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‘Undeniable genius and grace’: Gregory Porter on Nat King Cole

Gregory Porter
Erik Umphery
Gregory Porter

During the Chris Botti at Sea cruise earlier this year, I hosted five Jazz on Film sessions, during which I showed a short bit of a film and asked one of the artists to talk about the subject. In the case of Nat King Cole, I showed some clips from his groundbreaking but short-lived network TV show, which featured an incredible lineup of guest stars, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis, Jr, Johnny Mercer and so many more. To discuss Nat’s legacy, I asked singer and songwriter Gregory Porter to join me in front of a live audience. Gregory not only wrote a musical about his relationship with Nat, called Nat King Cole and Me, but also recorded an album by that same name, featuring songs associated with Nat. Gregory shared stories of how Nat was so important to him both emotionally and musically from a very early age on into the current day.  In addition, to illustrate his deep affinity, Gregory gave an impromptu and powerful performance of short bits of two songs associated with Nat, accompanied by his longtime pianist Chip Crawford.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Lee Mergner: In the interviews with his daughters, they talked about how his music was in the house all the time. And you always say that his music was in your house all the time.

Gregory Porter: And it still is, yes.

Was there a particular record or song or was it just everything?

When I was a kid, my mother played the classic singers. She liked Ella and Nat. but it was mostly gospel—Mahalia Jackson, Mississippi Mass Choir, records like that. But it was Nat's music that caught me. I think I may have heard it more when I was playing it. At eight and nine in the house, my mother had three jobs.

It is funny how our parents had different record collections, but any of us would pick certain records. Sometimes because of the cover, sometimes because of the music.

You said something that was true for me. I picked certain records because of the cover as my father wasn't around and Nat just looked like somebody's daddy. When I looked at those album covers, there's several of him sitting by a fire, particularly the Christmas albums, just looking charming and cool. Then those lyrics and then those songs. If you listen to them, they contain fatherly advice, or sage advice, or some wise man on a hill. That's the way I was receiving it.

There are several things about Nat and they talk about it in this documentary. His stature, his gentleness and even his shyness. It seemed to me his shyness was misinterpreted humility, even though I never met him. But speaking to the people who knew him, his humility comes out in the music and in the way he carries himself.

Yes, even in those duets, he doesn't try to overwhelm. He's right there with whoever he's singing with.

Right and that's the thing about his piano playing, which I love enormously and can't touch period. He had the ability to go up and down the piano with great speed, but much of the time, there's an economy of notes that he used just right on time, perfectly. He did that with his voice as well. Less is more. If I’m allowed to say, in my opinion, he's probably used, musical humility in a better way than Miles Davis – I want to be careful when I say that.

Miles and humility? What was that?

No, I'm talking about just laying back and being cool in the music. Musical humility. I was using it in both ways. You understand? Well, I know the audience understands me. You understand me, don't you?

Nat King Cole Performs Just You, Just Me | The Nat King Cole Show

Can I tell you a very quick story? Nat of course was a great piano player and very much like Oscar Peterson. There is a seemingly apocryphal story that you may or may not know. Oscar was a great singer and he sounded like Nat. At some point, Nat goes, “Oscar, this singing is nice, but, I'm out here, you know.” Oscar said, “Well, you stop playing, and I'll stop singing.” We were with, Kelly, Oscar’s widow, and she confirmed, “Oh, that happened.” When Nat died, Oscar did this beautiful record, With Respect to Nat, where he sings and it sounds so much like him. But Nat really was a great piano player.

They said it in the documentary. I remember meeting Oscar Peterson's wife, Kelly and her talking about their relationship—how much Oscar Peterson respected and really idolized the playing of Nat King Cole. I was watching this documentary not as entertainment. It was emotional. I was sitting back in my chair and thinking, “This is so far away from me, but yet so very close.”

I was very emotional, because so many things are being represented here. It's not just music. This is at a time and a place where our country was in enormous turmoil and yet the grace that Nat and Ella and Sarah expressed to the world during that time is something that is not lost on me now.

When I see Nat, and all of his grace with all of his uprightness, with all of his strength and beauty, in some way, if you can imagine, he is boxing down the image of who they say he is and who they say we are. There's a reason he speaks with such grace. There's a reason he sings with such beautiful diction. It's undeniable genius and grace. He's beating down the demons of lies. I'm just not just making something up. This is something that a person who is not a disrespected genius, but who wants to be looked at in the proper way. That's what that's what he's doing.

Gregory Porter - Smile (Official Music Video)

Now I'm reading into things so when I hear the lyric, “A blossom fell from off a tree and settled softly on the lips you turn to me. The gypsies say and I know why a falling blossom only touches lips that lie.” This is one of the last songs that Nat King Cole sang on his show. The bridge goes, “You said you love me. You said you love me. We plan together to dream forever. The dream.” It slows down when he does it, “The dream is ended for true love died. The night of blossom fell and touched two lips that lie.”

That's just me reading into all of this social stuff and thinking, “Is he saying something to America? Is he giving a message of, “Come on y'all, you made a promise, let's do this thing. Let's do this American experiment,” you know?

Of course, it was just a short lived show and there really hasn't been anything since. Do you think there will ever be a show like that? A really great musical variety show on television?

The thing about it is that as short as it was, there's so many great clips and moments. I think there's Peggy Lee is in there. It's just beautiful to see. Again, just with that little small statement, he made that, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” Just the power and impact that it has years afterwards, you could see the quality of the show. It probably should have gone on a little bit longer.

