Welcome to the club


Welcome to the Club is a fine Nat “King” Cole album, perhaps even an underrated and overlooked one, and one that I heartily recommend to any fan of 1950‘s popular music.  However, while I have enjoyed Welcome to the Club for many years, I must opine that there is one key figure missing from the credits, and that name is not Bill Basie, in my opinion.  Rather that name may be any one of the following, take your pick:  Neal Hefti, Frank Foster, Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Edgar Sampson, Thad Jones, Johnny Mandel, all of whom were doing arrangements for the Basie band around the time of the Cole sessions, and all of whom evoked the “Basie Sound,” a sound at once playful, flirty, spry, humorous, aggressive, sweet, surprising, and perhaps most importantly, full of the notion that the band had power in reserve, playing sensitive, effluent rope-a-dope, tightly coiled, yes, but both relaxed and ready to jump out from any direction at any time.  To my ears, there is more “Basie Sound” in a single track, “I Won’t Dance,” on 1962’s Sinatra-Basie, than there is in the entirety of Welcome to the Club, but Club is still a wonderful album on its own terms, and any bias I have toward other arrangers, well, that’s my problem, I guess!

Let’s get to the positives!  There are lots of them!



At right: Nat Cole rehearses for a joint performance with the Basie band, Ella Fitzgerald, and Joe Williams, Paramount Theatre, New York City, 1957.

Photo/info courtesy Jordan Taylor.

The Count Basie Band and Nat Cole, with one key absence


If you’ve had the misfortune of following my maniacal ravings about Mssrs. Sinatra and Cole and the goings-on where early stereo is concerned at Capitol, you know that there has been a narrative that goes roughly as follows. 

•Starting late in 1956, Capitol made its initial forays into stereo at its own studios, following a few jazz and classical sessions recorded previously at Samuel Goldwyn for release on Capitol.  Early stereo sessions at The Tower were “minimalist” undertakings where stereo technique was concerned, i.e., two microphones on the orchestra (omnidirectional mics, assumedly) and one microphone (directional, typically a U47/48) on the soloist.  Each microphone was isolated on a dedicated tape track, meaning that the “stereo room” could run virtually on auto-pilot once levels were conservatively set.  Early on, the limitations of this stereo set-up became apparent to those involved.  A.) No instruments could be accentuated via “spot” microphones; and B.) A mono mix of acceptable quality could not be consistently gained from this set-up, necessitating a “double system,” in which a mono recording was undertaken as the primary focus, using multiple microphones (around 7 for a typical 1950s pop vocalist) and added-on-the-fly chamber reverb.  Mono was king; stereo was almost an afterthought, afforded minimal attention, staffing, and budget.

•A mere few months into Capitol Studios’ stereo era, it appears, stereo dissension materialized.  Exactly why is a matter of supposition, but my guess is that engineers or management at Capitol came to realize that the two-omni stereo approach worked well for string-heavy arrangements, but less-well for jazzier, pop-ier fare, where brass tended to dominate, solos were commonplace, and rhythm sections tended to almost sonically disappear, problems that did not befoul the multi-microphone approach of the mono recordings where electronic means could compensate for acoustic imbalances.  Need to “bring out” a saxophone solo?  Turn up the sax mic!  That was not possible on the minimally-miked stereo side of the session; only in mono.

•Arriving at July 10, 1957, we find engineer John Kraus overseeing recording of Nat Cole’s Just One of those Things.   Rather than record the Billy May arrangements with a mere two microphones, Kraus chose, instead, to take that time-tested Capitol mono setup, and make a brilliant stereo-minded tweak:  Mic for stereo in a way closer-to-normal for mono, with mics on the bass, piano, etc., but mic the saxes/trumpets/trombones with two mics to provide a stereo effect.  Voila!  That gorgeous, clear, present Capitol mono sound.....IN STEREO!  This sounds like some sort of panacea for the Capitol stereo “problem,” but as it turns out, the new mic setup caused as many problems as it solved.  Basically, the idea of sending three mic feeds to three mic tracks (essentially) unattended was scary enough.  Trying to send 7 mics, pre-mixed, to three tracks was too scary, apparently, and the experimental, alternate technique seems to have been dropped after this project.

