Nat “King ” Cole
James Brown and Michael Jackson
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Some men of song and music
“Nat King Cole, James Brown, Michael Jackson & Stevie Wonder”
NAT KING COLE
“His voice coined the phrase silky smooth while his singing made music”
Born Nathaniel Adams Coles in March, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, young Coles and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois where his mother taught him to play the organ at his father’s church. At 12, he began taking formal lessons in jazz, gospel and classical music, while listening to such artists as Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone and Earl Hines. They provided the inspiration for his future career in music.
Along with his three brothers–Eddie, Ike, and Freddy–and one sister, Joyce, Coles formed a band and made its first recording in 1936 under Eddie Coles’ name. About that time, as Coles’ music career began to take shape, he adopted the name, “Nat Cole,” later on, adding “King” reportedly from the nursery rhyme about “Old King Cole,” and the rest became history. He became Nat King Cole.
Then they signed up with Capitol Records and became the company’s number one moneymaker. Revenues from the Cole era helped finance the Capitol Records building that became known as “the house that Nat built” … Nat King Cole, that is. By the late 1940s, Cole began doing live performances and studio records with hits like “The Christmas Song,” “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young” and his signature song, “Unforgettable.” His name floated among the best within big band/pianist/jazz community. His music influenced many greats including Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Charles Brown and Ray Charles.
In 1956, Cole recorded an album in Spanish, and then one in Portuguese in 1962. He was adept at singing in other languages; in French, he did “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup.” With the advent of television, Cole became one of the first Black entertainers to host a television variety show in the U.S.; his soft baritone voice was a natural for the new medium and he also did bit parts and singing in movies. When “The Nat King Cole Show” debuted on television, the racial climate of the time made the show controversial. Though he was successful as a singer, musician, bandleader and an accomplished artist, his color/race over-shadowed his talent and his accomplishments and the show only lasted a year. It was done in because of lack of advertising, the life-blood of all media endeavors. Cole said, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
Some of the films Cole performed included St. Louis Blues (1958), The Nat King Cole Story, China Gate, The Blue Gardenia (1953) and his last film, Cat Ballou (1965), were released after his death.
Cole was a heavy smoker; it was said that he believed smoking gave his voice its rich sound. In December 1964, he recorded “L-O-V-E,” his last album just before he entered the hospital for cancer treatment where he died from lung cancer in February 1965 at the age of 45. Cole received many awards posthumously, including an official postage stamp featuring his likeness in 1994. Part of his personal legacy included his daughter, Natalie, who followed his impressive career. In 1991, she mixed her own voice with his and produced an unforgettable rendition of her Daddy’s 1961 “Unforgettable.” The song and album won seven Grammy awards in 1992.
“The Godfather of Soul and the hardest-working man in show business”
When he was two years old, James Brown lived with his father until he was six and they moved to Augusta, Georgia. There he managed to stay in school until he dropped out in the seventh grade. He earned money-shining shoes, sweeping out stores, selling and trading in old stamps, washing cars and dishes, and singing and dancing in talent contests. Between earning money, Brown taught himself to play the harmonica, some guitar, piano and drums.
In his spare time, he did various skills in the Augusta area. At the age of sixteen, he was convicted of armed robbery and sent to a juvenile detention center in 1949.
After an early release, Brown did stints as a boxer and baseball pitcher; the latter was ended by a leg injury, and he turned his energy toward music. His career spanned decades and influenced the development of many different musical genres, from blues and gospel-based forms and styles to R&B.
Brown started on the “chitlin’ circuit,” performed in concerts, across the country and later around the world. He also appeared in shows on television and in movies, and holds the record as having the most singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. His early recordings were influenced by Ray Charles, Little Richard and other contemporaries. Brown called Richard his idol and one who was significant in his development as a musician and showman.
Though his early singles were major hits across the southern U.S. and the R&B Top Ten hits, he gained national success at his live show at the Apollo in 1963. Brown released “Out of Sight” in 1964 followed by two of his signature tunes “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Feel Good,” in 1965, his first Top 10 pop hits, as well as major #1 R&B hits, with each remaining the top-selling singles in black venues for over a month. In 1966, Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” won the Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording (an award last given in 1968). Brown’s national profile was boosted further that year when he upstaged The Rolling Stones.
