Nat King Cole

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Nat King Cole in The Blue Gardenia (1953)
Nat King Cole in The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Nat "King" Cole (March 17, 1919February 15, 1965) was a hugely popular American singer and jazz musician.


Childhood and Chicago

Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama. The year of his birth has been reported as 1917 and 1915, but according to Daniel Mark Epstein's biography of Cole, the 1920 Census reported Nat as an infant. In addition, the census for Chicago dated April 5, 1930 lists Nat as 11 years old as of his last birthday.

Nat's father was a butcher in Montgomery and a deacon in the Baptist church. His family moved to Chicago, Illinois while he was still a child. There, his father became a minister; Nat's mother Perlina was the church organist. She was the only piano teacher he ever had. His first performance, at age 4, was of "Yes, We Have No Bananas". He learned not only jazz and gospel music, but classical as well, performing, as he said, "from Bach to Rachmaninoff".

The family lived in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, which was famous in the late 1920s for its nightlife and jazz clubs. Nat would sneak out of the house and hang outside the clubs, listening to artists such as Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Jimmie Noone. He participated in Walter Dyett's renowned music program at DuSable High School.

Inspired by the playing of Earl "Fatha" Hines, he began his performing career in the mid 1930s while he was still a teenager, and adopted the name Nat Cole (losing the "s" from his last name). His older brother, Eddie Coles, a bassist, soon joined Nat's band and they first recorded in 1936 under Eddie's name. They were also regular performers at clubs. In fact, Nat got his nickname "King" performing at one jazz club. Cole also was pianist in a national touring revival of ragtime and Broadway legend Eubie Blake's review, Shuffle Along. When it suddenly failed in Long Beach,California, Cole decided to remain there.

Los Angeles and the King Cole Trio

Nat Cole and three other musicians formed the "King Cole Swingers" in Long Beach and played in a number of local bars before getting a gig on the Long Beach Pike for $90 per week.

Nat married dancer Nadine Robinson, who was also with [Shuffle Along], and moved to Los Angeles where he formed the Nat King Cole Trio. The trio consisted of Nat on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Wesley Prince on bass. The trio played in Los Angeles throughout the late 1930s and recorded many radio transcriptions.

Cole did not achieve widespread popularity until "Sweet Lorraine" in 1940. Although he sang ballads with the trio, he was shy about his voice. Although he prided himself on his diction, he never considered himself a strong singer. His subdued style, however, contrasted well with the belting approach of most jazz singers.

During World War II, Wesley Prince left the group and Cole replaced him with Johnny Miller. The King Cole Trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records in 1943 and stayed with the recording company for the rest of his career. By the 1950s, Cole's popularity was so great that the Capitol Records building, on Hollywood and Vine, was sometimes referred to as "The House that Nat Built".

Cole was considered a leading jazz pianist, appearing, for example, in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. His revolutionary lineup of piano, guitar and bass in the time of the big bands became a popular configuration for a jazz trio. It was emulated by many musicians, among them Art Tatum, Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, and blues pianists Charles Brown and Ray Charles. He also performed as a pianist on sessions with Lester Young, Red Garland, and Lionel Hampton.

Singing career

His first mainstream vocal hit was with "Straighten Up and Fly Right", based on a black folk tale that his father had used as a theme for a sermon. Although hardly a rocker, the song's success proved that an audience for folk-based material existed. It is considered a predecessor to the first rock and roll records. Indeed, Bo Diddley, who performed similar transformations of folk material, counted Cole as an influence.

In a move that was virtually unique at the time, Cole reached out to mainstream audiences with the number one popular hit "Mona Lisa" in 1950. This began a new phase in his career, which was primarily as a pop balladeer, though he never totally ignored his roots in jazz. As late as 1956, he recorded an all-jazz album, After Midnight. In 1991, Mosaic Records released the Complete Nat King Cole Trio Recordings on Capitol, which contained 349 songs on 27 LP's or 18 CD's.

Still, some jazz critics and fans accused Cole of selling out. Cole was the first African American to have his own radio program. He repeated that success in the late-1950s with the first truly national television show starring an African-American. In both cases, the programs were ultimately cancelled because sponsors shied away from a black artist. Cole fought racism all his life, refusing to perform in segregated venues. In 1956, he was attacked on stage in Birmingham, Alabama by members of the White Citizens' Council who apparently were attempting to kidnap him. Despite injuries, Cole completed the show, and vowed never to perform in the South again.

In 1948, Cole purchased a house in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. The property owners association told Cole they didn't want any undesirables moving in. Cole retorted "Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I'll be the first to complain."

He and his second wife, Maria Ellington, were married in Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. They had five children, three adopted. His daughter, Natalie Cole, and his younger brother, Freddie Cole are also singers.

Cole performed in many short films, and played W. C. Handy in the film Saint Louis Blues. He also appeared in The Nat King Cole Story.

Nat King Cole, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer in 1965 and was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Cat Ballou, his final film, was released several months later.


On November 5, 1956, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC-TV. While commentators have often hailed Cole as the first African-American to host a network television show (an honor belonging to Hazel Scott in 1950), the Cole program was the first of its kind hosted by a star of Nat Cole's magnitude. Initially begun as a 15 minute show on Monday night, the show was expanded to a half hour in July 1957. Despite the efforts of NBC as well as many of Cole's industry colleagues (most of whom, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Harry Belafonte, worked for industry scale in order to help the show save money), the Nat King Cole Show was ultimately done in by a lack of national sponsorship (It should be noted that such companies as Rheingold Beer assumed regional sponsorship of the show, but the elusive national sponsor never materialized). The last episode of The Nat King Cole Show aired December 17, 1957. Cole had survived for over a year, and it was he, not NBC, who ultimately decided to pull the plug on the show (NBC as well as Cole himself had been operating at an extreme financial loss). Commenting on the lack of sponsorship his show received, Cole quipped shortly after its demise, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."

Notable songs

  • "Straighten Up and Fly Right" (Nat's most famous composition)
  • "Sweet Lorraine" (Smithsonian Museum selected Nat's version as definitive)
  • "Embraceable You" (Smithsonian Museum selected Nat's version as definitive)
  • "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You, (the definitive and most popular version)
  • "Body and Soul, (the definitive piano trio version)
  • "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66", composed by Bobby Troup,also Grammy Hall of Fame
  • "The Christmas Song", with its opening line "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire", composed by Mel Torme (Nat's version recently voted the number one Christmas song of all time), also Grammy Hall of Fame
  • "Nature Boy", composed by Eden Ahbez, also Grammy Hall of Fame
  • "Lush Life" (Smithsonian Museum selected Nat,s version as definitive)
  • "Mona Lisa", Academy Award Winner.
  • "Too Young" 23 Weeks at #1 on Your Hit Parade
  • "Unforgettable", later re-recorded as a duet by his daughter Natalie, Winner of 7 Grammy Awards and Grammy Hall of Fame.
  • "Walkin' My Baby Back Home"
  • "There Will Never be Another You" (Smithsonian Museum selected Nat's version as definitive)
  • "Smile", composed by Charlie Chaplin
  • "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life", composed by Cy Coleman
  • "Stardust" the most recorded popular song (Smithsonian Museum selected Nat,s version as definitive)
  • "St. Louis Blues" the definitive version of the most recorded blues song
  • "Pretend"
  • "Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup"
  • "Answer Me, My Love"
  • "Ramblin' Rose"

See also

External links

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