Interview recorded on March 23, 2012
Despite his own accomplishments as a musician, which includes studying at the Julliard School of Music, a Master's degree from the New England Conservatory of Music, dozens of albums, and induction into the Georgia Music Hall Of Fame, Freddy Cole has always lived in the shadow of his older brother, Nat "King" Cole. It is a position he has come to accept, if not fully embrace.
Nevertheless, he forged ahead with his own artistry. At 80 years old, he continues to record and perform all over the world. His latest album, TALK TO ME, was released last fall.
He shares with Darnell Meyers-Johnson how his love for the music keeps him inspired.
Darnell: Good day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today I’m speaking with a gentleman often referred to as “the Cole nobody knows.” In fact, that was the name of a 2006 documentary on his life. He is a Julliard trained musician, whose vocal stylings have been called expressive and pitch perfect. He will always be Natalie’s uncle and Nat King’s younger brother, but his own recording career spans over 50 years, and he’s not done yet. Last year he was nominated for a Grammy Award, and released his latest album TALK TO ME. Today, I am speaking with Mr. Freddy Cole. How are you, sir?
Freddy: Just fine. How are you doing?
Darnell: I’m great. I just want to say we’re delighted to speak with you and that you’re taking time out to talk with us today.
Freddy: Well, I’m glad I could be of some service to you.
Darnell: No problem. In the introduction, I mentioned that you are often called “The Cole nobody knows,” and as I said, that was the name of a movie they did on your life in 2006. It was also the name of an album you did in 1977. At this stage in your life, though, do you still feel like you’re the Cole nobody knows?
Freddy: Not really; I’ve come a long way since then. Actually, it doesn’t really cross my mind today. People, before they say my name, they say “Nat King Cole’s brother,” so that has changed a bit. So that means I’m making a little bit of progress, anyway.
Darnell: Most definitely. Of course I can’t talk to you without mentioning Nat King Cole. He was your older brother, 12 years older than you. Given the age difference, what kind of an older brother was he for you, growing up?
Freddy: Oh, he was great. He was great. We had a lot of things in common. He loved sports a lot and I played a lot of sports, just different things. I had the opportunity to hang out with him. I remember I was going out on the road with him sometimes in the summer time, when I was out of school. So, it was quite nice.
Darnell: He passed away at the age of 45. You yourself were still a young man, in your 30s. What do you remember most about that particular time?
Freddy: That particular time, I was out raking and scraping and hustling, doing what I had to do, I was playing in and around New York, and doing commercials and just really just living the life of a musician.
Darnell: Just like your brother, you started playing the piano as a young child. How were you introduced to that?
Freddy: Well, it was there--the piano was there in the house. I guess I just gravitated to it.
Darnell: Was there anything about the piano, as opposed to any other instrument, or was it just the fact that it was there in the house?
Freddy: It was there, you know, and I first started out beating on some drums, as a lot of kids will do, but it’s been the piano mostly all the time.
Darnell: You mentioned, just a second ago, that you were into sports, and I understand you were really interested in playing football professionally. At which point did you decide you were going to pursue the music thing instead?
Freddy: Well, I got hurt playing football and I had had several scholarships to go to school playing football. I got hurt playing football, and the next best thing that I could do was play music. I could play the piano, so that’s what happened. So I call that football injury my blessing.
Darnell: Yeah; at the time, were you concerned that you would be able to make a living as a musician?
Freddy: No, I wasn’t even thinking about it. I never thought about it that way. I was in the hospital and taking therapy and all. Then, I never thought about making a living. I was young, 17 … 18 year old kid. That doesn’t even enter your mind.
Darnell: You first appeared on record in 1952, you’re still recording your music today. Has the recording process changed at all for you? Have you noticed any difference? Has it been easier now, as opposed to back then, or was it easier then than it is now?
Freddy: In what way?
Darnell: … in recording songs when you’re in the studio?
Freddy: No! [laughing] You know, it’s definitely easier now, because I know more. Not that it was hard before, but I know more now, and I’m a featured artist and it just comes more natural now. You know exactly what you want to do, and this is what happens. You just come in telling guys what you want here and everywhere, and you’ve got professional musicians and they do it.
Darnell: You’ve recorded many albums throughout the years, but you also mentioned, a little moment ago, that you got into recording some commercial jingles. How did you get involved in that?
