Nat King Cole made some of the most ubiquitous recordings in American history as a star for Capitol Records in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. But the vast trove of music he recorded in the years before joining Capitol have always remained something of a mystery.
Now Resonance Records is putting a spotlight on those first years of his career with “Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-43),” a boxed set collecting all of the nearly 200 tracks Cole recorded as a budding artist, including some never-before-released material. It will be available on Nov. 1, as a 10-LP set and as a seven-CD set. (The label does not have immediate plans to make the collection available on streaming services.)
This anthology is the first to bring together every record Cole made between his recording debut at age 17 and his signing with Capitol. These recordings are often left off official discographies, which tend to focus almost exclusively on his Capitol years. Many have fallen out of print.
“Hittin’ the Ramp” is the most ambitious undertaking in Resonance’s 10-year history as a small but increasingly mighty jazz label focused on archival releases. “We’ve done important projects before, but this is almost on another level in terms of the amount of material, the research involved, and everything that goes into it,” Zev Feldman, a co-president of Resonance, said in an interview.
The idea grew out of a conversation Mr. Feldman had with the music historian Will Friedwald, who suggested that Resonance undertake the project to help restore Cole’s early musical history. Mr. Friedwald served as a consultant on the project and wrote the main essay in the liner notes that will accompany the discs.
Cole’s honeydew baritone was the central focus on his Capitol albums, and it made him into a path-blazing star: In addition to being a perpetual chart-topping musician, he became the first African-American to host a nationally syndicated variety show.
But he had originally intended to simply make his way as a piano player. His career began in Chicago as a stride pianist whose chops instilled awe in local critics and audiences. Some of the tracks on “Hittin’ the Ramp” are instrumentals; over all, the collection puts a rare focus on Cole’s dexterous piano playing.
Some early recordings with his trio also find Cole developing a synergy with the guitarist Oscar Moore, who would record on many of Cole’s most famous Capitol sides.