For reasons we cannot explain we’ve long been fascinated by the famous people who were overshadowed by an even more famous people. Our two brothers have certain talents we do not possess, but not to the extent we ever felt overshadowed, so that can’t explain our affinity for all those less-famous siblings.
Bob Crosby’s Bobcats was a popular and top-notch if slightly outdated dixieland jazz band during the swing era, but he was never as famous as his brother Bing. Dom DiMaggio was an outstanding pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, but his brother Joe won championships with the New York Yankees and was by far the bigger star. Warren “Baby” Dodds is regarded as the first great jazz drummer, but he was always called “Baby” because his older brother Johnny is regarded as the first great jazz clarinetist. Here in Kansas you’ll see roads and buildings named for Milton Eisenhower, well regarded as president of Kansas State University and two other institutions of higher learning, but his brother Dwight was President of the United States. Liza Minelli and Betty Hutton and June Carter all had sisters who were so talented it’s a shame they’re largely overlooked.
We were reminded of this by an obituary in the Washington Post for Freddy Cole, who died Saturday at the age of 88. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he was a terrific jazz and soul and standards singer and pianist, and he was very popular in some unlikely foreign markets and managed to live comfortably off his talents over many decades, even though he never achieved the fame of older brother Nat “King” Cole.
Nat “King” Cole was one of the all the time greats, especially with his jazz trio but also with all the heavily-arranged pop stuff that made him rich, but his younger brother was pretty damn good. At first the younger brother was satisfied that his all-state status playing high school basketball surpassed what his brother had done on the athletic fields, but after an injury he decided to go with his musical talent. Freddy Cole was 12 years younger than Nat Cole, and by the time he started his musical career the older brother was the first black man to host a national television show and one of the most popular singers in the world, which didn’t do the younger brother much good.
Freddy Cole had a gorgeous voice and smooth piano patter similar to his older brother, but he mostly resisted the club owners and record producers who wanted him to cover the songs and imitate the style of Nat’s records. He had a bluesier sound than his brother, informed by a dozen years of musical trends trending toward to soul music, and it kept him steadily employed at fancy nightclubs and dives and honky-tonks. Along the way he had some regional hits, and was briefly a big deal in Brazil. When he turned 60, decades after his brother’s premature death, he started to get some recognition, racking up major label deals and several grammy nominations.
Freddy Cole left us on Saturday with an impressive body of work, even if you’ve never heard of him, and we think Nat “King” Cole would have been proud of his kid brother.
— Bud Norman