Lionel Cole ran so far from his legacy, he ended up back home...

“Growing up, I was only allowed to listen to music from my father’s record collection,” recalls Lionel of his childhood as the son of Freddy Cole, the brother of Nat “King” Cole and uncle to Natalie. “No radio. No records of my own. To be fair, that collection was monumental. All the titans of jazz were represented. I would study everything about those records, obviously the music, but also the artwork and the liner notes, too. And when my dad asked me who I liked, it always seemed like pretty soon after, I’d get to meet them. Or they’d end up rehearsing at our house.”

More than just names or faces on the record collection, these luminaries populated young Lionel’s life and his proximity to them started shaping his musical journey. First taking the stage at 6, Lionel found himself absorbing the standards of the Great American Songbook, being drilled in the intricate harmonies of jazz, and even writing songs for his dad—all while getting firsthand exposure to the vagaries of the music business. 

“It was a crazy way to grow up but, man, did I learn a lot,” says Lionel with typical understatement. “Most of all, it taught me to be curious about where the music came from. What was the context that produced it? What did it take to be an artist? A writer? A performer? And I realized eventually that the greats forged their own paths. So, that’s what I had to do.”

That path led him from his childhood in New York and Atlanta to Chicago in his teens and to Los Angeles in his twenties. Everywhere he went, he found mentors and collaborators who helped him add new colors to the musical pallet he was developing. 

A prodigious writer, producer, musician, and singer in his own right, Los Angeles provided ample opportunities for Lionel to apply his talents to great effect—though primarily in a supporting role. 

Lionel’s music from that period includes over 300 original works, performances and collaborations with countless musical heavyweights such as Mariah Carey, Randy Jackson, and Joss Stone as well as producing numerous television and film compositions. In 2007, Lionel arranged the Grammy Award-winning recording for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals by John Legend, Joss Stone, and Van Hunt of 'Family Affair.’ Cole has also been featured as part of Robert Downey Jr’s band as well as with Rickie Lee Jones.

It was on Jones’ tour that Lionel landed in Sydney and where he decided to stop and really explore his own voice. Now drawing from an incredible array of musical styles from jazz to soul, blues to pop, Americana to electronica, he realized he needed a set of musical personas and projects to inhabit and express all the music that was in him. Organizing several musical projects in Australia over the next few years, Lionel created a community of musicians around him through which his music could flow. 

Then in 2018, his father called him back to accompany him on what would be his final tour and once again, he found himself connecting to the music of his childhood, but now with a profoundly changed perspective—and drawing from the deep well of his own experience.

After his father’s passing, Lionel returned to those roots in 2023’s “With Love,” a set featuring his own interpretations of songs that were important to his family, featuring his rich baritone set against an all-star cast of players and sumptuous arrangements from Mike McGinnis. Somewhere in that sound, though, Lionel heard his own singular voice again.

“’With Love’ really helped me see how all the different threads wove together into something cohesive and true to me,” says Lionel. “It’s what set the stage for ‘Small Town, Vol. 1.’”

Set for release on May 14th, “Small Town, Vol. 1” captures an artist at the peak of his craft. In the songs, in the musical textures, and in the incredibly immediate vocal performances, you can hear all the lessons, all the paths Cole has taken over the years. The countless hours in the studio and on stage, listening, playing, inhabiting the music that was surrounding him. All the people, artists, con men, and angels he’s met and connected with. The cities, stages, airports, and roads around the world that have led him back here to the cities of his youth, Atlanta and New York, as the last Cole standing, carrying the tradition forward in his own inimical way.

 

Click for an extended biography.