April Love in Rio — Old Winter’s Song on Nat ‘King’ Cole’s Lips

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A Brazilian Affair

Nat "King" Cole at Rio's Maracanazinho in 1959
Nat “King” Cole at Rio’s Maracanazinho Stadium in 1959

No matter what your calendar might say Old Man Winter still holds sway in many parts of the U.S. With temperatures hovering near or above the freezing mark (especially at night), one would think that Jack Frost’s icy grip just plain refuses to let go.

Nevertheless, back in April 1959, a few short months before our family immigrated to America — with the first whiff of spring already in the Northeastern air — a reverse voyage was taking place in Los Angeles. Mirroring what would soon occur in the States, the summer heat was raging full force below the equator, bringing with it not autumn leaves but the oh-so-soothing sounds of a mellow-voiced troubadour named Nathaniel Adams Coles, known to millions of music buffs as Nat “King” Cole.

At the time, Cole and his family had taken off on a whirlwind tour of Latin America, an historic trip that not only brought them to Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Mexico City but to the Brazilian hotspots of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

In a 2009 piece by former LA Times writer Geoff Boucher celebrating the 50th anniversary of her father’s visit, Carole Cole, one the late singer’s daughters (who regrettably passed away shortly after her interview), recounted the staggering outpouring of love and affection that greeted Cole as he toured Rio’s jam-packed streets.

“There was so much affection it’s hard to describe what it was like,” Ms. Cole declared. “It was almost like the entire population of Rio de Janeiro turned out en masse to welcome him and throw roses at his feet. He and my mother were invited to stay at the presidential palace [in Laranjeiras], where he was treated like royalty” — an action befitting a man with the middle name of “King” (after the children’s nursery rhyme, “Old King Cole”).

Carole wasn’t the only family member to have experienced fond memories of the event. Multiple Grammy Award-winner Natalie Cole, an exceptional vocal artist in her own right, was a child of eight when her famous father recorded his first Spanish language album, Cole Español, in 1958. It became a huge international hit. Shortly afterwards, Natalie traveled with her dad on his seven-week excursion, where she “witnessed firsthand the adulation and esteem that Latin American fans showed” for the African-American crooner.

Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek greets the "King"
President Juscelino Kubitschek greets the “King”

“They loved, loved, loved him,” Natalie recalled, which was quite unlike how he was received at nightclubs in the South, or how he was mistreated by neighbors in L.A.’s upscale Hancock Park where he had bought a home. His own TV program, The Nat King Cole Show, which debuted on NBC in November 1956, was pulled from the air after only fourteen months for lack of sponsors, many of who feared a boycott of their products by skittish Southern viewers.

Earlier that year, Cole was attacked onstage during a kidnapping attempt in Birmingham, Alabama. Undaunted, he pressed on with the show. After the incident, Cole issued this prophetic statement: “You can erase a lot of things by gaining the respect of both races. Through the medium of my music I hope to make many new friends and change opinions regarding racial equality. I have always believed that by living as a full American dedicated to the democratic principle, I fight bigotry by example.”

“To All My Latin Friends”

In fact, the trail-blazing entertainer had set the example as far back as 1943, when he hired Carlos Gastel, a native of Honduras, to be his manager. It was at Gastel’s urging that the singer resolved to lend his talents to the first of three Latin-based albums.

His follow-up to Cole Español, A Mis Amigos (Capitol, 1959), was recorded in Rio with local musicians, and featured three contemporary tunes in Brazil’s native Portuguese: the rumba-like “Suas Mãos” (“Your Hands”) by Antonio Maria and Pernambuco; “Caboclo do Rio” by Idalba Leite de Oliveira; and “Não Tenho Lágrimas” (“No Tears to Shed”) by Max Bulhões and Milton de Oliveira, a fast-paced samba that Cole managed to toss off in animated if slightly inauthentic fashion.

A Mis Amigos (Capitol, 1958)
A Mis Amigos (Capitol, 1959)

As for Nat’s less-than-impeccable handling of the number’s tongue-twisting text, let’s say his ever-present charm and unaffected earnestness overcame any barriers in that department. At worst, he captured the music’s flavor and swing — and that’s what counts.

