CHICAGO — It could not have been easy being the kid brother of Nat King Cole, an icon of American music.
But jazz singer-pianist Freddy Cole, who died June 27 in Atlanta at age 88 of complications from a cardiovascular ailment, carried that burden with remarkable grace and individuality.
True, his gauzy voice and speech-song delivery recalled his elder brother’s velvet vocals and easygoing manner (he sang the role of his brother in the Oscar-nominated film “Chico & Rita”). Freddy Cole’s fluidity at the piano similarly echoed Nat King Cole’s seemingly nonchalant keyboard virtuosity.
Yet the younger Cole never sought to imitate his considerably more famous sibling, nor dwelled on it as others did.
“Throughout my whole career, people see my name out there, and they think I’m going to sing ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Nature Boy,’ ” Freddy Cole told me in 2009, referring to two of Nat King Cole’s many hits.
“But I’m different.”
As if to underscore the point, his sets often included a tune whose title said it all: “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me.” Its beguiling lyrics included this tongue-in-cheek line: “Hey, if Nat sounds like me, well, what can I say?”
That summed up Freddy Cole’s casual dismissal of unwanted comparisons.
“It was never really a big problem with me,” he said during our 2009 conversation. “The problem was with writers and other people, they would conjure up certain things,” added Freddy Cole, who was born in Chicago, growing up on the South Side and in Waukegan.
The interrelationship between the siblings was stage center during last summer’s Chicago Jazz Festival, when Freddy Cole took the Pritzker Pavilion stage in Millennium Park to star in a centennial tribute to his brother, one of the most revered jazz musicians Chicago has produced.
Though a few weeks shy of his 88th birthday and arriving onstage in a wheelchair, Freddy Cole gave the 41st annual festival one of its most memorable and emotionally charged nights. Joined by son Lionel Cole, Freddy Cole drew audible sighs of recognition when he launched into “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” one of several tunes indelibly associated with his brother.
Then Freddy Cole moved on to “Sweet Lorraine,” another Nat King Cole hit, making a medium-slow jazz nocturne of the piece. And earlier protestations notwithstanding, he offered the aforementioned “Mona Lisa,” sung with considerable vocal heft, and an intensely narrative performance of “Nature Boy.” In so doing, Freddy Cole graciously tipped his hat to his sibling while creating interpretations that were distinctly his own.