WHEN Gregory Porter arrived at San Diego State University on a football scholarship in the early 1990s, the first thing he did was seek out his new dorm room and “christen” it by playing his favourite artist at maximum volume.
“I was the only one there and I put on Nat King Cole. I’m blasting ‘The Song of Raintree County’ and everyone else comes in and goes ‘what is THIS?’ They were listening to Color Me Badd, A Tribe Called Quest, a lot of hip hop. They thought it was cool I had my own thing that they had never heard of.”
Nat King Cole was the closest Porter had to a father figure growing up in the hardscrabble neighbourhood of Bakersfield, in southern California, with a population of 365,000, 150km north of Los Angeles. Now he returns the compliment with a new album of respectful and insightful Cole covers — Nat King Cole And Me.
Porter’s father had walked out when he was a young child and, with eight children to take care for, his mother, a baptist minister, had to spread her attention. Amid the domestic anarchy, the music of Cole — so sad, reflective, and wise — became a road-map for Porter. He sensed that, with Nat King Cole as a role model, he would not go terribly far wrong.
“Early on, I remember my mother saying ‘oh you sound like him’,” he says. “She was joking — but it was still important to me. There’s a lot of wisdom in his music.”
Among black people in Bakersfield, Nat King Cole was so much more than a singer. He represented what black people could achieve — with luck, talent, and self-belief.
“My mother and grandmother were very proud of him,” says Porter. “He was the first black man to have a television show. His image was beautiful, his style was beautiful. This was a different image of a black man. During the Civil Rights era, he was very important. For me, as a young man, it was cool to see too. He was inspired by his father’s sermons. My mother was a preacher and, when I am writing, I am inspired by her sermons in the same way.”
The new collection is both a showcase for Porter’s extraordinary jazz voice — and also a refresher course in Nat King Cole. Along with standards such as ‘The Christmas Song’, he puts his own gilded twist on deeper cuts such as ‘Pick Yourself Up’ and ‘Miss Otis Regrets’, with lush backing from the 70-piece London Studio Orchestra.
He wasn’t puritanical about Nat King Cole’s music, he points out. He also enjoyed Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. But something about Cole’s old-school dazzle spoke to him at a profound level.
Porter is humble about this new album and doesn’t see it as his mission to spread the gospel about Nat King Cole. As an artist, Cole needs no introduction. That said, it would be immensely satisfying to highlight songs of Cole’s that go beyond the standards.
“He had such a broad style,” he says. “I’ll do a song and people will sometime ask, what is that? They are surprised it is Nat King Cole. When people come to the standards, if it’s male they automatically go to Sinatra. Nat was doing his own thing stylistically — he had his own musical school of thought.”
Nat King Cole found success early in his career. For Porter, the opposite was the case.
His childhood was tumultuous and he sustained facial scars aged eight, in an incident the details of which he is reluctant to go into (this is why he generally wears a balaclava-style headpiece in public).
A talented athlete in addition to being a virtuosic singer, Porter initially seemed destined for a career in sport. A shoulder injury during his first term at San Diego ended his dreams of making it in the NFL.
Not long after, cancer claimed his mother. In this dark time, music proved his salvation. On her death-bed, his mother urged him to “sing, baby, sing”. So he moved to New York, determined to break into the industry.
Initially it appeared that he was to be denied a fairytale ending. He was talented — but so were a lot of other people and he struggled for many years to make a breakthrough.
Porter was 42 when he released his major label debut, Liquid Spirit. At that point, he’d spent a decade and a half hustling to break into music — while sustaining a full time career as a chef in New York. Looking back, he wouldn’t change a thing. Those years of struggle made him the artist he is.
“You start to doubt yourself,” he says. “The clock keeps ticking. You turn 33, you turn 35. But now that I have had success. I’m not running out to buy fast cars. My maturity is part of my success — I can harvest really mature emotions and put them into my songs.”
His belief, however much it ebbed and flowed, never quite vanished and he was ultimately vindicated as 2013’s Liquid Spirit was acclaimed by jazz fans and went top 10 in the UK. It turned out that he was just getting started. Last year’s Take Me To The Alley was an even bigger hit and led to Porter selling out venues such as Dublin’s Olympia, while his version of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’, as made popular by Sinatra, soundtracked the 2015 Marks & Spencer Christmas ad campaign.
All of a sudden a music business that had rebuffed him for years took Porter to heart. Stevie Wonder is a frequent dinner guest, while in 2014 Liquid Spirit won Best Jazz Album at the Grammys.
“I was in San Sebastian and someone tapped me on the shoulder — it was [jazz icon] Herbie Hancock. I never thought I would have those friendships. I savour them. To be travelling the world — have a record deal — these are long time dreams. For most of my life it all seemed so far away from me.”