“(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” (1946) The (Nat) King Cole Trio

“(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66”

Composed by Bobby Troup; arranged by the King Cole Trio.

Recorded by the King Cole Trio for Capitol Records at Radio Recorders(*) in Los Angeles, March 15, 1946.

Nat “King” Cole, piano and vocal, directing: Oscar Moore, electric guitar; Johnny Miller, bass.

Note: The story and music for this post were researched and written by San Francisco-based guitarist Nick Rossi, whom I consider an expert on the music and history of the King Cole Trio. Thanks Nick!  I provided minimal production assistance, a bit of research, and some editing. (MZ)

The story:

The King Cole Trio’s recording(s) of “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” may very well be the song that launched a thousand cocktail combos in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The commercial recording that was made on March 15, 1946, was released in early spring 1946 by Capitol Records. It became an instant classic, and an essential part of the repertoire of any self-respecting three piece (piano, guitar, bass) jazz outfit playing lounge gigs from coast-to-coast. That commercial recording was marketed to record buyers and jukebox operators. But another recording of “Route 66”  by the KCT, which is also presented here, was made a little over a month later for Capitol’s radio transcription service. That recording, which was played on radio, helped ensure that nearly any swing fan across the country could readily catch an earful of the hip and happy music of the KCT. In many ways, “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” was a perfect encapsulation of post-World War II optimism in the USA, delivered in sparkling fidelity by Capitol Records, the Los Angeles-based record label that then, seemingly, nourished notions of some type of California Dream. In retrospect, it remains one of the songs most closely associated with Nat Cole’s early career.

“Route 66” was composed by vocalist, pianist, actor and guitarist (!) Bobby Troup (shown at left in the early 1950s), who was still known professionally as “Bob” in 1946. “Route 66” went a long way toward reviving his career in music, which began in the late 1930s and early 1940s with considerable success, as as a songwriter. In addition to some songs he wrote for Tommy Dorsey’s band then, a song he wrote in college, “Daddy,” became a big hit in 1941, and was recorded by Sammy Kaye, Glenn Miller, Kay Kyser, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, among many others. So Bobby Troup was a known quantity as a composer of popular songs before World War II.

This print ad appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Friday, February 1, 1946, page 4. Courtesy of Nick Rossi.

Troup served in the U.S. Marine Corps from early 1942 through early 1946. Upon being discharged from the Marines, Troup drove from Chicago to Los Angeles on U.S. Route 66, and took note of the towns he passed through. Upon reaching Los Angeles, he sought out Nat Cole, who with his King Cole Trio, were then a very hot act whose fame was spreading rapidly. According to Will Friedwald’s excellent Nat King Cole biography (1), Troup first demonstrated his song “Baby, Baby All the Time” for Cole backstage at Hollywood’s Trocadero night club, where the Trio not only performed regularly, but whose lounge had been renamed the King Cole Room in their honor. Cole took note of that warm ballad (which he later recorded), and then asked if Troup had… “anything else. So I played him half a song I’d made up in the car driving to the Coast. He asked me to finish it and bring it back, (which I did. Nat) …liked the song and rushed the recording through.” (2) Troup’s initial meeting with Nat Cole about “Route 66” would have happened circa February 1946, which means the song was still relatively new to the KCT when they first recorded it the following month.

The music:

As popular as the long-available March 15, 1946 KCT Capitol commercial recording of “Route 66” was and remains, the second pass, cut on April 25, 1946 for Capitol Transcriptions, has piqued the interest of some of the most discerning Trio fanatics. The two versions are similar, following the same arrangement almost to the letter. However, the improvisations differ, and the transcription reflects that the Trio had been playing the song for the previous five weeks regularly. More liberties are taken in it. Recording sessions for both versions were held at Radio Recorders in Los Angeles.(3) One could be forgiven for thinking the two recordings were made on the same date because their ambient sounds are so similar.

