Kirkus Calls STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole by Will Friedwald “Effusive”

The story of an African American superstar who brought jazz roots to the Great American Songbook. Music historian, journalist, and producer Friedwald offers an admiring and overwhelmingly thorough biography of Nathaniel Adams Coles (1919-1965), better known as Nat King Cole. Performing as a jazz pianist from the age of 18, Cole assembled a trio that included a guitarist and a bassist who, it turns out, gave the group its name: “I thought of ‘Old King Cole was a merry old soul,’ you know, and that’s what gave me the idea of calling him Nat King Cole.” For the next decade, the King Cole Trio was “the most popular ‘combo’ of its era,” not least because of Cole’s singing. Although Cole attributed his success to luck, Friedwald makes much of the “superlative musical intelligence” that informed his savvy decisions about genre, songs, venues, arrangers, and record companies. In 1943, Cole decided to promote the catchy original song “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” which became “a late swing-era anthem” after it was heard on radio and in the Trio’s first recording with Capitol Records. That song “accelerated the Trio’s ascent into the stratosphere” and catapulted Cole to fame. Choosing that particular song “was no accident,” according to Friedwald, but a move made “with the tactical skill and ingenuity of the scientists at Los Alamos”; it “proved that he was the Robert Oppenheimer of pop music.” Chronicling Cole’s career year by year in dense detail, the author examines live and recorded performances, singles, albums, TV shows, and movies, analyzing music, lyrics, and arrangements. As far as Cole’s personal life, he recounts racist incidents against Cole (he once was assaulted onstage in Alabama), his family (residents protested when he bought a house in a wealthy white neighborhood), and his property (a devastating IRS investigation, Cole thought, was racially motivated); portrays his second marriage as deeply loving—until it wasn’t; and defends Cole’s lack of involvement with his children as a consequence of being on the road. An effusive celebration of a multitalented performer.

Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole is published by Oxford University Press.

Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair,  Playboy magazine and other publications (and reviews current shows for Citiview). He also is the author of nine books including the award-winning A Biographical Guide To The Great Jazz And Pop Singers; The Great Jazz And Pop Vocal Albums; Sinatra: The Song Is You, A Singer’s Art; Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America’s Most Popular Songs; Tony Bennett: The Good Life; Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies; and Jazz Singing. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received ten Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and other documentaries. He is also a consultant and curator for Apple Music. 

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