Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Shirley Nanette Gets Her Overdue Due

Give and Take 

Shirley Nanette Gets Her Overdue Due

SHIRLEY NANETTE A Portland icon.
SHIRLEY NANETTE A Portland icon.

THE LIFE of any musician is filled with moments that could have sent her career down a completely different path. For Shirley Nanette, it was the recording of Never Coming Back in 1973.
The 66-year-old singer is now a well-established icon of the Portland jazz community, performing regular club gigs throughout the city. But back in the late '60s and early '70s, the goal was to stake her claim as the next big thing in soul and R&B, with a collection of loose, funky tunes that spoke of the power of love and equality.
Alas, it was not to be. Attempts to get the sessions released by one of the major labels of the day came to naught, and the 500 privately pressed albums that Nanette and her husband Al made left her with boxes of vinyl in her basement.
While she isn't hurting for work or recognition these days, Nanette is reclaiming at least a small part of her previous musical life with the help of Truth & Soul Records. The Brooklyn-based label reissued Never Coming Back last month, with lovers of rare groove and historians of '70s soul singing its praises at long last.
"I worked really hard on that album," Nanette says. "It's amazing to me that after 40 years, all of a sudden, there's this huge interest in this LP."
The return of Never Coming Back actually involves the other part of the US hipster-city triumvirate, Austin, Texas, and one of its longtime residents, David Haffner. The owner of the Friends of Sound record store and licensing company Magnetic Recordings stumbled upon a copy of the album while crate digging in Fort Worth.
"I found it in the 'gospel' section," Haffner says. "I looked on the back and recognized a couple of the names on it, like Billy Larkin. I figured out quickly it wasn't really a gospel record, and after I gave it a listen, I was pretty blown away." Haffner found kindred spirits in the folks at Truth & Soul, who agreed to fund the reissue.
Even for its time, Never Coming Back feels rough around the edges—likely due to the fact that the recording session at Vancouver, Washington's Ripcord Studio was so short.
"We had one day," Nanette says. "One day! It didn't turn out too bad, though. But if we'd have had at least a week, it would have been so polished, it would have been incredible."
What the songs lack in sonic depth, they make up for in power. The Meters-style workout of "All of Your Life" and the smoothly horn-inflected "Sometimes" are spirited, joyous tunes, driven by guitarist Hank Swarn's supple playing and the occasional flash of the horn section (including future Grammy winner Thara Memory). Of course, the strength of the album is Nanette. She's not a showy vocalist, but uses the clean, placid tones of her instrument expertly, mixing the jazzy inflections of Dinah Washington with the soulfulness of Gladys Knight.
Emboldened by her work, Nanette and her husband took a trip to California in 1973 to shop the album around and hopefully get a nationwide release. But, as she remembers, "It wasn't what anyone wanted to hear at the time. Jazz was really, really popular, so more pop and middle-of-the-road stuff was harder to get out there."
As dismaying as it was, Nanette didn't let it slow her down. She kept singing in various soul bands through the '70s before drifting toward the jazz scene in Portland, where she has been a fixture ever since. It may not have made her a household name, but to talk with her, she never gives the impression that she has any regrets about twists or turns her life has taken. That even goes for the brain aneurysm that she suffered last year.
"I'm a walking, talking, singing miracle," Nanette says. "They found, they fixed, and so... here I am.”
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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Groundbreaking Television: The Nat King Cole Show

"We proved that a Black star could play host to whites, including women, and we proved it in such good taste that no one was offended," Nat King Cole wrote in a February 1958 article for Ebony magazine.

"I didn't bend over backwards, but I didn't go out of my way to offend anyone." Nat King Cole was writing about "The Nat King Cole Show," the first network TV program hosted by an African-American.

When the groundbreaking program premiered on Nov. 5, 1956 as a 15 minute variety show, Cole - renowned for his smooth and well-articulated vocal style - was one of the highest paid blacks in the nation and one of the most successful entertainers in the world.

"The Nat King Cole Show" would become a defining moment for Cole - and for America - as racial tensions intensified during the start of the civil rights movement. "I was the pioneer, the test case, the Black first," he wrote. "I didn't plan it that way, but it was obvious to anyone with eyes to see that I was the only Black man or woman on network television with his own show. On my show rode the hopes and fears and dreams of millions of people."

Nat King Cole originally signed a contract with CBS in 1956, but the promise of his own program never materialized on that network, according to published
reports. Later in the year, NBC reached an agreement with Cole's manager and agency, who packaged "The Nat King Cole Show."

The first broadcast aired without
commercial sponsorship; NBC agreed to pay for the program with the hope that advertisers would soon sign on. The network even expanded it to 30 minutes and increased its budget.

"The Nat King Cole Show" featured excellent musical performances, with orchestra leaders Nelson Riddle and Gordan Jenkins and guests that included Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Pearl Bailey, Mahailia Jackson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte. But potential advertisers were reluctant to embrace the show for fear that it would be boycotted by radical, racist white Southerners.

"The Nat King Cole Show" was cancelled by NBC after Cole refused to accept a less desirable time slot - and after he had grown disgusted by the racism in the advertising business. "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark " said Mr. Cole.

The program's last episode aired on Dec. 17, 1957. Cole spoke out in Ebony two months later. The name of the article: "Why I Quit My TV Show." "For 13 months, I was the Jackie Robinson of television," Cole wrote. "After a trail-blazing year that shattered all the old bug-a-boos about Blacks on TV, I found myself standing there with the bat on my shoulder. The men who dictate what Americans see and hear didn't want to play ball."