‘Nat King Cole Christmas’ brings Cole’s classic stylings to Sandy Springs

Prolific Georgia lyricist Johnny Mercer collaborated with hundreds of composers from the 1920s to the 1970s. A co-founder of Capitol Records, he also shaped the careers of many musicians, including Nat King Cole, seen here. Georgia State University
Caption
Prolific Georgia lyricist Johnny Mercer collaborated with hundreds of composers from the 1920s to the 1970s. A co-founder of Capitol Records, he also shaped the careers of many musicians, including Nat King Cole, seen here. Georgia State University

Credit: HANDOUT, not for resale

Credit: HANDOUT, not for resale

On Nov. 20, four vocalists and a 15-piece band will cover his greatest hits, including many holiday songs.

For two decades last century, Nat King Cole was a ubiquitous pop culture presence, his warm vocals and presence transcending genres and enabling him to glide into the rock ‘n’ roll era unscathed. His hits during his prime included “Mona Lisa,” “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” and “Nature Boy.”

He died at age 45 in 1965 but his vast musical catalog endures. His daughter Natalie Cole in 1991 gave him a fresh generational kick when she recorded a “digital duet” with her late father to “Unforgettable” that became a top 15 radio hit on a chart that featured C&C Music Factory, Roxette and Amy Grant.

And thanks to the durability of holiday music, Cole’s voice still emanates over radios and streaming services worldwide every November and December, especially his take on “The Christmas Song.” His 1955 version is ranked No. 29 on the iTunes Top 100 most popular Christmas songs. On the Billboard top Christmas songs last year, Cole’s song came in at No. 5.

Producer and director Elizabeth Healy collaborated with the estate for Nat King Cole to create a new show called “Nat King Cole Christmas” debuting Nov. 20 at Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center.

It will feature four renowned vocalists and a 15-piece musical ensemble, 11 of whom hail from Atlanta including Sam Skelton. The two-hour show will include 21 of Cole’s classics, a blend of Christmas and other tunes.

“Nat King Cole is timeless,” Healy said. “We want Nat in the room. We bring him in with narrative through lines and historical anecdotes. We also have visual projections throughout the show including photos and video. It’s important to keep his legacy alive.”

Terri Lynne Carrington, the music director, said Cole was able to seamlessly intermingle jazz and pop: “Not a lot of artists have been able to do that and remain relevant this long.” She noted that Cole’s musicality as a pianist early in his career “helped him interpret melodies so well when he became a vocalist.”

She said the show versions of his Christmas songs will feature jazz elements. “It will be a little different but maintain the spirit of the original arrangements,” Carrington said.

Caption
One of the most popular holiday standards today remains "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole.

Credit: ALBUM COVER

One of the most popular holiday standards today remains "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole.
Caption
One of the most popular holiday standards today remains "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole.

Credit: ALBUM COVER

Credit: ALBUM COVER

The Sandy Springs show will also feature vocals and tap dancing from Jared Grimes, also an actor on the drama “Manifest,” now on Netflix after a run on NBC.

“Nat King Cole’s approach was so effortless, so pure,” said Grimes. “I call him a musician’s singer because his voice is an instrument. His instrument has so many different colors and textures and tones. I love the way he fills the space between the notes. It’s something innate for him that he clearly doesn’t even have to think about. It’s really awesome.”

“I came up in the 1980s,” Grimes added, “but I’m still celebrating the man’s music even while I’m listening to Kanyé West.”

Caption
Jared Grimes will tap dance to some Nat King Cole classics at "Nat King Cole Christmas" at Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center Nov. 20, 2021. PUBLICITY PHOTO

Credit: PUBLICITY PHOTO

Jared Grimes will tap dance to some Nat King Cole classics at "Nat King Cole Christmas" at Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center Nov. 20, 2021. PUBLICITY PHOTO
Caption
Jared Grimes will tap dance to some Nat King Cole classics at "Nat King Cole Christmas" at Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center Nov. 20, 2021. PUBLICITY PHOTO

Credit: PUBLICITY PHOTO

Credit: PUBLICITY PHOTO

This is a single performance, but Healy said she is confident it will do well enough to merit touring in multiple cities in 2022.

Healy already has a history with Cole. Two years ago, she put together concerts at the Kennedy Center in D.C. to celebrate Cole’s 100th birthday. Those shows featured the likes of Patti Austin, Eric Benét, Dulé Hill, BeBe Winans and Cole’s brother Freddy Cole, who died last year.

