Cuban salsa singer Isaac Delgado’s idea to record the Spanish songs of Nat King Cole was one of those singing-in-the-shower inspirations — simultaneously natural and presumptuous. Few North Americans are aware that Cole was also a star in Latin America, recording three albums of standards in Spanish between 1958 and 1962 in Havana, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City that made him an idol in another culture.
Cole died in 1965, but for Cubans his status has endured. His smooth, intimate singing style was a central influence on the romantic bolero and filin song movements, while his performances at the Tropicana in the late 1950s inserted him into the glamorous legend of Havana’s golden age of music and nightlife.
Delgado’s new album, titled L-O-V-E after one of Cole’s English-language hits, invokes the singer as part of the legacy of Latin popular music.
Though many artists have covered the songs Cole made famous, most notably his daughter Natalie, no one until now has thought to cover the material he sang in Spanish.
When Delgado brought the idea of recording what he called “Cole Latino” to Miami producer Nat Chediak early last year, it immediately clicked.
Being the first to put a Latino stamp on a classic singer appealed to Chediak, whose Calle 54 label produced the come-back albums of master Cuban jazz pianist Bebo Valdés.
“The challenge of taking standards and updating them was right up my alley,” he says. “But the challenge to make them sound like they were conceived yesterday, and not 50 years ago, was what I really found appealing musically.”
Putting his spin on the Cole legacy was both alluring and intimidating for Delgado, a star of Cuban timba and salsa who defected in 2006. The album is his first venture away from the energetic style that made him famous.
“At first I was really afraid,” he says from his Key Biscayne home. “At home, whenever I was at the piano, my family, my mother would always ask me to sing these songs. But I never sang them in public.
“But it was a fear that passed quickly. I soon came to the conclusion that I had to sing this music the way I sing it, as an Afro-Cuban singer.”
For Delgado, the project is loaded with personal and musical nostalgia. His mother, Lina Ramirez, was a founding member of the famous song-and-dance group Las Mulatas del Fuego. Her first husband was composer Angelito Diaz, a pillar of the filin, the sentimental-song movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Delgado, 48, grew up with some of Cuba’s most famous romantic singers including Omara Portuondo, Elena Burke and Cesar Portillo de la Luz as close family friends.
“In Cuba my generation grew up listening to the music of Nat King Cole,” Delgado says. “My mother and all her friends would always say, `Oh, when Nat King Cole sang at the Tropicana, he was incredible.’ It was the music that my mother listened to, the music of my childhood.”
Already-popular songs comprised much of Cole’s Latino repertoire. He recorded his first Spanish album, Cole Español, in Havana in 1958, using illustrious Cuban musicians such as conductor and bandleader Armando Romeu Jr. Bebo Valdés played piano and coached the singer on the Spanish lyrics, which he learned phonetically and rendered rather stiffly.
Still, Delgado says, the American star had a big impact on Cuban listeners and musicians.
“The guy had feeling,” he says. “For Cuba he was important, because he paid homage to us and to Latin music. All the songs he recorded very directly, without pretensions to having a big voice — just wanting to communicate feelings. He had a language that was very direct, that anyone can sing or identify with.”
L-O-V-E includes Spanish versions of such hits as Autumn Leaves and I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face from My Fair Lady. (Delgado even recorded the über classics Mona Lisa and Stardust, although those tracks will be available only as singles online.) There also are Brazilian songs rendered in Spanish from Cole’s Rio de Janeiro recording, A Mis Amigos.
Some of the Spanish songs had already crisscrossed the cultural divide. Cuban composer Nilo Menendez’s 1929 Aquellos Ojos Verdes was a U.S. hit in Spanish and then, as Green Eyes, a No. 1 hit in 1941 for Jimmy Dorsey.
Cole’s youngest brother, Freddy, who has come into his own as a jazz singer in the past decade, shares the vocals on Green Eyes and Quizas, Quizas, Quizas/Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps. This is the first time the younger Cole has participated in a tribute album for his brother.
“I’ve been approached about it, but I just didn’t like the way it was being done,” says Cole, 78, from his home in Atlanta.
He was attracted by Delgado’s reputation and the caliber of the participating musicians, among them pianist and arranger John di Martino, a former musical director for Ray Barretto, with whom he had worked before. The lineup also includes Cuban jazz drummer Dafnis Prieto and bassist Charles Flores, who played with Delgado in Cuba and now works with Prieto and jazz pianist Michel Camilo.
“The way they were doing it was a first-class way,” Cole says. “I wasn’t going to be bothered with something where you’re using me to promote something else.”
He and Delgado hit it off in the New York recording sessions, and Cole is performing on the initial concerts to promote the album this month in California and New York. “He’s a very fine entertainer,” Cole says. “It’s easy to fall in love with Latin music. They have beautiful melodies, . . . and you can’t beat it rhythmically.”
Nat Cole began singing Latin music after adding bongo player Jack Costanzo, who learned his instrument in Cuba, to his trio in 1949. But his decision to record in Spanish seems to have had as much to do with his career aspirations as with musical affinity.
Will Friedwald, who has written extensively on Cole and did the liner notes for L-O-V-E, says the singer’s Honduran manager, Carlos Gastel, suggested it.
“Cole had a sense of how popular he was in the Spanish-speaking world and wanted to consolidate that,” Friedwald says. “He was internationally popular, and he grew to be much more so with the release of the Spanish albums.”
Sony Masterworks, which is distributing and promoting L-O-V-E, hopes the album’s nostalgic aura and Cole’s enduring popularity, combined with the allure of old-school Cuban music, will strike a chord with the sort of audience that made the Buena Vista Social Club such a hit. L-O-V-E has already been nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album.
“We thought it was a great lifestyle record,” says Angela Barkan, a Sony Masterworks spokeswoman. “It has an eclectic and interesting sound that didn’t necessarily fall into one category.”
Delgado says he just hopes the album will help people discover a musical legacy that has inspired him and, in a way, his country’s music.
“I did it for love,” he says. “I never thought I’d be able to do this album, but now I’m really enjoying it. This record is just for enjoyment, for people who like this music.”