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A Conversation with Will Friedwald about
Nat King Cole's Spanish-Language Recordings

By Fred Wasser
(August 2010)


Will Friedwald is a New York-based music journalist, critic, and author. His books include Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer’s Art; Stardust Melodies: The Biography of Twelve of America’s Most Popular Songs; and A Biographical Guide To The Great Jazz and Pop Singers.

Friedwald wrote the liner notes for salsa singer Issac Delgado’s new tribute recording to Nat King Cole, L-O-V-E  (Calle54 Records/Sony Masterworks).

Nat King Cole (1919-1965) recorded three Spanish-language albums: Cole Español (1958), A Mis Amigos (1959), and More Cole Español (1962).  He sang Latin standards and hired local musicians for the recording sessions in Havana, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City. Cole toured extensively in Latin America.

 

Before the three Spanish-language albums, how well known was Nat King Cole in Latin America?
Nat had played international rhythms before and was known internationally - in Latin America as well as France, and especially in England. I don’t think he was particularly beloved in Latin America up until that point. That would change. I think he was naturally amenable to the idea of working in other languages and doing songs in other markets.

Can you give me the list of the languages he did songs in?
There are examples of him singing in German, Japanese, in French. In Spanish, obviously. At least those four languages. In the late 1950s, pop was going ever more international. Singers like Connie Francis started a lucrative sideline of doing their hits in other languages. I don’t think Nat was the first, but he certainly did get on that bandwagon it has to be said. It was toward the end of his life that he started re-recording his hits, both contemporary and classic, in other languages.

How did he learn Spanish?
The truth is that he didn’t understand Spanish. But he had a natural ear for sounds. He wrote it out phonetically and he had a coach. He just worked at it. He did get the accent and the pronunciation wrong at times. There’s a story that Sammy Davis, Jr. was performing in South America later on, after Nat had died. Sammy was a fluent Spanish speaker. And somebody in the audience came up to him afterwards and said, “Oh, Señor Davis, we loved your performance. But it’s a shame that you can’t speak Spanish like Nat King Cole.” Which is ironic because Sammy Davis really could speak Spanish.

There was a kind of honesty and sincerity in Nat King Cole’s singing. It almost didn’t matter what he was singing.
Well – that’s right. He definitely has the emotion. He tells you the story. Obviously he couldn’t interpret a song in Spanish the way he could a Cole Porter lyric. He can’t phrase it the way that he can something in English. 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.

This affection that Latin America had for Nat King Cole. Was it the fact that he did these albums? Was it the quality of the albums?
I think it was both. The Latin community liked the idea that he was reaching out to them – that he wanted to record their songs in their language.  And they also liked the records themselves. He sings wonderfully.  And, these are some of the greatest love songs. 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 [at the age of 45, of lung cancer] just as the Bossa Nova was taking hold in America.

 

Fred Wasser's profile of Issac Delgado


 

 

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