Nat King Cole
Vintage Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole
The man and his music

Nat King Cole
The King belting out , “Unforgettable”

Nat King Cole
 Maria and Nat King Cole

*** Legends ***


“His voice coined the phrase silky smooth while his singing made music”

Though Nat King Cole’s singing crossed over color lines and racial barriers of his day, his living arrangements did not match his vocal talent or conform to the residential norms. In 1948, when Cole purchased a house in the then lily-white Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles for his family and himself as their residence, his musical voice took a back seat. They were not welcomed and the White neighbors demonstrated their objections by word and by deed: members of the property-owners association told Cole they did not want any undesirables moving in, and a burning cross was placed on his front lawn.

According to historical data, Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles on March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, and moved with his family to Chicago, Illinois at the age of four. There he learned to play the organ under the tutelage of his mother, Perlina Coles, the church organist in the church where his father, Edward Coles was a Baptist minister. At the age of 12, Cole began taking formal lessons in jazz, gospel music and classical music. His interest in music resulted in his sneaking out of his home and hanging around night clubs, listening to such artists as Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone and Earl Hines who became Cole’s inspiration for his music career.

Cole had three brothers–Eddie, Ike, and Freddy–and one sister, Joyce. As a teenager, he formed a band, and his brother, Eddie, came along afterwards as a bass player; they made their first recording in 1936 under Eddie Cole’s name. During that time (the mid 1930s), Cole’s entertainment career began to take shape and he adopted the name, “Nat Cole;” later on, he added “King” reportedly from the nursery rhyme about “Old King Cole.” And as the saying goes, the rest became history; the name stuck–Nathaniel Coles evolved into Nat King Cole.

Joining Eubie Blake’s national tour of Broadway revue, “Shuffle Along,” Cole eventually ended up in Long Beach, California, and after the show failed, he stayed. Then with three other musicians, he formed the “King Cole Swingers”; the trio consisted of Cole on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Wesley Prince on double bass. They began playing in local bars and clubs, and then moved on up to the Long Beach Pike–a wider and more stable venue. About the same time–January 1937–Cole married Nadine Robinson, a dancer who was in the musical “Shuffle Along.” Periodically, he would return to Chicago as a seasoned band leader with his group and play in some of the famed venues, places he did not frequent before leaving the Windy City.

It was readily accepted that Cole was the leader of the trio and throughout the rest of the 1930s; they recorded many adaptations for radio. Besides playing the piano, he also frequently sang between their musical sets, and that caught on with the audiences. In one of those singing moments, he introduced ‘Sweet Lorraine’ which became one of the most memorable numbers of his entire professional career.

World War II caused a change in the trio: Prince left and was replaced with Johnny Miller. In 1943, the trio signed up with Capitol Records; the company was struggling financially and there was not any premium for Black (trios) entertainers, in general. However, the entrance of Cole into the Capitol Records fueled a resurgence of record sales; he became the record company’s number one money maker and hit maker. His first mainstream vocal recording at Capitol was “Straighten Up and Fly Right”, which was based on a Black folk tale that his father had used as a theme for a sermon. It sold over 500,000 copies, appealing to a wide crossover audience. And though Cole was never considered a rock and roll artist, many claimed that song introduced the first rock and roll records. Indeed, Bo Diddley, who performed similar transformations of folk material, counted Cole as an influence.

The Capitol Records building displayed a distinct architectural design against the Hollywood community landscape; it was the only circular-designed building in the city, and it is believed that revenues from the Cole era played a significant role in financing the Capitol Records building on Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. When it was completed in 1956, it became the world’s first circular office building and was fittingly known as “the house that Nat built” … Nat King Cole, that is.

It was back in the late 1940s that Cole began performing more pop-oriented material for mainstream audiences, accompanied by a string orchestra. While doing live performances, Cole was also in the studio making records and his stature as a popular icon was growing. He made such hits as “The Christmas Song” which he recorded at tune four times throughout his career and other memorable albums and hits including The Nat King Cole Story, “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young” (the number one song in 1951) and his signature song, “Unforgettable.”

As a leading jazz musician, Cole has a lineup of piano, guitar and bass at the height of the big band era, and he set the tone that many musical greats followed, including Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Charles Brown and Ray Charles. Cole also collaborated on stage with Lester Young, Red Callender, and Lionel Hampton. There were instances of competitiveness within big band/pianist/jazz community as to who was first to belt out certain traditions. Cole’s name was always floated among the best however, in the realm of piano rhythm, he did it so well, that critics claimed that it eliminated the need for a drummer.

Though his roots were grounded in jazz, his shift to pop music did cause some concern from his legion of fans however, Cole did mix jazz with pop music, thereby satisfying both segments of his fan base and make new fans. In 1956, he recorded an all-jazz album “After Midnight” and a few years later did another classic, “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer,” which reached number six on the Pop chart.

While in Cuba in 1956, Cole experienced racism that he had left at home. Under contract to perform there, he was denied the right to stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Havana, because it operated a color bar. (Ironically, there is now a bust of him, in his honor in the Hotel Nacional). However, Cole honored his contract and the concert at the Tropicana was a huge success. He returned to Cuba the next two years: once to sing and the other to record an album. Singing in Spanish and French were part of his international appeal. In Cuba, he recorded Cole Espa–ol, an album sung entirely in Spanish and he made another titled, A Mis Amigos (sung also in Portuguese) and More Cole Espa–ol in 1962. In French, Cole recorded a single “Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” which reached number seven on the Billboard chart. He became adept at learning and singing songs in languages other than English by rote.

