In January 2001 my father died at the age of 86. He was a writer and a musician, a man who revealed facts about his life in passing, never elaborating, never telling the stories behind them. One of the things he mentioned was that he’d played piano with Nat King Cole. At the time I found it hard to believe; Cole was a superb pianist himself – why would he want someone else to sit in. But after my dad had gone, I asked my mother about it. It was true, she insisted, although there were still no details.
It’s taken me 13 years to write this elegy for my father. Maybe it’s taken me this long to be a good enough writer to do him justice. There are plenty of facts in here – he was a pianist, he did have a band in Leeds in the 1930s, he did serve in India and Burma. He did end up spending four months as a guest at the Calcutta Country Club. He was a salesman. However, not everything might be real in the way it seems here. In thoughts and dreams, reality and fantasy bleed into each other. But, wherever he may be now, I hope he likes this. It’s what I can offer in his memory. He was The Man Who Played With Nat King Cole.
More than a year after the war and England still looked grey and sullen, as if all the effort had exhausted it. Grey November turning into cold, rainy December. As he walked the sky opened and he ran the last ten yards past to the pub, brushing the rain off his mackintosh as he entered. Half-past two and the bar was empty, everyone back at work. Even the old, hardened drinkers had gone off to rest. Only the barman remained, lazily washing the glasses massed along the counter.
The two o’clock appointment had been a waste of time. He’d known it from the moment he walked in, the wholesaler too distracted to pay attention. He should have just packed up the sample case and left instead of carrying on. But there was still one more in an hour, a customer who’d bought from him before. A little luck and he’d be driving home with a decent order. Enough to make today worthwhile, anyway.
“What’ll you have?”
“Just a whisky, please.” He counted out change as the man poured a measure into the glass and offered a tumbler of water.
He glanced around, spotting the piano in the corner. An old upright, the lid open like an invitation.
“Do you mind..?” He gestured towards the instrument and the man shrugged.
He tried a few scales. It was almost a miracle; every key worked and it was in tune. The ivory had browned with the years, but that didn’t matter. He let his hands move, forming a chord, then another. Almost without thinking it became I’m Getting Sentimental Over You. He’d played it every weekend in the 1930s. Back then he’d let Stan take the solo, the tenor sax so mellow and sensuous that the couples on the dancefloor always held each other closer.
Now the ideas flowed through his fingers, lightly picking out the melody before gliding up an octave while his left hand vamped the chords. Then he found the sweetness at the core of the tune, spinning and making it shimmer in the air. One thing suggested another and he lost himself in the music, slowly bringing it back on the chorus and finishing with a gentle flourish before picking up his glass and taking a drink.
“You’re not bad,” the barman called. “Want to give us another? I’ll pour you one more on the house.”
“All right,” he agreed and drained the glass in a swallow, feeling the heat in his throat and into his chest. “Any requests?”
The barman thought for a moment, smoothing his Brylcreemed hair.
“You know As Time Goes By?”
He smiled and began to play the chords. It was the one they’d always wanted in the NAAFI. Or even in the country club in Calcutta. That and White Cliffs Of Dover. After Casablanca, everyone loved As Time Goes By.
But the version he remembered was Cole’s. That voice like cream, slowly cataloguing every regret. He could hear it now, the pitch so perfect and pure that everything else fell away and all that remained was him.
He started to play arpeggios, using the pedal to make them hang, trying to capture that feel. A soft run at the end of the line and he was on his way, easing the melody into dives and curls. When he was done, the barman was standing by the table, holding out a double, a contented smile on his face.
“Professional, are you?”
“No.” He smiled, nodding at the compliment. “I’m a salesman. Manufacturer’s agent.”
“You should do it for a living. You’re better than them on the radio, if you want my opinion.”
“Thank you.” He looked over at the clock. Quarter to three.
“You play as long as you want, mate,” the barman told him. “It’s the best I’ve heard in years. I’ll just lock the door when it’s closing time.”
He started on Blues In The Night. He’d heard it out in India, playing on American Forces radio and loved the quiet way the tune progressed. So graceful that it almost seemed to fly. For more than a month he’d played it every day at the country club, exploring its corners, its nooks and crannies. Now he found them again, sweeping them out into the light. He gave the tune the gravity of a solemn left hand, transposing it into the minor before bring it back, allowing the tension to rise before he resolved it with a series of quiet, broken chords that satisfied his ear.
From somewhere below he heard the clatter of bottles, then the barman appeared with two crates of brown ale, looked at the clock, now right on the hour, and turned the key in the lock.
