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Freddy Cole, performer who emerged from Nat's shadow, dies at 88
In a photo by Allen Lyons, Freddy Cole performs with his combo at a jazz festival in Edmonds, Wash., March 4, 2011. Cole, a pianist and vocalist who spent much of his musical life in the shadow of his brother Nat King Cole, but whose durable talents carried him through a triumphant late-career resurgence, died on Saturday in Atlanta. He was 88. Allen Lyons via The New York Times.

by Giovanni Russonello

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Freddy Cole, a pianist and vocalist who spent much of his musical life in the shadow of his brother Nat King Cole, but whose durable talents carried him through a triumphant late-career resurgence, died Saturday in Atlanta. He was 88.

The cause was complications of a cardiovascular condition, his manager, Suzi Reynolds, said.

Cole leaned toward a more explicitly bluesy style than his brother, who started out playing lively jump blues in the 1930s before mellowing out his sound and becoming one of the most popular crooners of the 20th century. Freddy Cole sang in a plain-spoken manner, always eye-to-eye with his audience, in a way that Nat — whose voice was floating, mythic, serene — never did. The title of Freddy Cole’s debut album, “Waiter, Ask the Man to Play the Blues” (1964), reflected the smoky barroom aura of his music.

Yet there was no mistaking the affinity between their vocal styles: warm and welcoming, every syllable enunciated with loving care and an inner glow. For Freddy, that resemblance proved a blessing and a curse.

As he aged, he embraced it — even as his voice accrued a slightly weather-beaten quality that Nat, felled at 45 by lung cancer, never had the chance to develop. In Freddy’s case, the markings of age only added to his elegance and expressiveness. In a 1999 profile for The New York Times, critic David Hajdu called him “one of the few male jazz singers these days who is still, at 67, at the height of his powers.”

Cole was nearing his 60th birthday by the time he finally stepped forward and firmly declared his musical independence. And when he did, it was with a wink.

In 1991, Sunnyside Records released “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me,” Cole’s first album to get widespread attention. On the title track, a strutting second-person testimonial written at the beginning of his career, he sings:

Well, I’m here to entertain you, in my own special way

And if I sound like Nat, well, what can I say?

Now, I offer no apology,

Because I am not my brother, I’m me.

But at the same time, he included a medley of his brother’s songs, followed by “He Was the King,” a tender tribute. Backed by a guitarist and a bassist — the format of Nat’s renowned trio — he sounded utterly willing to play ambassador and champion of his brother’s legacy.

With that album, he finally struck a comfortable balance: He made his disavowal a part of the act.

“The case of Freddy Cole is unique in contemporary music,” Hajdu wrote, “because his little-brother status appears to be both his lifeline and a shackle.”

Lionel Frederick Coles was born in Chicago on Oct. 15, 1931. (Like his brother, he would lop off the last letter of his surname when he became a performer.) He was the youngest of five children, all of whom learned piano from their mother, Perlina Coles, and most of whom became professional musicians. Their father, the Rev. Edward Coles, known as E.J., was a Baptist minister.

Freddy Cole is survived by a daughter, Crystal Cole; a son, Lionel, a professional musician; and four grandchildren. His wife of more than 50 years, Margaret Jones, died in 2015.

Cole was an all-state athlete in high school with dreams of playing professional football, but a hand injury derailed things. “I couldn’t continue playing football, so the next best thing I could do was play the piano,” he said in a short 2006 documentary, “The Cole Nobody Knows,” which took its title from his 1977 album of the same name. “It came out to be my blessing.”

He refocused on music, performing in Chicago nightclubs and enrolling in the Roosevelt Institute there to study music. Nat, who was 12 years older than Freddy, had already scored multiple No. 1 hits by the time his brother began playing professionally. Aware of Freddy’s talents, Nat encouraged him to try his luck on the New York scene. Freddy took his advice, enrolling at Juilliard.

Two years later, in 1953, he had a minor hit on Okeh Records, “Whispering Grass,” a dulcet pop recording that played up his vocal resemblance to Nat. He began working regularly as the pianist for major bandleaders like saxophonists Benny Golson and Sonny Stitt while studying toward a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory in Boston. He developed a close friendship with vocalist Billy Eckstine, who became his mentor.

Cole toured Europe in the mid-1960s and developed a small following there. In 1971, with the New York jazz scene sputtering, he moved to Atlanta, where he continued performing and recorded intermittently.

After his brother’s death in 1965, Cole resisted calls from promoters seeking to bill him as a tribute act, and kept a relatively low profile. For a time in the 1980s, he was playing six nights a week at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta; he self-released a couple of albums around that time on his own label, Dinky Records (which borrowed a nickname Nat had given him as a child).

Yet it was in his autumn and winter years that his star shone brightest. Starting in the 1990s, he performed often at venues and festivals around the world and released a string of well-received albums, mostly on the Fantasy and HighNote labels. Four were nominated for Grammys in the best jazz vocal album category, though he never won.

In these years he occasionally performed alongside Natalie Cole, Nat’s daughter, who had become a star in her own right.

“How am I different than Nat? That’s for you to decide, but I feel there’s a distinct difference,” Freddy Cole told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “But I don’t worry about it. What I worry about is sounding good. I go and play music and do the best show I can do.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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