I attend, every year, a wonderful New Year’s Day’s party, one that feels like a European salon. You can very easily find yourself sitting around a table in the kitchen with an art curator, a physicist, a medical policy expert, a teacher and a philosophy/cognitive science scholar, straining to hear something profound about the measurement of reality over the background chatter and clatter and the occasional drowning roar of the garbage disposal.
One of the more pedestrian topics this year was our perception that people of pivotal importance and/or life-enhancing qualities died in a big cluster right at the end of the year. Meadowlark Lemon, Haskell Wexler, Ellsworth Kelly. Wayne Rogers, who died on Dec. 31, was not at the same, iconic level, but who knew he later became a money manager and investor of great expertise? (The medical policy expert reminded us that, statistically, people die in disproportionate numbers after big holidays, having hung on by force of will.)
At this same New Year’s Day party, one is sometimes asked to step into the next room and sing, say, “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” with the jazz pianist Matt DeChamplain. There was less of that than usual this year, especially for me, in the lingering stages of a cold. We probably should have attempted a Natalie Cole medley, but the news of her death was so fresh we could barely process it.
I hope to read something learned and eloquent about Cole next week in Metcalf on Music. (He too attends this party.) For now, let me offer my own meager apercu. I’m not sure Cole gets enough credit for introducing, with one album, the sound and feel of the American songbook and jazz standards to a generation that had, for the most part, no relationship at all with this material. “Unforgettable…With Love” sold seven million copies worldwide, five million in the States. Am I forgetting someone, or does this eclipse any comparable collection in the last 25 years? Has Michael Buble or Harry Connick Jr. sold that many copies of one album, ever? (Let’s not get into a conversation about artistic merits or wholeness or authenticity.) Of course, album sales themselves are a thing of the past. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, whose collaboration release overlapped two of Cole’s songs, probably haven’t sold a million units yet. Cole already had an R&B fan base. It’s beyond dispute that she shoved the music of Arlen, Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins into grateful ears that had previously shown no appetite for them. How many converts did she make? We’ll never know.
“Unforgettable…With Love” also points us at a really fascinating argument launched by Ben Yagoda this year and perhaps developed a tiny bit more in a conversation among Yagoda, Metcalf, singer Tracey Moore and me. Yagoda says that American popular music suffered a nervous breakdown between the end of World War II and the onset of rock and roll. The dance band scene, which provided the propulsion for American standards, collapsed in favor of domestic life and booming out babies. And the country, especially its young adults, was too frazzled by what it had endured during the war to embrace music full of deep emotion. They preferred lightness, perhaps even novelty tunes. Cole’s father straddled those two worlds as few other singers could. So you get “Orange Colored Sky,” a 1950 tune which I happen to like but which, let’s face it, is not “This Can’t Be Love.” Musical monstrosity side note: Burt Ward, who played Robin on the old Batman TV series, recorded an upsetting version of the song produced by Frank Zappa. “L-O-V-E,” written a decade later is, nonetheless, further proof of the hollowing-out of the songbook style. That tune is credited to Bert Kaempfert who, according to a really fascinating obituary also from the tail end of the year, may have stolen “Strangers in the Night.”
Thus concludes my argument for giving Natalie Cole extra credit as a popularizer of America’s greatest music. It was only a paper moon, but it was the best I could do.