Album: The King Cole Trio
Artist: Nat King Cole
Led by the dulcet tones of Nat King Cole, the King Cole Trio was the only all-black group on Capitol Records in the 1940s. They were also the most successful, releasing a string of top-selling singles throughout the decade. Released in 1944, this eight-song collection of 78 rpms was Cole’s first “album.” It’s quite possibly his best.
The LP opens with Cole’s first big hit, “Sweet Lorraine.” His immaculate voice speaks for itself — a sweet and pleasing croon that is gentle and comforting. The other vocal tracks (“Embraceable You” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon”) are equally mellifluous. The three pop classics highlight Cole’s trademark brand of charismatic and relaxed singing, and it’s no surprise that The King Cole Trio was the first chart-topping album in Billboard history.
Then again, the remaining five tracks are all instrumentals. Even though the pop standards are the main draw, The King Cole Trio emphasizes the musical chops of each member — from Cole’s lyrical piano to the fantastic interplay between Oscar Moore’s electric guitar and Johnny Miller’s double bass. The cover of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” is a standout, showing that Cole would’ve been a great jazz innovator even if he never uttered a word. Likewise, the customary cover of “Body and Soul” is where Moore gets to shine. In the early ’40s, the electric guitar was still relegated to one-note rhythm status. Moore helped pave the way for the instrument to take on a leading role, and his tasteful minor key licks are oftentimes the band’s greatest and most unique asset.
Whether instrumental or vocal, rarely before had jazz music been so intimate. The success of The King Cole Trio and its corresponding singles helped lead the genre away from the big-band swing of the previous decade into an era that prioritized small-group understatement. And Nat’s syrupy voice was the pièce de résistance that guaranteed a long-lasting and profitable future. He was the first singer/musician since Louis Armstrong to combine jazz and pop so effortlessly.
The King Cole Trio is a landmark release in easy listening history. 80 years later, and the music still sounds just as smooth.