With the advent of television and his enormous popularity, Cole became one of the first Blacks to host a television variety show in the United States. His prominence as a jazz pianist combined with his soft baritone voice was a natural for the new medium in the entertainment business. In addition, Cole was also doing musical bit parts and singing in movies. In November 1956, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC-TV, and as expected, the racial climate of the time made the show controversial. Despite Cole’s successes at the time as a singer, musician, bandleader and an accomplished artist, that he was a Black man, over shadowed his talent and all his accomplishments.

Surprisingly considering the circumstances, The Nat King Cole Show lasted a whole year. Starting as a 15-minute segment, it was expanded to half-an-hour after about six months of its existence. Many of his colleagues in the entertainment world including Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, and Eartha Kitt, worked for no pay in order to help the show, but it was eventually done in because of lack of advertising sponsorship, the life-blood of all media endeavors. It prompted Cole to say, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” According to the record, it was Cole who pulled the plug on the show despite the fact that it was operating at a financial loss for the studio. There were other similar-type, musical, variety shows that also folded at the same time but they did not have the “added burden” of being Black. With them it was strictly business, just “dollars and sense.”

Cole’s enormous popularity seemed to be a two-edge sword. Whereas, he had sung at the 1956 Republican National Convention in the Cow Palace, San Francisco, California, where his singing of “That’s All There Is To That” was greeted with applause,” and his live shows and records were riding a wave of immense popularity, television, it seemed, was not ready for him. Cole was among the dozens of entertainers, present at the Democratic National Convention in 1960 to throw his support behind President John F. Kennedy. He also performed at the Kennedy Inaugural gala the following year. And though Cole was not overtly political, he frequently consulted with President Kennedy (and later President Johnson) on civil rights.

As a Black man in America, Cole did not escape the scourge of racism in his professional or his personal life. Like most Blacks–celebrities, public figures and the masses–he fought it the best way that he knew how and often refused to perform in segregated venues. Once in 1956, he was assaulted on stage during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, (while singing the song “Little Girl”) by three members of the North Alabama White Citizens Council who apparently were attempting to kidnap him. The three male attackers ran down the aisles of the auditorium towards Cole and his band. Although local law enforcement quickly ended the invasion of the stage, the ensuing melŽe toppled Cole from his piano bench and injured his back. He did not finish the concert and never again performed in the South. A fourth member of the group who had participated in the plot was later arrested in connection with the act. All were later tried and convicted for their roles in the crime.

In addition to his multi-talent performances on stage and television, Cole also performed in many short films including St. Louis Blues (1958), The Nat King Cole Story, China Gate, and The Blue Gardenia (1953) and Cat Ballou (1965), his final film, which was released several months after his death. In January 1964, Cole made one of his final television appearances on The Jack Benny Program. In his typically magnanimous fashion, Benny allowed Cole to ‘steal’ the show singing “When I Fall in Love”; it was dubbed Cole’s finest and most memorable performance. He was introduced as “the best friend a song ever had” and it turned out to be one of his last performances.

Cole was a heavy smoker of Kool menthol cigarettes; it was said that he believed that smoking up to three packs a day gave his voice the rich sound it had. He became a chain-smoker and smoking several cigarettes in rapid succession before a recording for that very purpose). In December 1964, Cole recorded “L-O-V-E” which turned out to be his last album just a few days before he entered the hospital for cancer treatment; it was released just prior to his death. His many years of smoking caught up with him, resulting in his death from lung cancer on February 15, 1965. He died at the early age of 45 years old at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California.

After his untimely death, Cole maintained worldwide popularity and today, 45 years later, he is still widely considered one of the most important musical personalities in the world. He was interred inside Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

Cole left a rich legacy of music and songs for the ages. In the Spring of 1965, just months after his death, his last album peaked at number four on the Billboard Albums chart; his “Best Of” album went gold in 1968; and his 1957 recording of “When I Fall In Love” reached number four in the UK charts in 1987. Nat King Cole: An Intimate Biography, debut in 1971; then, he was inducted into both the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame; in 1990, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; in 1997, he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame; in 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the major influences for early Rock and Roll; and in 2007, he was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame. The United States Postal Service issued an official postage stamp featuring Cole’s likeness in 1994.

Adding to his personal legacy, Cole’s youngest brother, Freddy and his daughter, Natalie are also singers. Natalie Cole has carved out an impressive niche of her own closely following her father’s impressive career. In the summer of 1991, she mixed her own voice with her father’s recordings and produced an unforgettable rendition of her “Daddy’s” 1961 “Unforgettable,” as part of a tribute album to his music. The song and album of the same name won seven Grammy awards in 1992.

After Cole’s first marriage to Nadine Robinson ended, he remarried in 1948 to Maria Hawkins Ellington in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. His five children, including Natalie, were from his second marriage. For a time, they were estranged but Maria stay with him until his death after which she emphasized his musical legacy and the class he exhibited in all other aspects of his life.