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City by DawnCharles DeForest
00:00 / 08:28

I once heard Tony Bennett say, during a discussion with Natalie Cole, that her dad was the greatest musician he had ever known.  I can certainly understand how any real musician could feel this way about Nat King Cole.

For me, my uncle, Charles DeForest, was the greatest musician I have ever known.  If you think about it, Nat and Charles shared a great deal in common--an uncanny ability to write the most wonderful songs (both words and music), and, were this not sufficient, their unique gifts for delivering their lyrics with brutal honesty while accompanying themselves in the most elegant fashion, were pretty much without equal (although Bobby Troup and Matt Dennis certainly do also come to mind).

During his initial 5 years in New York, starting at about 1954, Charles, as any other serious

singer who might possess a real ear for music, would borrow heavily from Frank Sinatra.  After all, what singer, then or now, would not have dreamed of sounding like Sinatra?  So relatively few singers have been able to inhabit a lyric as Frank did.  He would take possession of a lyric (an American Songbook lyric, that is), and all his outward machismo clowning would melt away, allowing his profound tenderness and vulnerability to shine through.  But, of course, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Carol Fredette, Elise Regina (and Charles, certainly) could also do this. 

During this same time, Charles also borrowed from the great jazz singers, particularly Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McCrae, and Billy Eckstine.  Within 5-10 years, however, Charles would develop his own unique style, apart from these influences, with one exception--that of Ms. Judy Garland.  This influence (thank goodness) would always remain.  Their musical souls were linked, as twins shaped from the same clay.  Even now, when you hear either of them on record, you feel as though they are in the same room and that you have been imbued by their very spirits.

I'd say I was always my father's son, but when I hit 12, I was also my uncle's son, and I basked in his shadow for an ensuing 20 years.  He will always remain the most elegant, talented, literate, articulate, and tender man I've ever known.  I remember loving him from the time I was 3.  He had just given me a "Susie-Q" doll for Xmas 1952.  To this day, I recall he had the most wonderful scent which, I later learned, was the by-product of a gentleman's cologne-"Gravel".  (Too bad, once having tried it, it never would have the same effect on me!)  We would write one another, each 2 weeks, and we exchanged birthday and Christmas gifts.  Throughout these years, Charles was my foremost musical inspiration as well as my source of an unending procession of Miles Davis and Bill Evans albums.

With respect to fellow singer-pianist-songwriters, I know he held Shirley Horn, Matt Dennis, Bobby Troup, Buddy Barnes, and Dave Frishberg in the highest esteem.  As for stand-up singers that were contemporaneous, Rosemary Clooney, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McCrae, Cleo Laine,  Nancy Wilson, Carol Fredette, Jon Hendricks, Mel Torme,  and Tony Bennett were at the top of his list.   I  can't recall whether Jane Monheit had yet launched her career during Charles' time, but if he had ever heard her collaboration with Alan Broadbent on Bill Evans and Gene Lees' "Turn Out the Stars" transitioning into Schwartz and Dietzes' "Haunted Heart," I'm sure he would have loved her singing.  I don't recall his having mentioned Tierney Sutton, however, having only recently become acquainted with her music, myself, and having known my uncle so well, I'm certain he would have been blown away by her enormous talent, as well.

Regarding younger singer-pianists pursuing Charles' line of work, I know he had an especially high regard for Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall, Billy Stritch, and Michael Feinstein.  If one were to think of Charles as the "daddy of them all," in terms of "passing the torch," I might choose Michael Feinstein.  Despite their quite disparate performing styles, there is something so sincere and disarming in Michael's presentations now--something so devoid of narcissism about his singing and playing that yes, I would probably choose him, as, to me, he represents NONE of the old cliche "all show and no substance." Rather, he appears to me to be only passingly aware of himself, that is, all substance with very little show, which is what Charles is and was.  (And, like Charles, his knowledge of the American Songbook, as well as the American Songbook composers, is encyclopedic--very likely unparalleled by anyone else alive, today.)

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