Resonance's 10 LP Hittin' the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) Is a "Completist" The Nat King Cole Story Prequel

You know what they say about audiophiles: only interested in what sounds good, music comes in distant second place or they repeatedly play the same few records, etc. You’ve heard the bad raps. Yet here’s a box set of vintage (read “old”) recordings digitized and processed that’s brought more inquiries into my inbox than many so-called “audiophile” recordings.

Readers want to know what’s the deal here, so here’s the deal: Resonance’s Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years 1936-1943 10 LP box set is a most worthy prequel to Capitol’s 1961 The Nat King Cole Story box set that consisted of new, faithful to the original stereo re-recordings of some of Nat’s greatest Capitol tracks, only here you get the original pre-Capitol trio tracks that highlight his piano playing expertly transferred from the “direct to disc” originals (most by the legendary [to those who know his work] Doug Pomeroy), compiled, assembled and packaged in a manner befitting the great Nathaniel Adams Cole a/k/a Nat King Cole (1919-1965), who lived a relatively short, often joyful, but sometimes painful life.

The almost 200 tracks here culled (you could almost say in some cases rounded up, hunted down and digitally captured) from a variety of sources are up-tempo swing era gems, the best known of which to casual listeners would be Bobby Troup’s (for a time husband of Julie London) “Route 66”, “Sweet Lorraine” and “Straighten Up and Fly Right”—all later re-recorded for Capitol.

This worthy centennial tribute demonstrates why King, though better known later as an incredibly successful “pop” singer, deserves to be fully recognized as one of the swing era’s best, most original and influential jazz pianists—listen here and then to Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson and others who followed.

You can be in the foulest of moods when putting on any one of the set’s 10 LPs. You will walk away uplifted and happy. Any other reaction is simply not possible. The trio’s playing is lockstep and crisply executed and King’s performances are especially noteworthy considering that he’s simultaneously playing and singing.

Producer Zev Feldman assembled a team of experts in every reissue category required to execute a complex project like this: from the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, to the Library of Congress and of course the Nat King Cole estate. Also involved were many Cole collectors, the jazz historian Will Friedwald and the aforementioned Doug Pomeroy whose earlier transfers were relied upon heavily here along with around 75 newly transferred tracks (almost ½ dozen by Pomeroy) from best available sources.

As your “mind’s ear” imagines how all of this might sound, keep in mind that most of these tracks originated as 33 1/3rpm 16 inch transcription discs—pre-microgroove monophonic vinyl records originally created for the motion picture industry and then adopted for radio. There are a few Armed Forces Radio Service transcription discs that also sound remarkably good.

Some tracks were only available as 78rpm shellac originals that have been newly transferred. Some are from metal parts that sound superior to pressed records.

While the “Technical Notes” note surface noise “inherent on all recordings”, for the most part you will not be at all bothered or distracted by any technical issues or additive distortion. And unlike the early digital days' overuse of noise reduction that killed transients, limited high frequency response and space, these new transfers and however the older tracks were processed sound quite “alive”. You might be surprised by the robust bottom end and the clean guitar string attack. While all of the tracks aren’t as immediate, if you start with Disc Ten Side One’s opener “Honey Hush”, you’ll be pushed back in your seat. The very top isn’t there, but the transparency and depth will pull you right in.

Often with “prequel” type packages you get a familiar artist in his or her formative and less than complete years. Not so with Cole. His artistry was fully formed by his mid 20’s when he began his recording career. Most of the tracks feature Cole with his trio featuring the guitarist Oscar Moore, with whom Cole seemed to be connected at the fingers. Listen in wonder to the two on “Black Spider Stomp”. The sound is also impressive.

The packaging is satisfying as well, from the box to the five double LP gatefold jackets to the full sized booklet and of course the information contained therein. You’ll enjoy perusing the many black and white photos and especially Will Friedwald’s essay organized as a labelography/time line that ends with a postscript that describes the “Romany Room” tracks and a few others that “…are so rare they weren’t even known to exist before we started work on this package….”.

There’s a well-deserved appreciation of guitarist Oscar Moore by guitarist Nick Rossi who explains that Moore’s “first idol” was guitarist Eddie Lang (real name: Salvatore Massaro) and that he was also probably taught by Phoenix-based Horace Hatchett who moved to California and later taught among others, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts and Carol Kaye. Sadly, Lang died March 26th 1933 at age 30 when an operation for septic tonsils failed.