“Are you from round here, like? I’ve not seen you before.”
He shook his head.
“Leeds. I had some business up here. Some appointments”
“I’ll tell you what. I don’t know the sales game, but if you’re as good as you are on the piano you’ll be making a cracking living. I told you, man, I’ve not heard anything like you.”
“Music’s better as a hobby.”
“If you say so.” The barman shrugged. “You’ve got some colour on you. Overseas, were you?”
“India. RAF. I only got back six months ago.”
He’d been one of the last ones from the war. Out there in 1940 and not home until the early summer of 1946. Back to a daughter who didn’t know his face and a wife who didn’t want him anymore. Finding lodgings and taking Stan up on his job offer, selling knitwear to wholesalers. From Leeds all over the north east. It was the only reason he was in Sunderland today.
“Bloody hell, Ray, you’ve got the knack for this,” Stan told him after a month on the job. “These are better orders than I ever brought in.”
“Put me on commission, then,” he said impulsively.
Stan eyed him across the desk, his expression doubtful.
“You sure you want that? It’s chancy. All it takes is a couple of bad weeks and it goes arse over tip.”
“I’ll try it.” He had five months of back pay in the bank. Not a fortune, but a cushion that would see him through a lean time. All that money from when the RAF lost his paperwork. When he didn’t exist and he’d lived on the charity of the Calcutta Country Club.
The CO had arranged it, the last thing he did before he was shipped back to Blighty. He was embarrassed, sitting back in his shirt sleeves, the fan going full blast to try and break through the thick heat. He brought out a handkerchief and cleaned his spectacles, holding them up to the light before replacing them on his nose.
“I’m sorry, Nickson. They’ve made a balls-up of it. As usual. Can’t trust a pen pusher.”
“What do I do now, sir?”
The CO frowned under this thin moustache.
“That’s the problem, you see. Until they sort it out you don’t even exist. So they can’t pay you, or house you or feed you.”
“Sir?” He felt the panic beginning to rise in his belly, but the officer smiled.
“I had a word with a chum of mine. Move your kit over to the country club. They’re going to put you up there until everything’s sorted out. The clerk said it should only take a week or two, then they’ll send you back to Blighty.”
“Thank you, sir.” The gratitude in his voice had been real.
The CO waved it away.
“Can’t have you living on the street like a bloody native, can we?” He stood up and offered a handshake. “Good luck, Nickson.”
It was the perfect billet. The room was small and out of sight, but it caught the evening breeze. He had a wallah to take care of everything. Food from the kitchen that put some weight back on him after years of air force rations. And complete freedom of the place. All he did was swim, eat and spend his free time reading or playing the piano in the bar. Heaven after airfields tugged out of the Burmese jungle and the constant threat of the Japs attacking.
The fortnight passed. Soon, the clerks promised, patting their files and tottering heaps of paper; the paperwork would be through soon. Two more days, a week then another. “Soon” became an idea that retreated into the distance until it seemed mythical. He needed to be home. He could read between the lines in Maureen’s letters, how the love she felt had dried up and fallen away. He wanted to be home. If he was there everything would come right again and he’d see the little girl he only knew from the smudged, wilted photographs that had survived the heat and humidity to sit on his dressing table.
He took a drink of the Scotch and shifted on the piano stool. Without even thinking, his fingers moved into some stride piano. Octaves in the left hand, a steady syncopated beat while the fingers of his right hand played around with thirds and fourths before going into long, looping runs. It was a nothing, really, an exercise. But it was joyful, the kind of thing that set feet tapping
He’d played it over and over at the country club, along with every other piece he knew, improvising chorus after chorus to fill the hours. At first people gathered round, but the numbers dwindled as they all went home. The diplomats went first, followed by all the senior military staff, from generals to fawning aides-de-camp. Over four weeks there was a slow attrition, a few less each day until only the waifs and strays remained. Those who were stuck there. Some by choice, most because they had no opportunity to be anywhere else. And he continued to dredge up the tunes the band used to play, vamping and filling in the different parts. Tried to remember pieces from the radio. Anything and everything.
He lost himself in playing, letting it eat up the hours. He had all the time in the world. It wasn’t practice, it was pleasure. He improved. Over the last five years, since he’d joined the RAF, he’d probably had less than twenty hours to play. Now he sated himself.
