Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Sun Will Shine: Nat King Cole: "Smile"

And now we have the first confluence of two previous number two performers/writers - Nat King Cole and Charlie Chaplin. "Smile" was written for Modern Times and then seemingly forgotten about, and then made a hit in '54 by Cole and has been covered consistently ever since, by those you would expect (Michael Buble, Holly Cole) and those who undoubtedly took the song other places (Michael Jackson, Sun Ra).  It is the oldest song here so far, and the most-covered.

As a song it is a little sweet, but completely sympathetic, and Cole sings it with an understanding - a compassion - that makes it like an aural big hug. He knows you want to cry; he knows smiling is hard (as opposed to pretending, which is easy) and he asks you to just try to smile - even a little smile will do. If your heart is aching or breaking, if it's been cloudy for days, a smile can make everything worthwhile (cue The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme, which is one of many distant relatives of this song). Cole knows, Cole has most definitely been there (again, there are ironies here of a black performer singing about smiling while your heart is broken) and Chaplin’s swoony tune gets a great deal of dignity from the gentle wisdom in Cole’s voice.

1954, of course, is the ‘official’ Last Year Before Rock in the United States (yes, I know the first ‘rock’ record was already old news, but I grew up with the constant bombardment that it all began in ’55) – and so “Smile” is also an example of a song that would go out of fashion in the US (the UK was a bit slower in this regard, due to cultural differences, not to mention the boom of a certain excitable music that is just getting started). Out of fashion because the ultimate point of rock was that if you wanted to cry, you should cry and only smile when you felt like it. (Rock as the ‘sensibility’ in Sense & Sensibility.) Young rebels in the next decade would rather be sneering, but there is a literal physical truth to what the man sings – smile and you do feel better. Ultimately, the smile you are giving to the world isn’t as important as the smile you give to yourself.

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