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Rubin: Imagine Natalie Cole – what’s her favorite song?

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Comedian Tom Dreesen is the only person I know whose dots connect from Frank Sinatra to the late Hoot McInerney – from the Chairman of the Board to the chairman of a Detroit-based chain of car dealerships.

He also knew Natalie Cole, who died on New Year’s Eve.

Her passing reminded him of a simple yet difficult question he once put to her, and of her surprising answer.

It’s a question so thorny, and yet so enjoyable to ponder, that I’ve started asking it, too.

The responses from the likes of WDIV-TV anchor Devin Scillian and DSO music director Leonard Slatkin are as unexpected as Cole’s, but probably not as illuminating.

As for Dreesen, he was just being his usual curious self.

Comedian Tom Dreesen, who worked with Cole, asked her to name the greatest song ever.

In his 70s, he’s still on the road nearly as much as he’s home in Los Angeles. Among other things across the decades, he opened regularly for Sinatra and played in the Bob Hope Desert Classic golf tournament with McInerney, who grumbled that he hoped their group would get a recognizable celebrity.

Dreesen was the celebrity, which made for a story they both enjoyed telling throughout an enduring friendship.

He didn’t know Cole as well, though he worked with her several times. As he mentioned online after her death of congestive heart failure, he found her delightful and hugely talented.

And, she had a ready answer for the question he poses to every singer and songwriter he comes across: “What do you think was the greatest song ever written?”

The classics are favored

The most common answer, he finds, is “Over the Rainbow,” created for 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” by Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. Yarburg.

Next comes “Smile,” written by Charlie Chaplin in 1936 for his movie “Modern Times” and supplied with lyrics 18 years later by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons.

Scillian’s choice dates back even further, to the mid-1920s.

A country singer when he’s not on the air at Channel 4, Scillian admires the late Marty Robbins and in particular “El Paso,” the vivid story of a jealous cowboy and a fickle young dancer.

There’s a “really cool key change in each verse,” he says, and elegantly descriptive writing: “I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle. I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.”

He’s also a fan of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.” But Scillian’s answer is “Nessun Dorma” — “None shall sleep” — from the Giacomo Puccini opera “Turandot.”

“I really admire people who try to reach so high,” he says, and the power of a piece of music becomes even more remarkable when it moves you in a language you don’t speak.

Slatkin, conversely, opts for “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” recorded countless times since Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote it for a Broadway musical called “Too Many Girls” in 1939.

“I don’t know if it is the best song ever written,” he says, but he loves it, and “the song lends itself to all kinds of treatments, whether ballad or up-tempo. The harmonic progressions are not predictable and the words tell a story.”

The pitfalls of fame

Cole, who was 65, grew up immersed in the Great American Songbook and scored her best sales with “Unforgettable ... with Love,” a 1991 album of standards once recorded by her father.

Nat King Cole died of lung cancer when she was 15. Later, she dealt with the full hazards-of-fame checklist: three divorces, career slumps, drug addiction and its tag-along health issues.

Perhaps that’s why her response to Dreesen wasn’t a standard, or even something you can dance to.

She chose “Imagine,” by John Lennon — something placid, hopeful and serene.

“Imagine all the people,” he wrote, “living life in peace.”

You didn’t have to know her to hope she finally found it.