“You must be a Tatum man,” the voice at his shoulder said and he stopped playing. He hadn’t heard the man approach; he’d been lost in a fantasy that built around the theme from Rhapsody In Blue. He turned and saw a US Army colonel holding a glass of Scotch. He was a stocky man, in his forties, with the same open face and buzz cut he’d seen on so many of the American troops. “Carry on, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“I’m fine, thank you, sir.” He took a sip of the lime juice and tonic. The ice cubes in the glass had long since melted. “I wish I could play like him.”
“No one can.” The colonel’s face creased into a smile. “I saw him in New York a few times. But you got the touch, son. Been listening to you for the last few days. Are you a pro?”
“No, sir. Never had the chance.”
The colonel leaned against the piano, took a packet of Lucky Strikes in an army green pack from his pocket and shook one out.
“You never had a band? You should, you’re pretty sharp.”
“I had a band.” He shrugged. “Before the war.”
But almost everything in his life dated from before the war. The band had begun while they were still at school: the Cockburn Boys, and they’d stuck together for most of the Thirties, playing dances around Leeds every weekend. Anywhere they could reach on the bus, anywhere that would pay them, with every member helping to carry the drums. They covered all the popular dance tunes, giving people a chance to kick up their heels on a Friday or Saturday night. But the real fun had come on the breaks, when he carried on playing alone and half the dancers would crowd around the piano.
He’d met Maureen that way. The first time he saw her she’d been with a boy. The next weekend, in a place in Wortley, she arrived with some other girls. It didn’t matter where in Leeds they played: Bramley, Holbeck, Pudsey, she was there. They began to talk, and soon enough he was seeing her. Courting. Ray was in his twenties then, with a good engineering job at Fairbairn Lawson, one with prospects for the future. They married in ’38, war clouds gathering behind the wedding.
“Get you another, son?” the colonel asked.
“Thank you, sir.”
The man signalled to the waiter and two more drinks appeared.
“What’s your name?”
“Nickson, sir. Leading Aircraftman.” He had to make himself stop before he gave his serial number.
The colonel smiled.
“Well, Ray, I’m Pete Austin, colonel with the US Army. Tell me something, you like Nat King Cole?”
“You know he’s playing a USO show tomorrow?” He knew. He’d read about it; he’d planned on going and hoping they let him in, even with the RAF uniform. “One of the things I do is work with the USO. How’d you like to go see him?”
The offer took him aback. “That would be…thank you, sir.”
Austin smiled again.
“You know where the show is, right?”
“You come on down to gate C at twenty-one hundred and ask for me. I’ll give you the best seat in the house, Guaranteed. That sound okay?”
“Yes. Of course, sir.”
Austin raised his glass in a toast.
“It’s a deal, then. I’ll see you there.”
He stood outside the gate, blue shirt ironed, a crease in the canvas uniform trousersA couple of guards stood casually at the entrance, Sam Brownes glowing with polish, pistols holstered by their sides.
“What you need, fly boy?” one of them asked.
“My name’s Ray Nickson,” he said, hoping that the promise hadn’t been a lie. “Colonel Austin told me to report here.”
The guard checked the name against a list on his clipboard.
“You’re okay. Go on through. Second corridor on the left.” The soldier’s hard mouth curled into a smile. “Enjoy the show.”
He followed the directions, footsteps echoing down a concrete tunnel until he could hear the restless voices of a huge crowd and came out at the side of the stage. The best seat in the house, the colonel had said; he’d told the truth. A grand piano sat on the stage and close by, a double bass on its side.
“Looking forward to it?”
Austin had walked up without him noticing. The colonel was freshly shaved, uniform impeccable, the cap low over his forehead.
“Yes, sir. And thank you for this.”
He was staring intently at the stage and the audience when three figures moved past, one stopping to give Austin a pat on the shoulder.
“This the guy?” A smooth voice, almost like cream, with a hint of the Southern states.
“Yeah, this is the one.”
He turned to see Nat King Cole staring at him, calmly smoking a cigarette, a hint of a smile on lips. Tall, slim, and just as sophisticated as the newsreel clips he’d seen. The man was wearing a light tropical suit, the collar of his shirt open, no tie. His hair was cut short and glistened with oil in the sunlight. The man extended his hand and Ray shook it.
“I’m Nat. Pete here tells me you play the piano.”
He didn’t even know how to answer. This man was a star, about to perform for thousands of people, and taking the time to talk to him.
“A little,” he answered finally. “I try.”
“The guy’s good, Nat,” Austin said. “He’s better’n that. I’ve heard the cat play. He could hold his own in Harlem.”
Cole raised his eyebrows.
