Singer and songwriter Gregory Porter loves to tell a story about his mother driving past the monumental Capitol Records tower in Hollywood. The carpenter hat-wearing, double GRAMMY winner was about 5 years old, riding in the backseat of a station wagon, completely mesmerized by the sight of the jagged, oval-shaped “spaceship of a building,” as he recalls. Around the same time, the velvet-voiced baritone had penned and belted out his first solo performance. His mother insisted that his voice reminded her of the legendary Nat “King” Cole.
Porter didn’t put the architecture and physical appearance of Cole together, but knew in that moment he’d found his idol.
Fast forward to four decades later. The hefty vocalist’s fully blossomed talent seems effortless. His comforting delivery, eloquent diction, emotive expressiveness and clean vibrato brings him full circle, embracing the chance to record his fifth studio effort, Nat “King” Cole & Me, in homage to his musical hero. This is a magic moment for Porter, who records the LP’s big band numbers in the Capitol Records building in the exact same studio—same piano, furniture and a few of the session players—where Cole recorded. The album’s cover art was captured in the same studio, too: the Holy Grail that the Blue Note Records artist affectionately calls “the House that Nat Built.”
“That was all very special, very amazing to be in that space, to photograph there, and finish the record there,” the 46-year-old Porter reflects, a few hours prior to taping his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “This is my childhood. It’s a tribute album to the music that I listened to.”
Included among Albumism's 50 Best Albums of 2017, Nat “King” Cole & Me is the album Porter says he has wanted to embark upon for quite some time. He believes the project isn’t in the same vein as his previous releases stylistically. The former student-athlete at San Diego State University recorded the majority of the album’s 12 tracks (15 on the deluxe edition) in London with the London Studio Orchestra. Porter collaborated closely with composer and arranger Vince Mendoza to project his soothing vocal stylings—a fluid balance of low register, relaxed enunciations and peppered Spanish phrasing served alongside some soulful, Sunday morning gospel chops—over Mendoza’s lush arrangements, majestic cinematic-sounding scores, some swinging jazz and soft piano solos.
Porter often apologizes for delivering “long-winded answers” whenever he expresses his admiration for Cole. The self-acknowledged “student enrolled in the School of Nat” gets invigorated thinking about his conversations with Mendoza. The pair likes to think of Cole’s music as mini-motion pictures. “Mendoza’s arrangements are grand, and they give respect to the music and the honor I have for Nat,” Porter declares. Recording Nat “King” Cole & Me also gave Porter the chance to finally collaborate with trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard on both “L.O.V.E.” and “The Christmas Song.”
When Porter isn’t quoting a few of Cole’s signature lyrics or harmonizing a few melodies between responses, he insists that he’s not in the slightest trying to carbon copy Cole’s voice. He does, however, connect with Cole’s ingenuity whenever the legend sang a note. “It’s my foundation and understanding of music,” Porter says. “Naturally, that influence is there. The idea is to reference Nat as a musical entity who had his own unique and distinct style.”
What really attracts Porter to Cole’s career is how he managed being a successful black man in Jim Crow-era America. Cole, a native of Montgomery, Alabama, was a lean, debonair and clean-cut crooner and pianist who constantly encountered grueling racism despite making timeless classics like “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa” and “Unforgettable.” Cole was assaulted by white men during performances in the Deep South. Members of the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on the front lawn of Cole’s lavish estate in Los Angeles’ Hancock Park neighborhood. Cole’s neighbors in Hancock Park protested his family’s decision to live there. His landmark NBC variety show that debuted in 1956—the first ever hosted by an African-American entertainer—was cancelled in 1957 because it couldn’t garner a national sponsor.
Porter likes to quote Cole’s memorable statement following the show’s cancellation: “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” Porter admires how sophisticated and non-confrontational Cole was about racial prejudice in his music’s subject matter. “He knew who he was,” Porter explains. “He was constantly fighting for the rights of black people. He knew how important what he was doing was. Just undeniable genius.”
Intuitively speaking as he quotes a few lines from “A Blossom Failed,” Porter continues, “I don’t mean to read into his actions and performances, but he was saying to the whole of America that black people are worthy, deserve a place at the table, and should be valued as any other people. It’s just something I feel.”
Appreciative of Cole’s groundwork, Porter says he’s able to seize new opportunities for his music, something he mentions as “an element of his life and an ongoing musical chapter.” His three-part series on BBC Four, Gregory Porter’s Popular Voices, commemorates a century of vocalists through conversations with other musicians spanning genres. This coming Valentine’s Day 2018, the road warrior that plays about 250 shows per year is taking his customary, sold-out concert from New York City’s The Town Hall over to Carnegie Hall.
The teddy bearish-looking performer is considering having special guests join him and his band for the occasion. “I’m looking forward to it,” Porter says. “I’ll do what I been doing. People want to hear my different expressions of love, not just syrupy sweet love songs. They want to hear how you work through it, the consequences, and all of its different elements.”
Saying thank you to his idol is only part of what Porter values about recording Nat “King” Cole & Me. He thinks of the creative process as “an emotional pursuit, not a commercial pursuit.” The suave entertainer used the moment to heal an old wound of not having his father around him through his life. Porter reprises some of Cole’s inspiring lines and titles like “Pick Yourself Up” to keep him motivated.
Though Nat “King” Cole & Me was the project Porter always wanted to make, he says Cole’s full catalog is cathartic, labeling the music as his surrogate father.
“It means a great deal to me in the absence of those fatherly words that I wasn’t getting,” Porter confides. “They’re not just songs; these are prayers and ways to live your life by. If I wanted to sell another million-and-a-half records, then I would’ve made Liquid Spirit again [chuckles]. It’s not my pursuit. The idea, as with any of my records, is to sing and say what’s in my heart.”