Freddy: Well, working around New York and meeting different people--and it’s how you meet this guy, you meet that guy, and you’re on this gig and you’re on that gig, so somebody says, “Hey, man, I’ve got a commercial; you want to play on it?” And this is how I got into that field. And it was very lucrative for me. I did very well with that. I had several national commercials that played, so it was very good to me. I can’t complain at all about that.
Darnell: Any of the national stuff you’ve done, anything we would have heard of?
Freddy: Oh, yeah, I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of them. I did one for the National Football League, I did one for … the first one I did was for Adams hats, and I was doing so many--I would be doing sometimes three and four a day, little jingles and what have you. When I first met Buggy Pizzarelli, that’s what we were doing; we were doing commercials.
Darnell: Talk to me a little bit about how that … because you were doing so many in a day, you just said, and I’ve heard from people like Patty Austin, and people like that, who’ve done commercial jingles, that sometimes it can be difficult trying to get exactly what they want in such a short period of time, but was that the case for you? I mean, you were doing so many in a day, I would think, it didn’t sound like it was that difficult for you.
Freddy: It was difficult to the extent that if you get one of those producers who wanted a certain thing and it had to be their way or no way, it could be a little aggravating. So you learn how to deal with all kind of people. So you just … when I go into the studio, if I’m doing something for somebody else, or what have you, I just sit and listen. That’s one of the things I learned how to do, go to studios and listen. That’s how you handle that.
Darnell: As a singer, people have always been quick to compare your style with your brother’s style. How would you describe yourself as a singer?
Freddy: I just sing.
Darnell: [laughing] Have you developed a certain style, or certain way of singing that you prefer, because you’ve been doing it for so long now, I would imagine –
Freddy: Yes, I have. I learned how to listen, and I learned how to put myself in situations in the music, and that’s what I do. Fortunately, I don’t worry about it. My main purpose is to be professional, and let it sound as good as I can possibly do.
Darnell: Okay, Billy Eckstine was a big musical influence for you, as well as a personal friend of many years. Last year, you were nominated for a Grammy Award for the tribute album you did to him, which was called FREDDY COLE SINGS MR. B. What was it about Billy Eckstine that left such an impression on you?
Freddy: There’s so many things about B. He was such a wonderful person. It’s very difficult just to pinpoint any one thing, but he was such a wonderful person, and a great singer, and a lot of people overlook his musicianship. He played the trumpet, he played guitar, he was a great writer, he was a very good writer. Those things never really come out. One of the things that, when we did that CD, was the fact that, as great singer as he was, you still don’t hear his music like you should--played on the radio. It’s kind of a drag, but that’s just the way of the world.
Darnell: Do you feel that way about your own music sometimes … that maybe it’s not out there as much as it should have been, given how long you’ve been doing it?
Freddy: No, I don’t feel that way. No, I don’t. But B was all-world, you know? He really had a lot of accolades bestowed upon him. In one song he used to sing, “If I never sing another song, or take another bow, I’ve had my claim to fame and you know my name.” So that’s who he is, you know. So I don’t worry about that at all. If I get in that position, that’d be great.
Darnell: Throughout the years, you’ve recorded some amazing classic standards, as well as some modern day pop standards. How do you select which songs you’re going to record?
Freddy: Well, it’s difficult. That’s the fun part about doing a record date, when you have control over what you do. You just search and search. Todd Barkan and I, we’ve been together a long time. We just compare notes. I tell him to write down some songs; I tell the person from the record company to write down some songs, and then, finally, we just keep narrowing them down to what we want to do, and that’s how it goes.
Darnell: For yourself, personally, when all these other people aren’t involved, just when you’re enjoying music by yourself, what do you consider to be a good song?
Freddy: It all depends on what you call a good song. Some people don’t call them a good song, but sometimes it’s the music, or sometimes it’s the lyrics. Sometimes it’s both. And sometimes it fits the situation that you’re trying to create on the album.
Darnell: What would you like people to know about your new album, TALK TO ME?
Freddy: I just want them to listen. I want them to listen. It’s a good CD, tells a nice story. Talk to me … not anybody else … talk to me.
Darnell: Is there any kind of central theme throughout the album?
