Nat King Cole rambles back to the top

I’m nervous, I admit it. Tomorrow night, “The Tim Neely Experience” makes its live radio debut from 8:30 to 10 pm Eastern time on WSWE-FM-LP from the campus of Sweet Briar College.

It’s been almost 33 and a third years (!) since I’ve been a disc jockey.  In 1981 and 1982, I was a DJ on WSND-AM, the tiny radio station of the University of Notre Dame that, at the time, could only be heard via a closed-circuit “carrier current” line that was fed though the dorms’ electrical systems. Eventually, the system became so poor that it changed its name to WVFI and became an Internet-only station. I also spent a summer on WSND-FM, which could be heard for about a 25-mile radius around Notre Dame. During most of the day, the station played classical music, but after midnight, it switched to free-form rock, sometimes jazz, depending on the whims of the announcer. The show aired under the collective name of “Nocturne Nightflight.” (I wonder if the station still uses that name.) That summer was fun, because every once in a while, I’d hear from some people far off campus.

From a young age, I pretended to have my own radio station, and if no one was around – and sometimes, if someone was around and I didn’t know it – I’d announce the record I just played and mention the one I was about to play. My fake radio station had three different names at different times – WTIM (from my first name), WTCN (for my initials), and WNVR (because you “never” know what we’re going to play next!).

I’ve put a bunch of favorites onto two thumb drives – enough music for at least five shows, but I’d rather have too much than too little. It’s now on the computer at the radio station; I wanted to do that when I didn’t have a time crunch. Wish me luck, or say a prayer, or send positive vibes my way.

Today’s entry from The Top 1,000 Hits of the 1960s is by one of the most popular singers of the 20th century.

Nat King Cole was a regular on the top 10 of the hit charts from 1943 through 1955. But when his biggest hit of the 1960s peaked at #2 in 1962, it was his first Top 10 single in four years and his biggest hit in seven years.  It’s a song that many Cole aficionados treat with indifference, if not with derision. But it introduced him to a new generation of radio listeners, many of whom would explore his back catalog and find a lot of gems.

# 151
Ramblin’ Rose / Nat King Cole /
Capitol 4804
(Total points: 1,607 / Chart debut: 8/4/1962 / Chart peak: 2 / Weeks on chart: 16)

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of Nathaniel Coles (born March 17, 1919; died February 15, 1965), best known by his stage name Nat “King” Cole (the quotes around King were eventually dropped), to Capitol Records. His King Cole Trio, an influential jazz combo, had their first hit single in 1943 with “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Their album of 78 rpm records, The King Cole Trio, released in 1944, was #1 the first week that Billboard published an album chart. Eventually, he became almost exclusively a singer, and he was one of the most popular in the United States. The famous Capitol Tower, a Hollywood landmark completed in 1956, was called “The House That Nat Built” because of the role his record sales played in Capitol’s success.

But by 1962, almost all of Cole’s popularity was outside the singles chart. He still sold LPs at a reasonable clip; a 1961 album, Wild Is Love, had made the top 10. He remained a popular nightclub entertainer and television guest. His smooth style, though, had not produced a big hit single since “Looking Back” in 1958.

Then a change hit the Hot 100, and Cole capitalized.

The most notable predecessor to the style of “Ramblin’ Rose” was Ray Charles’ version of Don Gibson’s 1958 country hit, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” With strings and backing vocalists behind Charles’ earnest vocals and piano playing, the song was a huge #1 hit in the summer of 1962. Following shortly on its heels was another vaguely country-sounding #1 smash, “Roses Are Red (My Love)” by newcomer Bobby Vinton. Neither really was “country” by the standards of what was on the country charts in that era, but that didn’t matter.

“Ramblin’ Rose,” recorded on June 19, 1962, was written by brothers Noel and Joe Sherman (not to be confused with another set of Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, who wrote music for many Disney films starting in this era). Noel and Joe had written several hits for others, including “Juke Box Baby” (Perry Como) and “Graduation Day” (The Four Freshmen; The Rover Boys); they also had composed songs that Cole had issued on singles, though none were big hits. Producer Lee Gillette and arranger/conductor Belford Hendricks gave it the same somewhat country & western feel that the Charles and Vinton hits had.

After hearing the final result, Capitol felt it had a hit on its hands; it took out an ad in the July 21 Billboard to express its confidence in “Nat’s most commercial, right-for-the-market [single] since ‘Send for Me’ and ‘Looking Back’.” Two weeks later, “Ramblin’ Rose” entered the Hot 100 at a modest #91. But it started to take off. By the end of September, it had reached its #2 peak, stalling behind the huge hit “Sherry” by the Four Seasons. The last prior Cole hit to get that high was “A Blossom Fell” in 1955, which peaked at #2 on two of Billboard’s three primary singles charts of the era.

An album appropriately called Ramblin’ Rose, including both sides of the single plus 10 country songs recorded quickly in a similar style, followed; it would peak at #3 and spend more than three years on the LP chart. Cole was riding high again.

Collector’s notes: Both East Coast and West Coast editions of “Ramblin’ Rose” exist. The first pressing has the publisher listed as “Comet Music Corporation ASCAP”; the second has the publishing as “Sweco Music Corporation BMI.” The single was issued with a picture sleeve.

Fast fact: At least two other songs called “Ramblin’ Rose” exist, including one from the immediate post-Big Band era and one recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis just a few months before the Cole hit.


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