Toward the end of his all-too-brief life, the great pop singer and
jazz pianist Nat “King” Cole phoned his record company.
The switchboard operator answered: “Capitol Records, home of
the Beatles.” Cole slammed the phone down in disgust.
Understandably. Cole had been one of Capitol’s first great stars,
and here the company that owed him so much was identifying itself with
four upstart kids from England — who were, by Cole’s standards,
hardly musicians at all.
Today, when a Beatle dies, it’s like another Kennedy expiration.
The world falls all over itself in fulsome eulogies, as if a great
cultural and spiritual light had been snuffed out. When Cole died of
cancer in 1965, there was none of the silly fuss we saw last week at
George Harrison’s passing. It was just a sad moment; we had lost
a classy entertainer, and it was enough to say that.
Nothing against the Beatles, mind you. I never joined in the Harry
Potter-scale enthusiasm they inspired in my generation, but I liked
them well enough, and they produced a half-dozen or so good songs,
tunes that stay with you. Not bad, but nothing great. I long ago quit
playing their records, which don’t wear well; whereas I still
listen to Cole often.
I always marvel at the way his smoky voice handles standards like “Caravan,” “Ain’t
Misbehavin’,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “A
Cottage for Sale,” “These Foolish Things,” “Once
in a While,” “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” and
others too numerous to list. Romantic, polished, witty, singing every
note perfectly and endowing every word with meaning, he was a superb
interpreter of the finest American pop music. He didn’t always
choose the best material, and he was unfortunate in some of his arrangers;
but the records he made with his own trio and with Billy May hold up
One way to appreciate Cole is to try singing along with him. You’ll
quickly realize how deceptively easy he makes it sound. His timing
is flawless, he reaches every note without the slightest strain, and
he can hold a note indefinitely. His style is as subtle as it is powerful.
And George Harrison? Nice fellow, mediocre musician. We know far too
much about his personal life; not that it was disgraceful, merely uninteresting.
He dabbled in Hinduism and adopted an air of profundity that never
bore fruit in his work; his pseudo-spiritual song “My Sweet Lord,” far
from expressing depths of Eastern mysticism, was such an obvious rip-off
of the old Motown hit “He’s So Fine” that I wasn’t
surprised when he was successfully sued for copyright violation. If
he didn’t realize what he was doing, he had no ear for music.
He also didn’t have much of a voice.
This sounds harsher than I intend it to. I merely mean that Harrison’s
work can’t stand up under scrutiny. Like most rock music, it’s
childish. In order to celebrate him, you almost have to talk the kind
of nonsense we were hearing so much of last week.
Nat Cole’s personal life was probably far more interesting,
but nobody cared much about it, and he liked it that way. He was content
to be an entertainer, and he took pride in his work without losing
The Beatles were not so much entertainers as celebrities. Everyone
knew their music wasn’t meant to be savored, or even listened
to; their screaming fans made them inaudible, proving that the music
wasn’t the point. Celebrity-worship was.
The adoration they received made them self-important, John Lennon
most egregiously. He quickly succumbed to the temptation to make public
pronouncements on politics, religion, sex, and art, proving only that
he took himself as seriously as his fans did. He became brooding, shocking,
and generally as “artistic” as all get-out. It was dramatically
apt that he should be shot by a crazed fan.
Pure, distilled celebrity — as the man said, being famous for
being famous. The Beatles inevitably broke up, each supposing he could
take his share of the group’s fame and be independently interesting.
Maybe start a new religion or something. After Beatlehood, the sky’s
Maybe those of us who have never been Beatles shouldn’t judge
them too severely. That degree of celebrity would test anyone’s
maturity, never mind four boys in their twenties. Still, we might reflect
on the fact that none of Nat Cole’s fans ever tried to shoot
Copyright © 2012 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on December 6, 2001.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
Watch Sobran's last TV appearance on YouTube.
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during the FGF Tribute to Joe Sobran in December 2009.
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