I can vouch for my fellow Brazilians’ fondness for this merry old soul, in his day one of the best loved of all American entertainers. My mother’s youngest sister, Noemia, remembered quite vividly the celebrated star’s initial appearances in São Paulo, relayed to listeners through live feeds. And indeed she should. For Aunt Noemia, besides having been a passionately devoted fan, owned dozens of Cole’s records, to eventually encompass his then-most recent effort, A Mis Amigos (a third album, More Cole Español, was recorded in Mexico and released in 1962).

Cole at the Copacabana Palace in Rio
Cole at the Copacabana Palace in Rio

Back then, Cole’s schedule of personal appearances in Brazil included seven performances at the Night and Day Club in Rio (April 13-19), fourteen shows at the Paramount Theatre in São Paulo (April 21-25), and three television and radio programs broadcast simultaneously from the Paramount.

Speaking nary a word of Spanish or Portuguese, Cole insisted on learning the lyrics of his numbers phonetically. Aware of his most-favored-singer status below the border, above all he wanted to show respect for his “many new friends” in the best way possible: by singing in his public’s native tongue. This helps to explain why Aunt Noemia — and countless other Brazilians — had made him “numero um” in their living rooms.

Will Friedwald, a New York-based journalist, music critic, and author, in a 2010 interview, explained that Cole “was naturally amenable to the idea of working in other languages and doing songs in other markets. There are examples of him singing in German, Japanese, and French.”

Although he admits the singer may not have been the first to start that lucrative trend, “he certainly did get on the bandwagon.” A savvy businessman who also happened to be closely attuned to the popular tastes of his time, Cole saw an opportunity to extend his reach beyond the home front.

According to Friedwald, Cole “had a natural ear for sounds. He just worked at it. He did get the accent and the pronunciation wrong at times… [Still], he definitely has the emotion. He tells the story. Obviously he couldn’t interpret a song in Spanish [or Portuguese] the way he could a Cole Porter lyric. But it’s still a love song no matter what the specific words are. Nat knew what he was singing. You certainly get that warm romantic feeling.”

The View from Abroad

“That voice, that style, he was so special, there was no one like him,” commented Bebel Gilberto, the daughter of bossa nova pioneer João Gilberto, who although born in New York and raised in Rio grew up hearing about Cole’s visit to Brazil from family and friends (much like this author has). “He meant so much to people all over the world,” Bebel continued. “I think he meant more to Brazil and Latin America than he did even to his own fans in America…”

It wasn’t only Cole’s immaculately produced smooth-as-silk tones that touched so many hearts, but his cultivated persona as well. “I remember hearing him sing and then when I saw him — so handsome — I wanted to know more about him and his music. He was the sound of America to many people.”

For someone with the soul of bossa nova in her bones, Bebel lamented the fact that the “King” never got around to recording a tribute to the popular Brazilian music genre. Friedwald concurred. “Obviously if Nat had lived, he would have gone on to do a bossa nova album. That was the next new thing. But of course he died in 1965 just as the bossa nova [craze] was taking hold in America.”

Cole did leave one tune for Brazilians to remember him by. His 1962 single, “Brazilian Love Song” (Breno Ferreira / Hoffman / Manning / Cole), originally associated with pop singer Wilson Simonal under the title “Andorinha Preta” (“Little Black Swallow”) and which Bebel Gilberto did a remix of on the album Re-Generations, includes the following lines:

Fly my Brazilian love bird
Fly to the one I love
Fly my Brazilian love bird
Fly to the one I love

Please won’t you tell her
That I’m the one who cares
Please bring to me her answer

Nat “King” Cole cared about other nationalities to the point of reaching out to them in their own words. Wherever he went, he brought warmth and April love to new friends and fans by means of Old Winter’s song.

As if that weren’t enough, he helped change many people’s views and opinions about race and racial equality through the medium of music — which, as we all know, is the universal language.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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