What has long struck me about “Route 66,” particularly the transcription version, is Nat and Oscar’s subversion of the blues. In form, the song essentially follows a 12-bar blues format, and it is taken at a gloriously swinging medium tempo, with bassist Johnny Miller providing absolutely essential rhythmic drive. The solos of Cole and Moore never stray far from the blues, whether they are playing riffs, obbligati, or taking solos. However, they each steer clear of cliche’ in ways very reminiscent of tenor saxophone giant Lester Young, a musician they both admired greatly. Even simple pentatonic figures (five note scales at the core of much blues playing), are subverted in such ways that one is constantly caught off-guard, even after listening to the recordings multiple times. Such an approach to playing the blues was not unique, not even in 1946. Charlie Parker immediately comes to mind as another player from the same time period who managed to do something similar things with the blues. But especially in the transcription recording, it is almost as if the Nat and Oscar, within the King Cole Trio, were using a different musical language: part swing, part bebop, but all very much their own.

Another point to consider is how historians have often contrasted the King Cole Trio with the Three Blazers, another mid-1940s Los Angeles-based band, led by Oscar’s older brother Johnny Moore. The Blazers, who were quickly ascending in both local and national popularity in early 1946, have often been portrayed by music historians, with some inaccuracy, as the “bluesy” version of the King Cole Trio. They seemingly found a bigger audience in the Black community for their music, while the KCT was very successful with all audiences. And while it may be true that Johnny Moore’s approach was much closer to what we now think of as Rhythm and Blues, Cole and company repeatedly demonstrated on record not only how comfortable they were with the blues, but how they could use that idiom to create something unique, innovative, and popular. (Above right: Nat Cole with Oscar Moore in the background.)

While it is often difficult to focus solely on Oscar Moore’s guitar playing on most of the King Cole Trio recordings due to its near constant interplay with Cole’s piano, a few attributes can be pointed out here. First, hook riffs aside, Moore does not repeat himself in either recording of the song. When he does partially recycle an idea, it quickly takes a different turn – often quite unexpectedly so. The April (second) recording also gives us more background riffing, ostensibly with some commonplace ideas, which upon closer scrutiny have some of the same subversive characteristics as the more straightforward jazz soloing. It’s hard not to compare Moore’s soloing on a blues such as this to similar tempo recordings by his brother Johnny’s band. But such comparison’s reveal Oscar’s inventiveness: he demonstrates both a deep grounding in the blues idiom, yet at the same time complete ease taking liberties with it.

A word about the brief, flubbed starts that are a part of the radio transcription presented with this post. (They were not included on the issued radio transcription disks.) While far more commonplace in recordings made a bit later using magnetic tape, these glimpses into the recording process are relative rarities from the time when masters were cut direct-to-disk. We also get to hear the voice and whistle of recording engineer, Lee Gillette, who would later (as a producer) play a much more important role in both the Capitol Records and Nat King Cole stories.(4)

Additionally, we get to hear Oscar Moore experimenting with his guitar sound, something he seems to have been particularly keen on doing during the mid-to-late 1940s, based on the number of different instruments he is seen playing in photos in photos of the KCT from those years. According to Capitol’s Dave Dexter via the June 1946 issue of his short-lived Hollywood Note (5), Moore’s guitar on the March session was recorded utilizing a then-new method that eliminated the need for amplification. This is likely a reference to what contemporary sound engineers call “going direct,” itself a fairly major innovation. Considering the electrified guitar had only been around for just over a decade at this time, makes this all the more amazing.(6) To my ears, the sound of Oscar’s guitar is identical on both the sessions, which strongly suggests the guitar was recorded in the same manner at both sessions. This is, perhaps, a footnote best left for the guitar fanatics and gear heads, but considering the degree to which Les Paul (himself a contemporary and friendly rival of Moore’s) has been lauded for such technological innovations that came about at the same time or slightly later, it’s a detail worth mentioning. (Above right – The King Cole Trio – mid-1940s: Nat Cole, Johnny Miller and Oscar Moore.)

Nick Rossi – San Francisco, California, USA

August 2022

(“Get Your Kicks on) Route 66”

Composed by Bobby Troup; arranged by the King Cole Trio.

Recorded by the King Cole Trio for Capitol Transcriptions radio service at Radio Recorders(*), Los Angeles, April 25, 1946.