As the 1960s closed, Brown continued to refine his style with his 1967 #1 R&B hit, “Cold Sweat,” followed by “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose,” “Licking Stick-Licking Stick,” “Funky Drummer,” “I Got the Feelin'” and “Mother Popcorn.” Brown’s recordings influenced musicians across the industry; according to some in the business, his music touched Sly and his Family Stone; Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band; Booker T. & the M.G.’s; King Curtis; Edwin Starr; Temptations’ David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards; and a young Michael Jackson. As a result, James Brown is said to be the world’s most sampled recording artist, with “Funky Drummer” becoming one of the most sampled individual piece of music. Historians have said that some of Brown’s work became a major influence on techniques of contemporary rapping and hip-hop genres.
In November 1967, Brown purchased radio station WGYW in Knoxville, Tennessee and changed the call letters to WJBE, reflecting his initials. Then he bought radio station WRDW in Augusta, Georgia–where he shined shoes as a boy–and branched out into real estate and music publishing. As Brown’s music empire expanded, so did his influence on the music scene and his desire for financial and artistic independence.
Brown was also known for his social activism: his speeches to young students and his advocacy of the importance of education; his donating money to school drop-out prevention programs; and for his release of “Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which people called militant and angry because of the line about dying on your feet instead of living on your knees. He also performed benefit concerts for PUSH and The Black Panther Party’s Breakfast program.
His pace began to slow but he still performed intermittently. As he advanced in age so did his health problems. Brown was once diagnosed with prostate cancer, which was successfully treated with surgery. Regardless of his health, Brown maintained his reputation as the “hardest working man in show business” by keeping up with his grueling performance schedule. However, he did have some troubles with the law and his last marriage in particular. Brown was married three times; he had five sons and four daughters through those marriages.
On December 24, 2006, Brown checked in at the Emory Crawford Long Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia for a medical evaluation and was admitted to the hospital for observation and treatment. He had to cancel upcoming shows in Waterbury, Connecticut and Englewood, New Jersey, but was confident that the doctor would discharge him from the hospital in time to perform the New Year’s Eve shows: at the Count Basie Theatre in New Jersey and at the B. B. King Blues Club in New York. However, Brown remained hospitalized, and his medical condition worsened throughout that day. On December 25, 2006, Brown died at approximately 1:45 a.m. EST from congestive heart failure resulting from complications of pneumonia. A public memorial for Brown was held at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and was attended by an array of celebrities. All of the public and private memorial services were officiated by Rev. Al Sharpton.
“The King of Pop”
Michael Jackson was the seventh child of Katherine and Joseph Jackson, who aborted his personal aspirations and devoted his time, effort and energy to molding his children as entertainers. They became “The Jackson 5,” starring Michael and his four brothers, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon and Jackie.
Their big break came in 1968 when they signed with Motown Records under the direction of its founder, Berry Gordy. Their world debut was orchestrated by Motown’s Diana Ross of “The Supremes” with “I Want You Back” on their first album, “Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5” that hit the Billboard Chart at number one. After relocating to Los Angeles, they belted out a string of hits with young Michael Jackson as the lead singer, including “ABC,” “The Love You Saved,” “I’ll Be There” and “Never Can Say Goodbye.”
Then in 1971, he debuted as a solo artist. Still a member of the group, they were one of the biggest musical phenomena of the 1970s. They even had a cartoon show named after them.
As a solo artist, he collaborated with Ross in Berry Gordy’s “The Wiz” as the “Scarecrow” with a large assemblage of African Americans entertainers. It was there he met Quincy Jones. Together they produced “Off the Wall” in 1979 for Epic Records, their first album together garnering four top 10 hits in the U.S., and secured the highest royalty rate in the music industry. Early in 1982, Jackson segued into a minor musical contribution for the movie, “E.T the Extra-Terrestrial,””Someone In the Dark” for which he won a Grammy for Best Children’s Album.
His next act became the greatest achievement in record
history–“Thriller,” its songs and music video, debuted in 1982 exceeded all expectations beyond everyone’s imagination; it also made the Guinness Book of Records as the highest grossing record album in history with over 100 million sold to date. It also included Jackson dolls and other novelties. Jackson paved the way for African Americans to showcase their talent on MTV and for Black Entertainment Television (BET) to get parallel rights to his videos.
