This week, Ira Sternberg spoke with Freddy Cole.
Lionel Frederick (Freddy) Cole, appearing in Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center October 7-8 in “The Freddy Cole 85th Year of Celebration,” was born on October 15, 1931, the youngest of Edward and Paulina Nancy Cole’s five children. His three elder brothers, Eddie, Ike and Nat (12 years Freddy’s senior) were all musicians.
“I started playing piano at five or six,” Cole remembers. “Music was all around me.” In the Chicago home of his youth, visitors included Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Lionel Hampton. He also credits Billy Eckstine as a major influence. ” He was a fantastic entertainer,” Freddy recalls. ” I learned so much from just watching and being around him.” After a possible career with the NFL was shelved due to a hand injury, he began playing and singing in Chicago clubs as a teenager. Although he was ready to hit the road at 18, his mother intervened and he continued his musical education at the Roosevelt Institute in Chicago.
Cole moved to New York in 1951, where he studied at the Juilliard School of Music and found himself profoundly influenced by John Lewis, Oscar Peterson and Teddy Wilson. He got a Master’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music and then spent several months on the road as a member of an Earl Bostic band that also included Johnny Coles and Benny Golson.
It was back in New York that Cole successfully laid the groundwork for a career that continues to flourish to this day. He developed a vast repertoire of songs in Manhattan bistros and concurrently began to supplement his live performances with television and radio commercial jingle work.
A resident of Atlanta since 1972, Cole has been a recording artist since 1952, when his first single, “The Joke’s on Me,” was released on an obscure Chicago-based label.
Cole doesn’t apologize for sounding like his brother, Nat “King” Cole. There are certain unmistakable similarities. He plays piano and sings and performs live with guitar and upright bass, just like Nat. Yet his voice is raspier, smokier, jazzier even. But he has emerged from the awesome shadow cast by his elder brother. In truth, his phrasing is far closer to that of Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday than that of his brother and his timing swings a little more. His vocals are among the most respected in jazz.