Arts & Culture

Chicago performer brings Nat King Cole's holiday songs and hits back into spotlight

Becky Obos/JPM Photography 

Chicago-based performer Evan Tyrone Martin will pay tribute to the music of Nat King Cole on Thursday at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. The evening will feature a mix of Cole’s hits and Christmas music.
Becky Obos/JPM Photography Chicago-based performer Evan Tyrone Martin will pay tribute to the music of Nat King Cole on Thursday at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. The evening will feature a mix of Cole’s hits and Christmas music.

Nat King Cole’s voice was stilled by lung cancer on Feb. 15, 1965, at age 45, but his music is unforgettable.

Chicago-based singer/actor Evan Tyrone Martin will embody those smooth sounds Thursday night at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids, performing a mix of Cole’s hits and Christmas songs.

“This is a kind of a tribute show. I’m not impersonating Nat King Cole. I’m trying to give people the feeling as though they’re listening to Nat King Cole, but it’s definitely my voice coming through,” Martin, 35, said by phone on a brief holiday tour break back home.

“Because there are so many similarities in our voices, it’s just small touches that I add to my vocal style that make me sound a little bit more like Nat.”

Martin will appear with a five-piece band of Chicago musicians he calls “phenomenal,” playing guitar, saxophone and flute, percussion, piano and upright bass. In addition to singing, Martin, who even resembles Cole, will talk about the superstar’s history, career and personal life, as well as a little bit of Martin’s own life.

“It’s an all-encompassing evening,” he said.

In his short but prolific career, Cole recorded several holiday singles, but just one full album of holiday songs. Originally titled “The Magic of Christmas,” it was recorded in 1960 and reissued in 1963 under a new title, “The Christmas Song.”

That name changed capitalized on the hit single Cole recorded several times over the years, adding more instruments with each version.

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The album hit the top of the charts in 1963 and the top in holiday album sales in the 1960s, with 6 million copies sold, as certified by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Naturally, Martin will sing that title track — with its famous opening line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” — penned by Mel Torme and Bob Wells in 1945. He also will cover carols like “Silent Night,” as well as more whimsical tunes like “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” and some of Cole’s lesser-known holiday songs.

His non-holiday hits will be in the spotlight, too, including “Mona Lisa,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Smile,” “Unforgettable” and “I Love You for Sentimental Reasons.”

There was a time when Cole was a bigger draw than Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, Martin said.

What set him apart from his contemporaries, and keeps him relevant today, was “an ease that exists in the way that he sings and the way he presents music. It’s kind of transcendent,” Martin said. “The feeling that is invoked when you hear a voice that is just so gentle and yet so passionate is a really powerful combination. He just exuded that without trying.”

Martin has been channeling Cole since November 2016, when he launched his “Unforgettable” concert tribute. He created the holiday show, “An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas,” last year with 14 performances in St. Louis. He’s now in the midst of the show’s first tour, which began Nov. 23 in Portland, Ore., and is crisscrossing the country, from California to Florida, and points in between.

Besides Thursday’s stop in Cedar Rapids, he also will swing through Dubuque’s Five Flags Center on Wednesday night.

Martin said he didn’t even realize how much he sounded like Cole until after the First St. Louis performance.

“I knew that we shared a lot of the same vocal qualities, and I really wanted to be true to his music,” Martin said. “But it wasn’t until after hearing how much audiences enjoyed the show, and the beautiful things that my voice brought up for them — the memories and the specific moments in their lives when they were listening to Nat King Cole or when some of his music affected their lives — that was the time I thought maybe I’m doing a good job at this.”

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Martin pulls from his college degree in theater, with a vocal performance concentration, to help him convey not only Cole’s sound, but his story and soul, as well.

He brings a wealth of experience to the stage, with a vast resume of musical theater credits in the Chicago area. He’s garnered rave reviews and award nominations for leading roles ranging from “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett,” to “Dreamgirls,” “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” and more. The Chicago Tribune deemed him “Destined for Stardom: One of the Hot New Faces of Chicago Theatre.” He also appeared in early Way Off Broadway productions at the Sondheim Center in Fairfield.

But growing up in Cleveland, it was his family and church that introduced him to music, and his grandmother who introduced him to Cole’s artistry.

“She loved his music. She used to have maybe 10 to 15 milk crates of vinyl in her basement, that I would just dig through and listen to music on, and at one point, she introduced me to the music of Nat King Cole,” he said.

“It wasn’t until later in life this kind of came back around, and I realized it was a fantastic fit for me, and I loved singing it.”

Beyond the music, Martin said he admires the poise with which Cole lived his life.

“I didn’t realize how tumultuous his career was, because all we think about is Nat King Cole the star,” Martin said.

Even when Cole was the headliner out on the road with Bennett and Sinatra, the black musician wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants or enter through the same doors at venues with his name on the marquee.

“He still carried himself with such dignity and never let that show in his career and in his performance,” Martin said. “He didn’t shout it from the rooftops that he was being mistreated. He just went on about his career, and said, ‘I’m going to be a star regardless of how you treat me,’ and just really made it about the work and his music.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

IF YOU GO

l What: An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas starring Evan Tyrone Martin

l Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

l When: 8 p.m. Thursday

l Tickets: $60, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com

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l In Dubuque: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Five Flags Center, 405 Main St.; $55, venue box office, 1-(800) 745-3000 or Fiveflagscenter.com/events/2018/nat-king-cole

l Artist’s website: Evantyronemartin.com

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