“You know Getting Sentimental Over You and As Time Goes By?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
Cole gave a fleeting grin. “No need to call me sir.” He brushed a hand over his jacket collar. “No bars up here. I’ll give you a wave when it’s time. We’ll be in G.” He ground out the cigarette and ambled on to the stage, raising his hand to acknowledge the cheers before sitting at the piano and pulling the microphone close.
He was a superb pianist. Every so often he reminded the crowd of that, letting his fingers dazzle on a solo. But it was the singer that they’d really come to hear and he didn’t disappoint, his voice lazy and rich, nailing the emotion at the heart of a tune almost without trying. Ray desperately wanted to listen to it, to take it all in, but he couldn’t. All he could feel was fear so powerful he could barely move. Soon he’d be ought there, with a star, every eye on him. He was going to fluff it. He was going to forget everything. He looked down at his fingers. They seemed, fat, awkward, as if they’d never manage to play a note. He was still numb when Austin gave him a nudge.
“You’re on, son.”
The biggest audiences he’d had were church halls in Leeds where the couples didn’t care who made the music as long as it had a tune and a beat. And here there were…he couldn’t even guess how many thousands standing in the bright glare of the sun.
Cole stood and bowed to him as he sat on the piano stool.
“We’ll start with Sentimental. Take a sixteen-bar intro and give everyone the nod to come in, okay?”
The star moved to the front of the stage, to a waiting microphone.
“We got a bit of reverse lend-lease here today. This gentleman is British and I’m told he’s a good pianist. So we’re putting him on the spot. No warning, no rehearsal.” He turned and smiled kindly. “But I just know he’s gonna be good.”
Ray began the tune, a gentle run through the chords of the melody before his fingers explored a little. He stopped thinking about all the faces staring up at him and lost himself in the music, the way he did at the country club. Then he raised his head and suddenly there was a bass and guitar giving it a rhythm, while Cole eased into the first line, as relaxed as if this lineup had played together for years.
He kept to a soft vamp under the voice, a run or two between the lines. Then they finished the bridge and Cole said,
“Take it, Ray.”
He did, two choruses that started low and built, letting the double bass do the work of his left hand, leaving him free to fly, building and building until there was nowhere left to go and he finished with a series of chords that rolled down the keyboard before the verse returned. Cole was right there, entering perfectly on cue to finish off the piece.
The applause was deafening. So intense it scared him. But there was magic in it, too; the knowledge that part of it, at least, was for him. He glanced at the other musicians. They were smiling and nodding at him. Cole turned, raising a thumb in approval before casually saying,
“You know what to do, Ray.”
They let him stretch out on As Time Goes By. Before the solo he took a deep breath then let himself go completely, switching the melody between hands, bringing in broken chords followed a lightning tumble of notes that resolved itself just before it might fall apart, then finishing with the melody syncopated in the left hand and back into the tune. He’d never played it better and he knew it. He’d never play it as well again.
Once it was over he began to stand, hearing them all clap and cheer. The bass player and guitarist had their hands together for him. Cole strode over, beaming.
“Ray, man, that was beautiful.” He took him by the wrist, raising his hand like a boxing champion, and leaned close. “Listen, if you can get yourself to Los Angeles, I know a record company would love to record you. I mean it. Whatever it is, you got it.”
And it was over. He left, glancing over his shoulder to see Cole seat himself at the piano, in control again, with his trio, his music. Austin clapped him on the back as he came off, into the shadows of the wings.
“I don’t know where you’d been keeping that, but it was beautiful. I haven’t heard a piano played like that in years. Did you see Nat looking at you in that solo? You had him scared there.”
Ray shook the man by the hand and kept on walking. He felt so tall that he could have reached England in three strides.
He lifted his hands from the keys. Almost quarter-past three. Time for the final appointment of the day and the long, wet drive home. The barman was wiping the final glasses and stacking them on a shelf.
“You’ve got class in those fingers,” he said as he lifted the flap and came out “Come back anytime.”
The day after the concert he’d spent hours in the bar, playing, hoping the colonel would return. But there’d been no sight of the man, nor the day after or all the ones that followed. Just endless time to fill, playing, reading, swimming, until the papers finally came through and he was a person again. Then a month at sea. Suez and the Mediterranean before they docked at Southampton and he searched out the travel warrant to Leeds.
The barman held the door open.
“Still cats and dogs out there,” he said. “Good luck to you.”
“Thank you,” Ray replied and walked out into the rain. It was Sunderland on a Monday afternoon. A long, long way from Los Angeles.