Nat King ColeJun 13th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1917-1965 Nat King Cole enjoyed hugely successful careers in both jazz, as a pianist and group leader, and popular music as a singer. He bridged many worlds of entertainment, and was a mellow-voiced artistic ambassador to audiences worldwide.
Born Nathaniel Coles in 1917 in Montgomery, Alabama, Cole and his family moved to Chicago when he was four. His father became pastor of a church, and his mother was the choir director, introducing her children to music at a very early age. Cole started formal piano lessons at age 12 while playing organ at church and singing in the choir. He was part of a distinguished music program in high school, and devoted much of his time to the vibrant Southside jazz scene. Pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines was a particular influence, along with other jazz pioneers.
Cole organized two groups in his teens, and joined a quintet formed by his brother at age 16. Decca Records recorded the quintet for its “race records” series, aimed at black audiences. These demands caused Cole to drop out of school. When the revue Shuffle Along was revived in Chicago in 1937, Cole and his brother joined the band. The show went on tour and Cole went with it, marrying dancer Nadine Robinson on the road and settling with her in Los Angeles when the show closed on the west coast. After playing piano in small towns and dives, he became a regular at Los Angeles’ Century Club. This venue was frequented by jazz musicians, and Cole attracted increasing attention.
By 1938, he had been asked to assemble a small band for the well-known Sewanee Inn. Cole recruited a drummer, bass, and guitar; when the drummer failed to appear on opening night, they went on without him and remained an original and influential trio for the duration of Cole’s jazz career. The group adopted the name the King Cole Trio, and Cole was thereafter called Nat King Cole. The trio enjoyed great success for nearly a decade, booked solidly in L.A.-area clubs, including many that had never before allowed African American performers. The King Cole Trio backed such significant jazz artists as Lionel Hampton and Lester Young; and in 1941, a national tour climaxed with several months in New York City. During this period, Cole began occasionally singing while playing, although he had little esteem for his own voice and treated it as secondary to the piano.
The House that Nat Built
In 1943, the trio signed with newly created Capitol Records. Their rendition of “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” which Cole based on one of his father’s sermons and an African American folk tale, was a crossover hit in 1944, and featured Cole’s vocals. The sound attracted both black and white audiences, bridging jazz and pop genres. Their success expanded with “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” and “For Sentimental Reasons.” The group was then engaged as Bing Crosby’s summer replacement for the popular Kraft Music Hall in 1946, making Cole the first African American to host a radio program. That winter, Cole and the trio immortalized Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song,” known for its opening lyric “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” Backed by a string section for the first time, this was also Cole’s debut as a featured lead singer, and a huge hit for him and Capitol.
This also marked a decisive shift from his jazz roots. Some felt that Cole had been unduly influenced by a young singer he met in 1946, Maria Ellington, whom he would marry in 1948 after divorcing his first wife. Others heard the sound of a man who loved all types of music, and whose relaxed and husky lyrical interpretations were a pure form of artistic expression. In any event, there was no turning back: in 1948, with a full orchestra, “Nature Boy” was a major success, followed by the 1950 hit “Mona Lisa.” Cole was featured as vocalist on these records and on his first European tour that year; he would continue to appear in major nightclubs in the United States and abroad. Subsequent hits included “Too Young,” “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup,” “Answer Me, My Love,” and “Unforgettable.” The Capitol Records building became known as “The House that Nat Built.”
Cole was also the first African American to broadcast his own television program in 1956. The NBC-TV show achieved good ratings, but failed to find a national advertiser due to racial bias, and was cancelled after one year. Other racial incidents tarnished Cole’s career, and aroused his quiet activism: he sued hotels that wouldn’t admit him; he bought a house in a Whites-only L.A. neighborhood; he was attacked on stage in Alabama in 1956, and vowed never again to play in the south. In the later 1950s, with increased competition from the new Rock and Roll genre, and crooners like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, and Harry Belafonte, Cole’s fame diminished. He acted in several films, notably playing the role of W.C. Handy in St. Louis Blues. He appeared with a troupe of younger performers in a concert tour, and recaptured some of his earlier glory in the 1960s with “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.”
Cole ignored signs of declining health while maintaining a busy professional pace. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, and died in 1965. In his lifetime, he recorded over 100 pop chart singles and over two dozen chart albums, selling over 50 million records. These have been rediscovered by generations of admirers, climaxing with the 1991 release of the complete Capitol recordings of the trio, and a duet sung with his daughter, Natalie, overdubbing her father on “Unforgettable.” In the words of Time magazine’s music critic, Jay Cocks, “He wasn’t corrupted by the mainstream. He used jazz to enrich and renew it, and left behind a lasting legacy. Very like a king.”