•Following the Kraus experiment, back Capitol apparently went to the routine of: Mic/mix for mono in the mono booth, with two mics and a (split) vocal mic up for stereo, feeding three tape tracks, running on autopilot in the stereo booth, essentially unmonitored, and such is the methodology for the album under consideration here, Welcome to the Club, recorded over three sessions, June 30 through July 2, 1958, roughly a year after those dashingly daring days of Just One of those Things. 

As we’ll see later in this survey, it’s important to note that within three months of these recording dates, Capitol would abandon their 3-mics-for-stereo routine altogether, but for now, let’s focus on the summer of 1958.

Recording at Capitol, July, 1958


Approximate Microphone Setups


Keep in mind that the stereo and monaural recordings were made with separate equipment, the exception being Nat’s vocal mic, likely a Neumann U-47 or 48, which was split between the mono and stereo booths.  In the diagram above, we see the Basie band in something very close to concert position:  Saxes in front, with brass behind, and rhythm off to the left.  The red arrows indicate miking for the mono mix -- the primary focus of the session.  Stereo microphones are marked in green, with the two green circles representing the (presumably) omnidirectional mics used.  (These pick up in all directions, so to use an arrow seems a bit misleading.)  [Full disclosure: The drum mic on the mono mix is likely an omni, as well, as has been the case with other recordings of the time period.]

In stereo, a few things catch our ears:

•Capitol’s studio B (or the larger studio A, for that matter) truly was not large enough to be an effective “minimalist stereo” recording venue.  It simply does (did) not have enough cubic footage to avoid boxiness when recording with a pair of distant omni mics for full-group coverage, and even when artificial reverb is added in (via the tower’s chambers or otherwise), all the hard-wall reflections still inform our ears that we are hearing a recording made in something akin to a barn.  In other words, you really hear the room, both the good and the bad.  Please have a listen, from the excellent Capitol stereo CD, Big Band Cole.  Click on the album cover below to hear the audio sample.

Close-miked for mono, all that “room sound” disappears, as heard in the original mono mix. Click on the album cover below to hear the audio sample.

The results are totally different from each other!  Brighter brass and more-present-sounding drums in mono due to multi-miking.  Did you catch the technical problem with the mono mix?  Go back and re-listen to the stereo sample.  Do you hear the piano?  Yes -- playing the little “Salt Peanuts” riff -- even though it is not miked for stereo.  Now, try to make out the piano in the mono mix.  It’s not there.  Oops.  Avalon was the first song recorded at the session of July 1, and clearly, something was wrong.  If you listen carefully, you can even hear a mic channel “opening up” (causing a swishy/phasey sound) just past the midway point on the mono sample, probably caused by somebody hunting and pecking for the piano signal.  (...and how about turning up Freddie Green, huh?  They seemed to have no problem doing that at Clef and Roulette.)

•The rhythm section can really get lost in the stereo mix.  Listen below: Mono mix first; stereo remix (Big Band Cole) second.  Note that Freddie Green is quite prominent on guitar in the mono mix.  Click ShesFunnyMono-BigBandCole-cr.wav to listen.

Sax solos proved problematic in existing stereo mixes. Click links below to listen, both from Big Band Cole:



Sounds to me like maybe an attempt was made to add a spot mic to the stereo mix on the tenor solo in the sample above right, but it’s really hard to tell.  Clearly, there is some tape damage coming through in the stereo remix.

Sometimes, I could swear there’s a bass spot on the stereo tapes, too, but I think it’s my mind playing tricks on me.  (Jury’s out, officially, at this point.)

Click here to continue to a comparison of mono releases.