Thos Shipley presented a tribute to Nat King Cole Saturday evening, March 25, at the Metropolitan Room to a sold out audience, both vocal and warmly enveloping. Shipley’s is a relaxed and open personality, unpretentious and accessible. Whether that was cultivated by, or enabling of, his varied background, I cannot know. But it works. (Shipley was raised by a teacher mom and army dad; spent his youth in Japan; studied electrical engineering, followed by acting and singing; performs locally and internationally and is now Ward Councilman in Roselle Park, New Jersey.) You want to like this man, and he makes it easy. He is, despite his current political role, a cabaret professional who has precisely prepared all aspects of the performance – befitting his broad experience on Broadway, regional theater and local and international cabaret and recording. And, again, it works. The show feels spontaneous and relaxed – perhaps because of the careful preparation.
Shipley was backed by Tom Guarna on guitar, David Finck on double bass, and Mark Soskin on Piano. These very able musicians had too brief opportunities to solo, but made the most of each one. Each is individually impressive, but they were there in the service of Shipley, and Cole, and delivered a smooth, and, as needed, swinging or syncopated sound, providing solid but unobtrusive support.
The show opens with a brief video of Cole; Shipley enters and blends into a Cole lyric to join the two performers, so we are immediately engaged, and alert to the connection. The band starts and we are launched into a medley of Straighten Up and Fly Right (Cole, Mills), I Love You For Sentimental Reasons (Watson, Best) and Route 66 (Chuck Berry, a timely reminder of his recent passing).
Shipley intermittently tells us a bit about Cole (nee Nathaniel Adams Coles), instructed by his mother in classical piano but, to his father’s chagrin, finding his heart in jazz. (I have supplemented the Cole history here.) Cole struck out on his own at 15 and gained renown for his piano playing. He was christened “Nat King Cole” by a band mate and initially prodded to sing, reluctantly, by an insistent, tipsy patron. He sang, then, a song that became one of his signature numbers; so did Shipley: Sweet Lorraine (Burwell, Parish) – with a brief but captivating Soskin solo.
Cole was so widely recorded that Shipley had a broad repertoire from which to choose material strongly associated with Cole’s name. Each number will resonate with many as being the Cole song they best remember. With the medley of Nature Boy (attributed to Cole), Mona Lisa (Evans, Livingston) and The Christmas Song (Wells, Torme), I heard Cole in Shipley, and relaxed into the evening.
The show is a tribute – not a recreation, but Shipley has, in addition to his own sonorous sound, much of the warmth and (for this performance, at least) some of the musical mannerisms of Cole, so that Cole is often spontaneously recalled to memory. This is helped in part by the (minimal) costume changes and the instrumental backing, both stylistically reminiscent of Cole.
Shipley related an aspect of the racism of the time that kept Cole in his place and at least privately somewhat bitter: Cole was simultaneously lionized for his talent and vilified as a black man attempting to popularize “black” music. He was personally harassed from both sides of the issue, but he strove to open the national entertainment industry to blacks. He enjoyed a truncated single season hosting a variety TV show on NBC, which footed the bill until it was agreed that, for fear of southern backlash, no national sponsor would be forthcoming. Despite support of black and white headliners (Nelson Riddle, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Pearl Bailey, Mahailia Jackson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte – among others, working for minimum scale), the show could not be sustained. Cole was physically attacked and intimidated. Without stressing the connection, Shipley sings the plaintive Smile (Chaplin, Turner and Parsons).
With the advent of Rock and Roll, Cole bridled, but Shipley relates that he did expand his jazz approach to include pop and country music; Shipley dons a new jacket and hat to evoke the ‘Cole cool’ to perform Send for Me (Jones) with some nice solo licks by Guarna, and Wild is Love (Rasch, Wayne). A silky rendition of It’s a Beautiful Evening (Rasch, Wayne) again brought back Cole for me.
As a performer, Shipley reflects those characteristics we might expect him to have picked up from his parents – discipline, a work ethic, respect for himself and his audience. He is clearly working on stage: not straining but delivering; not enraptured by fully engaged. He is confident, comfortable, musical and enjoying the process. You will too.
After additional Cole standards, Shipley began to wind down the evening with the obligatory Unforgettable (Gordon). The audience was not ready to end the evening. A video of Cole was projected on the back of the stage and Shipley again echoed Cole in voice and movement – bringing the performance full circle to the initial montage. Shipley thanked the staff, the musicians, the audience, his manager and husband, and slid into the “final” number of L-O-V-E (Kaempfert, Gabler). At this point, the audience was singing along unbidden and would barely let Shipley off the stage. An encore of Paper Moon (Arlen, E. Y. Harburg and Rose) closed the performance. This is an enjoyable show for boomers who listened to Nat King Cole when growing up and for new comers to the American Songbook – who never had the pleasure.
Shipley will be performing on May 18, 2017 at Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in Nyack at 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.; current booking information can be found at www.ThosShipley.com. He plans to return to the Metropolitan Room in the summer.
Photos by Fred R. Cohen. Go to his website for more information.