BTW: if you can track down a copy of Blue Guitars (Parlophone PMC 7019) a compilation featuring Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson and some with Lang and Louis Armstrong’s orchestra, you will be well-rewarded!

I was turned onto it in 1969 at Minuteman Records & Tapes in Harvard Square where I worked after (law) school and began my Boston radio career by producing and voicing the store’s radio commercials (but enough about me). Just that I remember the event. Would I had someone given me a streaming URL? No way! Does that matter? Yes!

There are short interviews with Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Dick Hyman, Michael Feinstein and John Pizzarelli, Quincy Jones, and Nat’s brother Freddy.

Boomers who grew up with Nat mostly know the dreamy pop stuff from the ‘50s like “Mona Lisa”, “Ramblin’ Rose” and maybe even his acting turn, shortly before his passing, in “Cat Ballou” with Lee Marvin. But mostly I remember Cole’s television appearances and his short-lived television show canceled because of pressure on supportive advertisers from southern “deplorables”.

I remember as a kid watching Cole on the black and white television that accentuated some of his unusual facial features including his wide-set eyes (something Oscar Moore comments on in the notes: “The first time I laid eyes on Nat he looked like a real mean guy—his eyes almost closed, glintin’ out at you, diggin’ what was goin’ on. After I met him, I found out how wrong I was.”

By the time Cole had made it as a black pop star in a very difficult time, he’d lost any appearance of looking mean. Instead there was a sadness behind his perpetual smile that even a 10 year old could see. Only years later were revealed to the public his struggles with racism and the particularly despicable behavior by his Hancock Park Southern California “neighbors” who tried to prevent him from buying his home there. When that failed someone poisoned his dog and he awoke one morning to find “the ‘n’ word” burned into his lawn.

But back to this celebratory limited edition set sure to please in no small part because the 10 LPs were superbly pressed at RTI and the box costs a very reasonable $199.00. Very highly recommended—especially for those who bought and enjoyed the Nat King Cole Story (AAPP 1613-45, currently back-ordered) box set reissue or any of Analogue Productions’ double 45rpm Capitol Records Nat King Cole Classics (btw: the 9 for sound is taking into account the source material and how well it was mastered. Do not confuse it with a 9 for a more modern recording).

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rshak47's picture

and on the basis of what I've heard so far (2 cd) it's worth the time and money. The booklet that came with is a goldmine of information.

AnalogJ's picture

The CDs followed, but more time was spent on preparing them, according to Matt Luthans, who prepared them.

Paul Boudreau's picture

With this and the 1991 Mosaic box, one could truly “Nat out.” I imagine there are some tracks in common.

Thanks for the tip on the “Blue Guitars” LP. Just discovered that there is a Volume 2:

Tom L's picture
Paul Boudreau's picture eBay and for UK releases.

Tom L's picture

...and the guy gave it one star!
Apparently he bought the MP3 version (travesty!) and learned that it has 33 fewer cuts than the LP or CD versions.
Oh well.

JMCanalog's picture

Just received my box set today, and it indeed seems to be produced with the care and respect due such an important issue. Analog Productions has produced really beautiful reissues of key Capital Records albums that seemed to emphasize his vocals. (The Nat King Cole Story that AP did is especially stunning). Good as they are, they don't seem to highlight Mr. Cole's fantastic jazz piano work, which was more on display earlier in his career. I'm expecting to enjoy just that for several hours during the next few evenings. Hand numbered from an issue limited to 3000. Thanks for the review Michael.

xtcfan80's picture

Hey AP'ers ...Now on sale on the Resonance site. I'm watching the NCAA tourney and digging 10 LPs of the genius of Nat King Cole...Not a bad Sunday! The sound on this set in unreal....Skip the 59th reissue of Famous Blue Raincoat and BUY this supreme box set!!! As you probably know, Resonance Records is "Resonance Records is a division of the Rising Jazz Stars Foundation, a California 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation created to discover the next jazz stars – passionate, brilliant musicians from around the world." so you're supporting the future of jazz...