Monday, December 29, 2008

That well known Spanish singer -- Nat King Cole?!?

Until I moved to Spain and stumbled across some of Nat King Cole's Spanish language recordings, I never knew he recorded songs in anything but English. In fact, he recorded three albums in Spanish: “Cole Español” (1958), “A Mis Amigos” (1959) and “More Cole Español” (1962) and at leas one additional song (“Tu Eres Tan Amable”- “You're So Nice”), which was posthumously released in 1983 on an album called album "Unreleased."

Although Spanish was the only other language he recorded entire albums in, he also recorded songs in Portuguese, Italian, French and at least one non-Romance language -- Japanese! And he did all of this without speaking anything but English! Instead he did what Tejana singer Selena did before she learned to speak Spanish – he memorized the songs phonetically.

His daughter Carole Cole said in an on-line chat with fans of her father that, “my father didn't actually speak Spanish. But...he recorded three albums in Spanish which he learned phonetically. He certainly had a deep admiration for Latin culture. And a number of friends from Mexico, Brazil and Cuba. In fact his manager, Caroles Gastel, was Cuban.”

She also agreed with a fan who claimed that Cole was one of the first English speaking singers to record in Spanish by adding, “this was another area in which I believe my father was a pioneer. You might be interested to know that in his travels throughout Latin America he was received with opened arms and an enormous amount of affection. For instance, when he first toured Brazil it seemed the population of Rio de Janeiro turned out en masse throwing roses at his feet to walk on, and he and my mother were asked to stay with the then-president of Brazil in the Brazilian palace. It's also interesting that he attempted to record in a number of other languages which needless to say, further endeared him to other cultures. He recorded Autumn Leaves in Japanese, which you can see in the documentary. I believe he recorded a tune here or there in Italian, French. And I imagine he would have done more in this area if he'd had the time.”

To me the history behind these recordings is a testament to Nat King Cole's ability to break down barriers. He obviously had to fight racism all of his life, and perhaps part of the reason he wanted to record in other languages was to extend that fight on some level. Two years before his first Spanish language recording he went to Cuba to perform at the Tropicana. He had wanted to stay at Havana's best hotel, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba , but was told it was fully booked. Although he discovered that he had been lied to and that in fact the Nacional had a White's only policy, he did not leave the island, but decided to honor his contract.

His engagement at the Tropicana ended up being so successful that he agreed to return the next year. In the mean time he applied himself to adding Spanish songs to his repertoire, with the help of Armando Romeu, a Cuban musician and arranger. After another successful appearance at the Tropicana in 1957, he again traveled to Havana in 1958 to record “Cole Español,” which was the first step towards a string of Spanish language hits – Acercate Más, Ansiedad, Aquellos Ojos Verdes, Perfidia, Quizás, Quizás, Quizás, etc.

The result was that long before the likes of Julio or Enrique Iglesias, Nat King Cole became the first truly "international" singing star. Today he is known in Spanish speaking countries as a singer of English and Spanish songs – and the Hotel Nacional de Cuba has a special “Nat King Cole Corner,” with a bust of the singer and a jukebox full of his songs. (See photo above.)

I've met many Spaniards who are familiar with these Spanish recordings, either because the songs were popular when they were young or because they discovered them through their parents or grandparents. One of my students remembers hearing the songs as a child and does a perfect imitation of Nat King Cole, including his pronounced gringo accent. Even I sometimes have to smile when I hear how strong his North American accent is – and I have a pretty strong one myself.

Despite the non-native accent, the songs are lovely, with lush arrangements and, of course, that beautiful, buttery baritone. As the title one of his songs goes, Fantástico!

Saludos amig@s,


P.S. Enjoy the 3 songs from YouTube! / ¡Disfruta las 3 canciones desde YouTube!

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