Night Lights Classic Jazz

Nat King Cole’s St. Louis Blues

A so-called “biopic” of the blues composer W.C. Handy’s life, St. Louis Blues was Nat King Cole’s only role as a leading man.

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A so-called “biopic” of the blues composer W.C. Handy’s life, this 1958 movie was Cole’s only role as a leading man, and it also included Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, and Eartha Kitt in its all-black cast, along with the underrated Juano Hernandez (who had portrayed the trumpeter Art Hazard in the 1950 jazz film Young Man With a Horn) as Handy’s father. St. Louis BluesComing on the heels of Cole’s legendary but unsponsored and ultimately cancelled TV show, this film went out with high hopes on the part of its makers and stars, but it failed at the box office and is rarely mentioned in media accounts of Cole’s career. We’ll hear selections from the soundtrack album that Cole recorded with arranger Nelson Riddle, as well as music from Kitt and Ella Fitzgerald, who makes a brief appearance as herself late in the movie.

Mahalia Jackson appeared in the movie as Bessie May. Here she is with Cole on his TV show performing “Steal Away,” which she also sang in the film itself:

W.C. Handy was portrayed in the movie as a child by the young Billy Preston. Watch Preston and Nat King Cole performing together on Nat’s TV show:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1loV9_xLF8Q

Music Heard On This Episode

Careless Love
Nat King Cole — Stardust: 1955-1959 (Bear Family, 1958)
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Careless Love
Nat King Cole — Stardust: 1955-1959 (Bear Family, 1958)

Notes: Originally on the LP ST. LOUIS BLUES.

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St. Louis Blues
Nat King Cole — Stardust: 1955-1959 (Bear Family, 1958)

Notes: Originally on the LP ST. LOUIS BLUES.

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Memphis Blues
Nat King Cole — Stardust: 1955-1959 (Bear Family, 1958)

Notes: Originally on the LP ST. LOUIS BLUES.

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Chantez les Bas
Eartha Kitt — St. Louis Blues

Notes: from the 1958 film ST. LOUIS BLUES

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Yellow Dog Blues
Eartha Kitt — St. Louis Blues

Notes: from the 1958 film ST. LOUIS BLUES

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Careless Love
Eartha Kitt/Nat King Cole — St. Louis Blues

Notes: from the 1958 film ST. LOUIS BLUES

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Harlem Blues
Nat King Cole — Stardust: 1955-1959 (Bear Family, 1958)

Notes: Originally on the LP ST. LOUIS BLUES.

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St. Louis Blues
Pearl Bailey — St. Louis Blues

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

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Morning Star
Nat King Cole — Stardust: 1955-1959 (Bear Family, 1958)
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Steal Away
Mahalia Jackson — St. Louis Blues
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Beale Street Blues
Ella Fitzgerald — St. Louis Blues
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Stay
Nat King Cole — Stardust: 1955-59 (Bear Family, 1958)
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Joe Turner's Blues
Nat King Cole — Stardust: 1955-59 (Bear Family, 1958)
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St. Louis Blues
Eartha Kitt — St. Louis Blues
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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