Freddy: No, it just illustrates what is happening … talk to me. This guy or person having a talk with a certain significant other, or whatever you want to call it. Boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, whatever. This song can apply, beginning from the first tune on “Mam’Selle” which is a great song.
Darnell: And you do a couple of Bill Withers songs on there.
Freddy: Oh, yeah. Bill is my man. He’s a great writer … great storyteller, and it’s just a pleasure and a joy to do his work.
Darnell: You also do a very nice version of “I Was Telling Her About You.” A lot of people will probably know that one from Johnny Mathis, or they might even know the Nancy Wilson version that she did from the female perspective. There’s been a lot of versions of that song out throughout the years. Which one first caught your attention when you first heard that song?
Freddy: Al Hibbler. He was another wonderful singer. And Nancy’s, of course. It’s just a song that can apply to that situation, that’s all. You see it everyday.
Darnell: One of the customers who, on Amazon.com, who bought your new album said “It’s hard to believe I’ve never heard of Freddy Cole until now,” but they were grateful that they finally got a chance to discover your talent. Did you think, at this point in your career, that you would continue to gain brand new fans?
Freddy: Well, you never know. The way that things go, sometimes you get a break and sometimes you don’t.
Darnell: Right. You’ve been a resident of Atlanta for many years. In 2007 you joined the likes of Ray Charles and Otis Redding and Galdys Knight, and you were inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. What was that experience like for you?
Freddy: That was nice. That was very, very nice to be recognized and then put into the same category as these wonderful artists you just mentioned, and I was very grateful.
Darnell: And did you perform at the ceremony, how did …
Freddy: Oh, yeah, we did one song. I can’t even remember what song I did.
Darnell: I’m sure it was great, whatever it was. We’ve talked about Nat a little bit, and our readers at SoulMusic.com would be upset if I did not also ask you about your niece, Natalie Cole. I know you’ve done some things together live. Have the two of you ever appeared together on record?
Freddy: No. No, we’ve never been together on a record.
Darnell: Do you think that’ll ever happen?
Freddy: Well, you never know.
Darnell: Yeah. You never know.
Freddy: You never know. Stranger things have happened.
Darnell: Well, it would be nice to hear anyway. I can hear your two voices in my head. It would be nice if that could happen. I think the fans would love it. Well, we’re about to wrap up here, so just tell me what’s next for you? What would you like to do now, at this point in your life and in your career?
Freddy: Well, keep on swinging. That’s what I want to do. Keep on swinging until it’s over. Keep on playing music, doing the best I can, and music is my life and that’s what I do.
Darnell: Now, one of the things I wanted to ask you about that I didn’t is that you’re kind of talking about now just the keep going aspect of it. You’re a gentleman of a certain age, and some people, at that point, want to just sit back and relax, but you continue to record. You’re gigging all over the world still. What is it that keeps you going … that keeps you motivated?
Freddy: The music. The music keeps me going, and I try not to remember growing old. So I just keep on moving; It’s wonderful. You can have all kinds of aches and pains and problems, but when you hit the bandstand, everything’s beautiful. Like that song Bill Withers wrote, “it’s a wonderful, a lovely day.”
Darnell: Yes, and you do a lovely version of that too.
Freddy: Lovely day, that’s what it is. When you hit the bandstand, everything else is secondary.
Darnell: Sounds like the music is keeping you young. What is it that, for those of us who don’t appear on stage at all--and you appear on stage all the time--what is that live experience like when you’re in front of an audience?
Freddy: Well, it’s unexplainable. I can’t explain it to you because music touches people in different ways. But it’s a great feeling.
Darnell: Okay, well, I know that you have performances booked throughout the rest of the year. How can people find out where you’re going to be?
Freddy: Just go online and they have an itinerary of places and people I’m supposed to see and that’s the best way to get it.
Darnell: On your website?
Darnell: Okay, so we’ll put that information there. Is there anything that you would like to say that we haven’t talked about yet?
Freddy: Not really.
Darnell: [laughing] Alright. Well, that’s fair enough. Mr. Freddy Cole, I do appreciate your time and, anytime that you have anything going on, our doors at SoulMusic.com are open. So feel free to let us know the next time you’re coming out with an album, or anything that you’re doing.
Darnell: Alright, sir; be blessed.
About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.