Reviewed by Johan Palme on 10th December, 2015
Nat King Cole, perhaps the greatest popular music voice of the 20th century, was a heavy smoker. For just about his entire 30-year career he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, and a pipe. He thought it was what kept his voice low and smooth, but by the early sixties the constant tar assault on his lungs and vocal chords had made his stellar voice raspy and breathy. By 1965 it had killed him.
He didn’t know yet about the disease that would soon take his life when The Magic of Christmas was recorded, his only Christmas album. Nor when he recorded the definitive version of his Christmas classic “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)” the following year. Searching for little signs of world-weariness and fear of death in the recordings is a pointless excercise. And yet, it’s as if the voice knows, that just slightly fatering, rasping voice that 1960s recording technology captures so utterly uncompromisingly. There’s a worn, aging quality to Nat King Cole’s vocals, each throat imperfection adding layers of frazzled noise to the pianissimos and dampening the fortes.
Somehow, it all adds a haunting gravitas to this recording that a perfect Nat King Cole voice could never have achieved. Ralph Carmichael, the Christian-music-trained arranger of The Magic of Christmas, veritably assaults the listener with a gargantuan, blunt, brass-and-chorus arrangement straight from evangelical records, but Nat King Cole’s shrinking voice cuts through it all. (This reissue from only three years later also includes that definitive version of “The Christmas Song”, utterly incongruously spliced in but so good it somehow doesn’t matter.) The huge, professionally perfect arrangements and the utterly human, still masterly voice in their middle: it’s as if this record had been made to demonstrate the greatness of the traditional pop era. Rest in Peace, Nat.
The version available on all three services tacks on bonus tracks at the end that you don’t need. Tracks 2-16 are, more or less, the original reissue album from 1963. Exclude “The Christmas Song” for the 1960 version.