new artist when he logged his first hit, “All for You,” on Capitol Records in late 1943. But the Alabama native had already been a prolific recording artist before that—he just hadn’t had any luck on the national level. Hittin’ the Ramp , on seven CDs or 10 vinyl LPs, gathers up 183 tracks going back to Cole’s earliest attempts in a recording studio. It’s not only the most ambitious release in the history of the exemplary Resonance label, but also a document that redefines Cole’s place in American music. Those familiar only with his pop vocal hits of the ‘50s and ‘60s, in particular, should seek this out and familiarize themselves with the artist’s formative works. Cole—who would have turned 100 last year (he died in 1965)—was a peerless jazz pianist long before he became a vocal star, and this exhaustively researched and curated set is nothing less than essential in understanding and appreciating his contribution in that area. The earliest side here comes from a 1936 session for Decca, a song called “Honey Hush” cut with the band led by Nat’s older brother, Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers. Like many of these tracks, it’s a swinging jumper—blues-infused yet still easy-going, with Nat’s piano bold and confident. Nat formed his highly regarded King Cole Trio the following year, and that’s when we hear the music begin to take shape, over dozens of transcriptions, master takes and radio broadcasts—much of it hopelessly rare prior to the release of this collection. Some tracks admittedly bear a novelty flavor, but others—like 1940’s “Crazy ‘Bout Rhythm” and 1940’s “Sweet Lorraine”—make a solid case for the pre-Capitol Cole canon as some of the hottest jazz and blues of its day.