As Duke Ellington said of his parents, “They never let my feet touch the ground till I was three,” so is the attention paid by Prof. Ken Hanlon & his wife Carrie Hanlon, Esq. to this blogster.

I lecture at Hanlon’s University of Nevada/Las Vegas (UNLV) in the spring and fall in conjunction with my archives which will be housed there.  It’s a massive work-in-progress folks.  I’ve presented “Aspects of Duke (Ellington)”, and “Louis (Armstrong) in Hollywood.”  This past October 2014 it was Nat King Cole’s turn in the box.

Dubbed, and stolen from, his television show, my title was “The Nat King Cole Show,” a short-lived, two season hoped-for demonstration that an American Negro could sustain as host of a nationwide show.  It didn’t, but it did go from a 15-minute show in 1958 to a half hour in the second season.

The show ran on NBC, but couldn’t gain national sponsorship especially in the South.  But what did they know?  Cole, already a superstar having appeared on movie soundtracks, many personal guest appearances; a vastly popular radio show and many charted top pop hits.  He had guests, white and black clamoring to appear with him, the most swinging musician on the planet.  And he was winning polls as he went both as vocalist and pianist.

Cole’s influence and legacy as the latter is legendary as he took Earl “Fatha” Hines’ “trumpet-style” single line attack he learned from Armstrong and created pianists right up to the present including the likes of Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, and virtually all the beboppers.

In the end it was Cole who withdrew the show as he didn’t want to be a burden to NBC who had eyes to renew for a third season.  What did happen, however, was that his friends and show biz admirers volunteered their $multi-million talents to appear on the live broadcasts endeavoring to continue them making for some of the most “Unforgettable” music ever assembled.  You might “cache” up on them on You Tube.

Cole played Vegas many times but only once in a big room, The Copa Room, at the Sands, so Prof, Hanlon tells me.  Hanlon has lived in Las Vegas for more the four decades.  His personal vignettes astound me; “it really was a desert just like you see in the movies.”  And “Hoover Dam really changed all that.” (the movie “Chinatown” better tells that story.)  And “it was ripe for organized crime to move in as no one else cared.”  And ” ‘Bugsy’ Siegel really didn’t like that sobriquet.”

The Sands’ Copa Room was Cole’s only official live recording of his career.  (It’s still available.)  But his radio shows (bootlegs?) survive him as they were broadcast nationwide via radio from the lounges there and from hotels across the country.  Some of those tv episodes were taped in Vegas as well.

The stars abound in the videos: From the first show with Frankie Laine, to the last with Billy Eckstine and dozens in between, black and white (the guests as well as the broadcasts), chatting, doing corny skits and of course duetting. with the star.

It remains the only time Norman Granz and his Jazz At The Philharmonic troupe appeared, and the only time those players ever appeared together on national television.  Cole sat in with them; had the sax stars noodle behind him, names like Stan Getz, Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, Roy Eldridge, Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Jo Jones, Ray Brown; Ella Fitzgerald did a guest shot on her own.

Sinatra did a couple of turns with Cole singing and playing on each others 15 minute radio broadcasts.  The former sang with the latter on a Metronome All Star date.

All of that were the thrust of my lecture, which did not come off without out a glitch, or two, or three.  It’s tough to go from video to audio and back again with only one machine, let me tell ya.  It requires at least two which talk to each other.  My deft engineer had his hands full; there were long, pregnant pauses which cut into my presentation.  That won’t happen again on my watch.  Trust me!

It was the most difficult editing job we ever had to do, ad hoc as it was.

I thought that as much as Cole was a Las Vegas staple this one would draw the crowds.  Better than before, but not what we had hoped for.  “We had more phone calls on this one than on the others,” Prof. Hanlon said.  So Next spring we bring out the heavyweight: Frank hisself.  More on that in a later post.

© arnold jay smith October 2014




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