I cannot tell you how many times, when I was growing up, my dad admonished one of us to “straighten up and fly right.” He still has a colorful way of expressing himself, and an endearing habit of mangling names and movie titles: Simon and Garfunkel become “Garmon and Funkel.” The 1973 action film Walking Tall turns into “Standing Straight.” He once referred to the movie The Towering Inferno as “Flaming Plaza.”
Anyway, how did my dad come up with “Straighten up and fly right” to stand in for “Behave yourself”? I’m sure he learned it from Nat King Cole.
Cole formed his King Cole Trio in 1937 with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince (later replaced by Johnny Miller during World War II, and by Charlie Harris in the 1950s). The group got a standing gig at a Los Angeles club called the Swanee Inn, where Cole stuck mostly to keyboard playing but sang occasionally. His vocals one night on the 1928 tune “Sweet Lorraine” drew enough attention to move the trio into the national spotlight. They signed with Capitol Records in 1943, and a decade of memorable recordings followed, starting with “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”
Cole said the song—his first published tune—was inspired by a sermon his Baptist preacher father gave, using a folk tale to make a point about good behavior:
A buzzard took a monkey for a ride in the air,
The monkey thought that everything was on the square.
The buzzard tried to throw the monkey off of his back
But the monkey grabbed his neck and said, “Now listen, Jack.”
Straighten up and fly right…
Soon Cole’s swingin’ vocal interpretations, along with his appealing casual delivery, eclipsed his piano playing and he performed almost exclusively as a singer: “Nature Boy” (1948, the trio’s first million seller), “Mona Lisa” (1950), “Too Young” (1951), “Unforgettable” (1951).
Cole’s 1962 recording of the country-tinged “Ramblin’ Rose” was often on the turntable during my childhood. Listening to it now, I know exactly when Cole is going to call out, “One more time, everybody now.” Oh, that velvet voice.
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.