This particular show doesn’t have quite that level of star power but the musicians boast plenty of Grammy nominees and winners.

“You can’t have musicians who are too hip for the room or too square either,” Carrington said. “It takes people who understand the history of music, the history of jazz.”

Caption
Lisa Fischer will be one of the vocalists at the new "The Nat King Cole Christmas" Nov. 20 at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. ADAM JONES

Credit: ADAM JONES

Lisa Fischer will be one of the vocalists at the new "The Nat King Cole Christmas" Nov. 20 at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. ADAM JONES
Caption
Lisa Fischer will be one of the vocalists at the new "The Nat King Cole Christmas" Nov. 20 at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. ADAM JONES

Credit: ADAM JONES

Credit: ADAM JONES

Lisa Fischer, one of the show’s vocalists, said Cole brings nothing but warm memories of her childhood: “It wasn’t Christmas until we heard ‘The Christmas Song.’ We’d cuddle up on the couch and watch the Christmas lights on our cheap silver tree,” she said.

She loved how Cole could paint such a lovely picture with every song. Thanks to Cole, she said, “even in the projects of Brooklyn, I still knew the scent of a chestnut. It was the way he tasted every word. They seemed to have a flavor. It was like you were sucking on molasses. It was thick. It was rich. It was complex. It didn’t need to be overstated. It was classy and it was a life fully lived.”

Fischer ― who has provided backing vocals for acts ranging from Luther Vandross to the Rolling Stones to Chris Botti ― said she isn’t going to try to ape Cole in any way. “I just want to bring my complete self,” she said, “and balance that with the beauty that was his music. If you copy someone else, you may as well just play the original anyway. I will capture a song’s essence, whether it’s joyful, playful or excited. I can’t wait to do some duets. I just love the melding of voices and harmonies.”

Cole’s vocals enabled him to draw a wide audience even during a period fraught with racial tensions. He toured the world and aired multiple specials on TV. His appeal enabled him to host a variety show on broadcast TV in 1955 but despite his broad popularity, the lack of big ratings and persistent racist viewpoints kept major sponsors away. The show ended after 14 months.

“Madison Avenue [is] the center of the advertising industry,” Cole wrote in Ebony magazine in 1958, “and their big clients didn’t want their products associated with Negroes…Ad Alley thinks it’s still a white man’s world.”

Caption
The childhood home of singer Nat King Cole, shown in this May 1960 file photo, is for sale. The modest house, vacant for a year, is adorned with ``No trespassing'' signs that apparently have not stop vagrants from kicking in a back door and using it as temporary housing. ``That is why we want to sell it and have it restored as soon as possible,'' said Shirley A. Watkins, who inherited the house last year and hopes a buyer will turn it into a historic landmark. Cole lived in the house from 1919 until his family moved to Chicago in 1922. (AP Photo)

Credit: AP

The childhood home of singer Nat King Cole, shown in this May 1960 file photo, is for sale. The modest house, vacant for a year, is adorned with ``No trespassing'' signs that apparently have not stop vagrants from kicking in a back door and using it as temporary housing. ``That is why we want to sell it and have it restored as soon as possible,'' said Shirley A. Watkins, who inherited the house last year and hopes a buyer will turn it into a historic landmark. Cole lived in the house from 1919 until his family moved to Chicago in 1922. (AP Photo)
Caption
The childhood home of singer Nat King Cole, shown in this May 1960 file photo, is for sale. The modest house, vacant for a year, is adorned with ``No trespassing'' signs that apparently have not stop vagrants from kicking in a back door and using it as temporary housing. ``That is why we want to sell it and have it restored as soon as possible,'' said Shirley A. Watkins, who inherited the house last year and hopes a buyer will turn it into a historic landmark. Cole lived in the house from 1919 until his family moved to Chicago in 1922. (AP Photo)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Carrington, the music director, said she can’t fully comprehend the challenges Cole faced in that era. “I try to put myself in the position of Cole creating this art under those conditions,” she said. “He had to go through things that made him feel less than human. I try to look at what ties us together, what is our common humanity. His music does that in a way he didn’t always experience as a man.”


MUSIC PREVIEW

“Nat King Cole Christmas”

8 p.m. Nov. 20. $60-$80. Byers Theatre at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center at City Springs, 1 Galambos Way, Sandy Springs. 770-206-2022, citysprings.com.

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