The Classic Singles

by: Nat King Cole

If you add up all the songs Nat King Cole placed in the various Billboard singles charts -- including not only the pop and R&B charts, but also the adult contemporary and even country ones, as well as the lists of discs "bubbling under" the main pop chart -- the total comes to a remarkable 123, and that's not including the many repeat appearances of "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)." The entries begin with "That Ain't Right," the King Cole Trio recording that entered the "Harlem Hit Parade" in the fall of 1942, and end with "Let Me Tell You, Babe," which dropped off the easy listening chart in the summer of 1966 more than two years after Cole's death; they range in popularity from "Straighten Up and Fly Right," which topped the black chart for ten weeks and the country chart for six while also placing in the pop Top Ten in 1944, to "Cappuccina," which spent one week bubbling under the pop chart at number 115 in 1961. Capitol Records chronicles this run of chart singles on a four-disc box set running close to five hours and containing 101 tracks. "Cappuccina" is understandably not among them, and many of Cole's other down-chart discs have been omitted (particularly ones from the late '50s to the '60s, when he was battling the incursion of rock & roll into the singles chart and had trouble making the Top 40). Also, the compilers have taken occasional liberties, including the odd U.K.-only hit, EP track, and, in the case of "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps)" from the Cole Español LP, a song that was never released as a single. (The collection is sequenced chronologically by recording date with the exception of "The Christmas Song," which is held until the end. The running order gives a good sense of Cole's development from his jazzy trio days to his years as a pop singer backed by an orchestra.) But the problem isn't so much what has been excluded, it's what has been included. Cole fans and pop music scholars may be happy to have a close-to-complete collection of the singer's chart singles, but as a listening experience many of the songs turn out to be justly forgotten. With his pleasurable pipes, Cole shared with Bing Crosby the knack for raising mediocre material to listenability, but for the average fan it is still sometimes a long wait from one big hit to the next on this set. Many of these singles really are classic, but many others are not. Capitol's 1992 box Nat King Cole, which mixes in key album tracks, remains a better overview of Cole's career, and a two-disc reduction of this collection focusing on the more popular tracks would be better for most listeners. ~ William Ruhlmann

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