Guitar great George Cole’s upcoming gig at Yoshi’s centering on the music of Nat King Cole stems from a suggestion made by mandolin master David Grisman.
“My day job is playing in David Grisman’s band. He asked me ‘Why don’t you do a “Cole sings Cole” record? I’ll produce it,’” says the San Francisco-born, Kensington-based musician.
“The response has just been great. I love Nat Cole and he had so many hits,” says Cole, whose solo recording career these days also focuses on the Gypsy jazz popularized by Django Reinhardt.
“I take it as a huge compliment when people tell me I sound like him,” says Cole, adding, “All roads lead back to Django and Les Paul. I always liked both.” Another of his heroes is Eddie Lang, who was Bing Crosby’s favorite guitarist.
But Cole – who plays on Tuesday with pianist Larry Dunlap and bassist Jim Kerwin – didn’t start out playing standards and jazz, and he never had formal lessons.
“When I was 19 or 20, I got a fake ID, started playing in bars, and learned how to get attention and make people dance,” he says. It was a great education. He had to know hundreds of country songs, and tunes in other genres, too.
Although he wanted to be a rock star when he was a teen, he admits, “I always secretly liked my parents’ music as well.”
In the 1980s, he played in the pop rock band Beatnik Beatch, and when he answered an ad for guitar lessons posted on a wall at Contra Costa College, he ended up assisting department head Ron Galen, who recognized his talent.
“Word got out that there was somebody who could play like Van Halen,” says Cole, who taught guitar to preteen Billie Joe Armstrong at Fiat Music school in Pinole. Calling the Green Day connection a “wonderful piece of my own history,” Cole remains in touch with the school’s head Marie-Louise Fiatarone, his son’s current voice teacher.
Cole, who played guitar on Chris Isaak’s “Forever Blue” album, has been singing as long as he’s been playing guitar. He was in the glee club at Adams Junior High and Kennedy High in Richmond, and finds himself in good company with fellow baritones Elvis (Presley) and Frank (Sinatra), even though, he says, most glamorous rock stars are tenors.
While Cole thinks that much of today’s pop music sounds manufactured, he’s pleased about the resurgence of interest in artists like Nat King Cole and Reinhardt.
“That means people come to my shows — it’s all about putting butts in seats,” he says, describing how performing live has been more lucrative than making records for awhile.
Admitting that he never turns down work, he adds, “I’m always looking for the next musical adventure.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 25
Contact: (510) 238-9200, www.yoshis.com