Nat “King” Cole, piano and vocal, directing: Oscar Moore, electric guitar; Johnny Miller, bass.

More comments on the music:

(MZ) I can’t resist sharing a few of my impressions about this music, which I hope will supplement what Nick Rossi has explained above.

Like most top-line groups during the swing era, the King Cole Trio was incredibly together, meaning that they performed as a unit so often that, when onstage or in a recording studio, they literally could read each other’s minds. The interplay between the members of this trio, which seems so relaxed, natural and swinging, was the result of working almost non-stop as an ensemble over a long period of time. But beyond the incredible integration of what the individual musicians did together, they also had long-since developed their unique group approach to the music they performed. By this I mean that they were constantly doing new and different things musically that inspired each other. This is particularly true of the creative interaction between Nat Cole and Oscar Moore. (At left: Nat Cole and Oscar Moore.) Jazz aficionados know that Nat, like Fats Waller, was marvelously effective at accompanying his singing with his piano playing. To say that his accompaniment was creative, colorful and swinging is inadequate to describe the magic spell he was able to cast when he sang and played piano simultaneously. But in addition to that, Oscar Moore frequently added a bit of his own magic by tossing delightfully inspired chords, counter-melodies and runs into the sonic mix of Cole’s singing and piano accompaniment, which inspired Nat even more.

If one listens to Nat sing on the commercial recording, he accompanies himself brilliantly, as he always did. But Oscar Moore is quite reticent behind Nat, simply playing chords on his guitar. This is likely because although KCT was absolutely prepared to make this recording, and Nat himself already had taken ownership of this tune, Oscar Moore was still in the process of working out how he was going to put his special imprint on this music, especially while Nat was singing. (His jazz solos on both recordings are fully formed statements, completely different and inspired.) By the time the transcription recording was made some five weeks later, Moore had arrived at a place of delightful inspiration that propels him through his accompaniment behind Nat’s vocal (and piano) that can rightly be described as joyous, indeed exuberant. Among the impromptu musical sparks that fly between Cole and Moore is the melodic kernel that in a couple of years would emerge as the blues novelty entitled “The Hucklebuck.”

Regarding the sound of Oscar Moore’s guitar on these recordings, to me it is strongly reminiscent of the sound electric guitar pioneer Eddie Durham got when he played on the historic Commodore recordings he made on September 28, 1938, on which Lester Young played both tenor saxophone and clarinet.

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(*) For the history of Radio Recorders (7000 Santa Monica Blvd.) in Los Angeles, and Radio Recorders Annex, which opened in 1946 in the former Los Angeles Victor recording studio located at 1032 North Sycamore, click on this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_Recorders

(1) The biography Nick Rossi refers to is: Straighten Up and Fly Right …The Life and Music of Nat King Cole, by Will Friedwald (2020), 127-128.

(2) The Swing Era Postwar Years (1972), notes on the music by Joseph Castner. 60-61.

(3) See note (*) above.

(4) Nick Rossi consulted Cole discographer/researcher Jordan Taylor, who verified that the voice we hear in the studio talk-back at the beginning of the transcription recording of “Route 66”  was indeed Lee Gillette’s.

(5) The Hollywood Note was a short-lived promotional publication produced by Capitol Records in the 1940s. Dave Dexter was the editor. It appears to have only run for five or six issues starting in March 1946, fizzling out later that year. Dexter was working for Capitol Records during this same period also doing A&R (producer) work for that label.

(6) Re: “going direct” from Nick Rossi: “Oscar Moore was playing an archtop guitar with an electromagnetic pickup on it. Typically an electric guitar such as this is connected to an amplifier and a microphone is placed in front of the amp’s speaker for recording purposes. On this/these recording(s), the studio staff (possibly Lee Gillette himself) figured out a way to take a direct signal from the guitar and record that, rather than record the sound that would have been coming out of the amp speaker on the studio floor. Since an electric guitar requires its signal to be amplified in some way, this would have had been provided either by something like a microphone pre-amp, or the studio recording equipment itself.”

Related Post

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.