Welcome to On Tape, CHIRP's weekly exploration of Chicago music in films, videos, and beyond. Each week, our editors will reach back into the archives for the interviews, music videos, live concert appearances, and found footage of the city's most important musical icons. This week: Nat King Cole.
I remember the first love song that I ever loved. I was in grade school, and my grandmother had just picked me up from school in her then-new 1991 Dodge Dynasty. Unlike her old, boat-like Toronado, the new car was smaller, more fuel-efficient. It also had a cassette player, which, on this day, contained one of the only tapes that my grandmother ever purchased: a greatest-hits compilation of Nat King Cole. My grandmother loved Nat King Cole; for years after this, even as her hearing and vision started to go, it wasn't uncommon to hear the opening strains of "Unforgettable" (then played on a CD player that she could navigate by touch) slipping through the crack in her door while she got ready for the day. However, that was all still to come.
We're still on a blustry fall day outside my crumbling old Catholic school, my grandmother signalling a right turn and pulling out onto a leaf-strewn stretch of Webster St. That's the day when I first heard "Bésame Mucho," a song that sticks with me now, almost 25 years later. In those intervening years, I've learned about Cole's rendition's place in the song's pantheon; it wasn't the first (that was Mexican crooner Emilio Tuero) or the most famous (Jimmy Dorsey took it to #1 in 1944) or the most curious (the song was included on the Beatles' unsuccessful 1962 audition for Decca Records). It's not even listed in the "Recordings and Performances" subsection of the song's Wikipedia entry.
For me, though, it's definitive, the way that any first brush with an artist or concept takes on an outsized reputation impervious to criticism or popular opinion. After I heard it on that car ride, I asked my grandmother to bring the tape inside, and played it over and over on a small black radio that she kept for weather emergencies. I didn't know that the song's title meant "kiss me a lot" (an activity that I wouldn't have to worry about for another decade or so), or that it was a minor part of Cole's formidable output. I didn't know much of anything, except that hearing his smooth voice over that tripping piano made my heart do a little backflip. Every time I pressed rewind, I think I was looking for that feeling.
Turns out, the song's author, Consuelo Velázquez, was in the same boat. She wrote the song when she was just a teenager, before she'd ever actually kissed anyone. A song that, on its face, seems like an ode to passion and experience is, instead, the wishful thinking of someone still too young to fully grasp the contours of adult love. In other words, the perfect first love song.
Since that day all those years ago, the song's taken on many roles for me. It's the song that started an appreciation for those jazz vocalists that never really went away. It's the song that gave me a window into my grandmother and her generation, and still makes me think of her whenever I hear it. It's the reason that, this Valentine's Day, I'm going to spend some time with Nat King Cole's 1963 BBC special, An Evening With Nat King Cole. "Bésame Mucho" wasn't on the setlist that night (like I said, the guy had great songs to spare), but it's still an enthralling look at a master of his craft.
If you have a minute, I hope you'll join me. Don't be alarmed if your chest starts to flutter a few songs in. From what I can tell, that's totally normal.