Without question, being the first one to have a show like this, but, secondarily, we don't get to experience the joy of Nat King Cole and the joy of his music. He wasn't a musical victim at all. He was a soldier for beauty and love and grace. I would say many people have followed in his footsteps, both musically and in terms of his pathways that he made in the entertainment industry.

Nat King Cole and Count Basie Perform Oh, Lady Be Good | The Nat King Cole Show

You of course, did a record, Nat KIng Cole and Me. How hard was that to pick the songs and the material and even just to deal with it because it's such a heavy task?

Well, I'm sure people want to go off the boat and onto the island as I could talk all day about what he meant in my life and musically. I wrote a musical first called Nat King Cole and Me, and it was about the story that I've mentioned before where I came to Nat King Cole's music in the absence of my father. Nat was a very fatherly-like figure, musically and visually, from what I could see from the album covers.

I imagined him as my father, really, as a little boy, six, seven years old, so I tell the story in this piece. Basically, I go to the theater and I say, “I want to do a show about Nat King Cole.” I tell them the whole story of imagining Nat as my father and really singing these songs, not as love songs, but as songs of longing to my father. [Sings] “What'll I do when you are far away? And I am blue, what'll I do with just a photograph to tell all my troubles to? When I'm alone with only dreams of you, that won't come true, what'll I do?”

I was thinking of my father when I was listening to those lyrics at 8, 9, thinking of my father, not of some romantic relationship that I never knew anything about. I told that to the theater and they were like, “Yes, that's the story. Go away and write that story,” and so I created this musical Nat King Cole and Me. Many years later, I made the record Nat King Cole and Me. Some of the songs from that show are on that record, but many are not because some of them were personal songs. You saw Freddy Cole. He recorded a song called “I Wonder Who My Daddy Is.” I was like, “What are y'all trying to tell me?”

Is Chip here? Chip, can you come to the piano, if you would? That's Chip Crawford, my pianist. Chip, do you remember, “I Wonder Who My Daddy Is?” Great, we'll play a bit of that.

This song basically speaks to the feeling of why and how I gravitated to Nat's music.

[Gregory and his pianist Chip Crawford perform a short bit of “I Wonder Who My Daddy Is.”]

But you can see the love and the attraction to his great sound and the way that he emoted was just so inspiring to me. I take cues from him and steal some of his devices, even now.

Didn't you do a duet with Natalie on that? Did you do something with her?

No, I didn't do a duet with Natalie. Instead, they allowed me to go into the vault and do a duet with Nat King Cole on “The Girl from Ipanema,” which is really wonderful. I recorded that at Capitol Studios, with his microphone, sitting in Frank Sinatra's chair. It was ridiculous.

Freddy Cole. Many of us who have been doing the jazz cruises think of him as part of our family. He was like the eminence gris of The Jazz Cruise. He would do the late-night set and all the singers would come up and musicians to hear him. He would also heckle them from the stage. Like John Pizzarelli, who told jokes, Freddy called him a big old can of corn. At one point, John was playing and Freddy actually rolled out a can of corn. But we loved Freddy. He knew every tune.

He knew tunes that only existed in 1930 and nobody ever heard after that. He was amazing.

Did you also get to know the rest of the family a bit?

I did. When I was doing the show, his sisters called me and they were like, “What are you doing?” I explained them the concept of the show, and they wished me well. Then I had the opportunity to have a great conversation with Natalie Cole and I literally told her, “In my childhood, I borrowed your father's image and words to sustain me.” Hearing the emptiness that I had, she sanctioned my feelings, and so it was great.

Lee Mergner and Gregory Porter during Jazz on Film session on the Botti at Sea cruise
John Ernesto
Lee Mergner and Gregory Porter during Jazz on Film session on the Botti at Sea cruise

One of the things we see in the film, and which you felt, was that he was a family man. He loved his family. He was not absent even with all the touring and that's something that you've carried on in your life, that your family is so important to you.

Yeah, they are. They're here on the boat. There was a song that I was thinking about, but, yes, I do travel a lot. There was one thing that actually Natalie did share with me. Nat had a very successful career and was traveling on the road a lot. She shared an insight about that.

I was saying to her that I didn't need a physical presence. I needed an emotional presence and she said she often had to do that herself, with her father always on the road, so I try to make sure that I have both a physical presence and an emotional presence in my kids’ life when I'm away.

To season them and give them my essence. Even I can't do anything but skype with them from some distant land, the seasoning and the essence of my smell is on them. You understand what I'm saying?

He was so young when he died, 45, and to look at what he did in that time is just staggering.  The quality and the volume.

Yeah, it's unbelievable, the number of songs. As you say, he was very successful in his catalogue. It's enormous. There's always a song coming up. Even though I thought I had heard everything, but there is always something new. I love the beer commercials. [Sings] Rheingold beer, Rheingold is my beer.

Clearly, he's had such an important influence on the way you think and feel musically, including your phrasing.

Without question. I don't consider it copying. It's really the musical mechanics. There’s something he used to do, which is sliding up to the note and this is something that I've totally ripped off from him. But like every saxophone player has been influenced by Charlie Parker, they've all borrowed something from Charlie Parker, one of their masters. This is something that I've stolen from Nat. Even in the songs that I write, I do this soft, gentle rise to the note, touch the note and then come up off of it slowly. I'm glad I have something from my, how shall I say, not father, but you know what I mean, father figure in a way, a musical father figure.

There was one song that grabbed me when I was a kid and had me thinking I was a nature boy.

[Gregory and Chip perform a short bit of “Nature Boy.”]

To the great Nat King Cole.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.


For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”