Thursday, December 19, 2013


It's once again time to "officially" remember my friend Bobby Cole (September 8, 1932 – December 19, 1996). I suppose it would be more fitting to celebrate his birthday, but, like John Lennon, the date of his death in December is much harder to forget.

I've covered the circumstances of his departure from this orb in other posts. The basics of his life have also been covered here, and you can read his bio on Wikipedia, which seems to undergo revisions now and then, as various come-latelys manage to work in a line or two to get their name mentioned. Gone forever, fortunately, is the paragraph (from the defunct Jazzman website) that ridiculously described Bobby dying after slipping on an icy pavement and hitting his head.

Now, to "The Omen," which most fans of Bobby Cole never heard of. Guess what. For a long time, neither did I, and I was a close friend. I was close enough to have a key to his apartment (which was necessary during the times when his binge drinking required keeping an eye on him and making sure he was taking the medication that was supposed to help keep him sober).

One thing about knowing anyone with an interesting occupation, is that you often find yourself having to curb your curiosity. You don't want to seem like a brain picker. You know a don't ask medical advice. You know a singer, and you refrain from asking a lot of dumb fan questions. People who don't know me well, and start quizzing me about music, publishing, photography, radio, or other things that have marked my professional career, are not going to waste my time for too long. And those that do know me well, sometimes won't get much of a response if the questions are boring and involve things I've discussed way too often.

Fortunately with Bobby, I really didn't give a damn about Judy Garland (the subject of most fan interest in Bobby, due to his years of working and romancing with her). Bobby would often relax and regale with stories about Judy or Sinatra, or talk about the heyday of Jilly's etc., but it was of his own volition. But, if I followed up with a question, he might change the subject, as if I was getting too personal, or coming on like a reporter with a note pad. (The Photoshop montage is from an appearance on "The Judy Garland Show" made about three years before he recorded "The Omen.")

What I was more likely to ask about, instead of gossip about star-friends of his, was his music. Maybe a lyric line, maybe why he wrote his sheet music in extremely complex keys with a ton of sharps and flats. Mostly he liked this kind of shop-talk. After we were discussing the status of his new demos (for "Hole in the Corner Man," the album he kept putting off finishing), I said, "I've got your Columbia album, the one on Concentric, and the Bojangles single. Do I have everything?" He glanced, looked away, and said "Yeah." But…

….your download is the follow-up single to "Mister Bojangles." It's called "The Omen." It fulfilled his two-record contract with Date Records. Why he didn't mention "The Omen" to me, I have no idea. By the time I came across it Bobby was already gone.

Bobby was a complex guy, more than just a jazz singer, or a saloon piano player. Despite his gruff New York demeanor, he was quite erudite and well-read. His lyrics often had some intellectual cool. A lot of brainy jazz writers (Leonard Feather, Nat Hentoff, etc.) liked to mention that jazz lyrics weren't just light, or scat-singing silly, but often could be starkly poetic ("Strange Fruit") or sophisticated with complex inner rhymes (Cole Porter, etc.). Bobby's lyrics sometimes winked towards Cole Porter ("No Difference At All" comes to mind) or contained a poet's haunting imagery ("Growing Old"). Symbolism and references requiring some education ("Bus 22 to Bethlehem") were also part of Bobby's artistry.

"The Omen" seems to me a pretty defiant choice for a follow-up single to "Mister Bojangles," the Jerry Jeff Walker song that Bobby had masterfully transformed from a C&W strum into a moving ballad. His arrangement, used in subsequent cover versions from George Burns to Sammy Davis Jr. and back, emphasized the poetic aspects of the song, and the internal rhymes. The flip side, "Bus 22 to Bethlehem," was pure Bobby Cole, reflecting his life-long interest in religion (he did attend Sunday services after a wild Saturday night). And for his follow-up, he chose an even heavier set of lyrics.

"The Omen" begins with serious portent (the tolling of bells) and if that didn't put off disc jockeys, the tune's flute accents and jazz-pop arrangement had to. Then there's Bobby's voice. While he could actually drive home any song powerfully in concert (he was only about 36 when this single came out) he had chosen to sing softly on "Bojangles" and this song also has him in kind of a haggard state, world-weary as much as worldly-wise.

The lyrics, at the dawn of the psych-pop age, were still way too symbolic and advanced for a Top 40 single, and probably mystified any disc jockey who tried to make sense of them. There were exceptions ("Whiter Shade of Pale" a hit in the summer of 1967, a year before this was released) but not many. Even The Beatles kept their weirder stuff for their albums, not their singles. Ironically The Zombies were on Date Records at the same time as Bobby, and the somewhat mystical "Time of the Season" (Date 1628) was probably part of the same batch of new releases as Bobby's The Omen (Date 1630). Too bad that Date (basically a singles division of Columbia) didn't springboard "Bojangles" and "The Omen" onto a full album back then.

When daylight was still sleeping under the sea
And a few lingering stars in the heavens shone
Up from her pillow rose the blushing bride to be
It was the last time she was to sleep alone

Twas a handsome youth she buried her heart and her soul in
and she vowed to make the last tide just before noon
and it's been said that once the heart of a maid is stolen
the maiden herself will steal after it soon

She looked in the glass which few women miss
In which all women find time for a sly glance or two
A young butterfly fresh from a night flower's kiss
Flew between her and the mirror shading her view

Enraged at the insect for hiding her graces
She brushed him aside, and he fell, never to rise
Ah, said the girl, such is the pride of our faces
For which the soul's beauty and innocence too often die

Sometimes Bobby and I talked about his lyrics…sometimes there was a particular phrase that was intriguing. "'Melancholy bait? How did you come up with melancholy bait?" Or he'd explain why he wanted to call his new album "The Hole in the Corner Man." But "The Omen." You're on your own. Bobby's still around, but only when your turntable is spinning. Or your iPod is glowing. friend Bobby Cole. Here's THE OMEN.



tintin said...

Many thanks for your blog. I'm a recent fan of Bobby Cole and while there's very little on the internet about Mr. Cole, your blog is pure gold.

Marie said...

Yes, thank you for your wonderful stories and, of course, the music. Bobby Cole deserves to be found by a new generation of admirers.