Straighten Up and Fly Right: Danny Bacher and Nat King Cole – An Inspired Meeting

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Listen to your grandparent’s Big Band and Swing recordings and WNEW’s Make Believe Ballroom, learn how to play a musical instrument, and start singing, preferably not later than the freshman year of high school. Thank goodness our grandparents kept the old records and tapes, bless their hearts. They clearly had an uncanny instinct that their vinyl treasures would live again one day. And, who among us doesn’t want to assume the role of a jocular disc jockey for a precocious grandchild?

Fast forward a couple of decades, and a dynamic young talent, Danny Bacher, brought all of what he had absorbed and learned, plus his evident passion to the stage of the American Popular Song Society. On April 20, Board member and Contributing Editor Marilyn Lester produced her annual salute to jazz, sweetening it with a celebration of Nat King Cole’s centenary.

Backed by Jason Teborek on piano and Dean Johnson on bass, and dressed in a fuchsia colored jacket, black shirt, and a snappy breast pocket handkerchief, Danny arrived with his soprano sax and more than a baker’s dozen of Cole’s songs. During the enthralling program, he sang, played, informed, joked, and generally charmed the audience. The only thing missing was a drummer to underline the punch line of the jokes, not that the predisposed assembly required a prompt.

Danny opened with the irresistible “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” written by Cole in the Winter of 1943, and the first song recorded with the King Cole Trio for Capitol Records. Cole, broke and hungry, sold the song to Irving Mills, a music publisher, for $50. It was not uncommon to see Irving Mills listed on a piece of music as a composer, a lyricist, or both. He often appeared as a collaborator with well-known songwriters such as Cab Calloway, Jimmy McHugh, and Duke Ellington, who, for the sake of exposure, agreed to have 50% of his future royalties on some of his biggest songs go to Mills.

Throughout the program, Danny alternated between singing and playing, the transitions virtually seamless; the voices of the singer and sax both smooth and mellow. A well-respected jazz musician, Danny provided plenty of expert scatting, and was especially generous to his fellow players, each of whom contributed extended solos. Among other tunes which had been covered by Cole, either with or without the King Cole Trio, played by the Bacher team, were “Let There Be Love,” “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good for You,” “Around the World,” “Day in, Day Out,” (with just a brief piano interlude of “Night and Day,”) “These Foolish Things” and “The Best Man,” in which a man laments that while his best friend stole his girl, he’s decided to be his best friend’s best man.
The Danny Bacher Trio played on with “These Foolish Things,” “The Very Thought of You,” “The Frim Fram Sauce,” “Orange Colored Sky”, “Love,” “Mona Lisa”, “Unforgettable,” and an instrumental rendition of “Penthouse Serenade,” one of eight all instrumental tracks recorded in 1952.

Danny also performed “Sweet Lorraine,” said to be Cole’s first unofficial solo. During a performance with the King Cole Trio, a drunk had requested the tune, but, after rewarding the trio with a 15 cents tip, the lush attempted to retrieve the nickels because no one recognized his second request.

Over the course of his career, Nat King Cole recorded more than 600 songs, 21 of which placed in the top ten, and 4 at #1: “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” “For Sentimental Reasons,” and “Too Young.” In addition to those played by Danny, some of Nat’s most memorable recordings were “The Christmas Song,” “Pretend,” “Ballerina,” “Answer Me, My Love,” “A Blossom Fell,” and “That Sunday, That Summer.” Cole’s last winners were “Ramblin’ Rose,” released in 1962 (competing against “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “The Twist,” “The Loco-Motion,” making his uncredited film debut in Citizen Kane in 1941 as a piano player, Cole had his own television variety show on NBC. Previously, he had appeared numerous times on television, including 14 guest shots on The Ed Sullivan Show. Although Nat’s program featured Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins as conductors and major stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Margaret Whiting, Billy Eckstein, Stan the South. When NBC approached Cole about giving up his prime- time slot to make room for a western, he decided to walk away. Most importantly, Cole opened a door for other African-American artists – Diahann Carroll, Bill Cosby, and Flip Wilson – among them.
One could assume that not many APSS members have seen Danny Bacher perform before. As he himself has admitted, he doesn’t usually do a Saturday afternoon gig. Consequently, his rare daylight appearance on April 20 made the show accessible to all, night owls and early risers alike. It was obvious from the start that Danny and Nat King Cole are a good match. With such a vast catalog to choose from, it couldn’t have been easy to narrow down the options. Nat King Cole ranged far and wide in choosing the songs he would record and managed to make many good choices. Similarly, but with the advantage of knowing which of Cole’s songs were successful, Danny picked several which fit his energetic style quite well. We’re thankful that Marilyn Lester persuaded Danny Bacher to spend the afternoon with us and wish him much success.

Editor’s Note: If you’d like to hear more of Danny’s playing, purchase one of his CD’s: Swing That Music and Still Happy.

Originally published by the American Popular Song Society. By Jerry Osterberg

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