Jackson joined his brothers in 1983 to perform at the Motown 25 venue, he unveiled his signature Moonwalk, a type of dance and glide step that Jackson mastered and made an integral part of his performance routine.
The next year, Jackson received an award from the President for his financial support to charities working on behalf of alcoholism and drug abuse; won eight Grammy awards for “Thriller,” and went on a national tour with his brothers headlined the Victory Tour. With his gifts to charity becoming legendary, so was his toughness as a businessman and entertainer.
Then in 1985, along with Lionel Ritchie, he wrote “We Are the World” and performed it with some of the biggest names in music history with Jones as the conductor. More than 20 million copies were sold; it was billed as United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa. After “Thriller” he did “Bad,” followed by his autobiography, Moonwalk; then there was “Dangerous,” “HIStory” and “Invincible.”
In 1988, Jackson bought a ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley and named it “Neverland.” It became a tourist attraction and an amusement park, mostly for children. During the 1990s, after accusations of alleged child molestation, Jackson hired the late Johnnie Cochran to represent him. Though no criminal charges were filed, his image suffered and there was a civil suit that was settled out of court.
One of his most compelling performances was the show that he orchestrated during half-time at Super Bowl XXVII. Jackson was catapulted onto the stage as fireworks went off behind him. He threw away his sunglasses and belted out four songs: “Jam,” “Billie Jean,” “Black or White” and “Heal the World.” It was reported that viewing numbers increased to 135 million, the first time in history, and Jackson’s “Dangerous” album went off the chart.
During his career, he also performed separate duets with numerous artists.
In 1994, Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley. It became fodder for the tabloids. One thing appeared certain: it was not for money; they were both financially well off. However, they divorced after two years. Jackson re-married Deborah Rowe; they had two children: Michael, Jr. and Paris Katherine; then they divorced. He also has a third child, Michael, II.
After an interview with Martin Bashir, questions began circulating about activities at Jackson’s ranch about sleeping arrangements with children. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested and booked on numerous felony criminal charges.
The case was heard in Santa Barbara County, California and it drew worldwide attention. After almost two years, Jackson went to trial; it lasted about five months. His legal team was headed by Thomas Mesereau, Jr. and though he was acquitted on all counts, the stain lingered on and he left the country.
He returned to the U.S. to attend the funeral of James Brown, and that placed him on a gradual comeback trail. He moved to Las Vegas and then to Los Angeles, and was planning a come back with a 50-concert performance. Jackson focused heavily on his pre-concert rehearsals at the Staples Center. On June 25, he suffered cardiac arrest at his home and was rushed to UCLA Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
STEVELAND MORRIS “A singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer and activist.”
Born Steveland Morris, he became famous as Stevie Wonder, a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer and activist. Though he was blind since shortly after birth, it never created a disability or a stumbling block or deterred his abilities, he became a musical “wonder” reflecting his name. At an early age, he began playing the piano, harmonica, drums and bass and he was active in his church choir.
At age 11, he signed with Motown Records’ Tamla label and has been with them throughout his professional career for half a century, and is still making music and singing songs. Wonder has recorded more than thirty U.S. top ten hits and received twenty-two Grammy Awards, the most ever awarded to a male solo artist. In a 2008 Billboard magazine list of the Hot 100 All-Time Top Artists in the US singles chart’s 50th anniversary, he was placed at number five. Among his best known works are singles:
“Superstition,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You;” well-known albums include Talking Book, Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life.
His early successes included two films in 1964 and after that he added songwriting to his resume. Wonder allowed his contract with Motown to expire and while re- negotiating for creative autonomy, he independently recorded two albums, which he used as a bargaining chip. He returned to Motown after his demands for full creative control and the rights to his own songs were met.
In March 1972, he came out with Music of My Mind as a full-length artistic statement with songs flowing together thematically and lyrics that dealt with social, political, romantic and mystical themes. It was followed by Innervisions, which generated three more Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and ranked #23 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Wonder became one of the most influential and acclaimed Black musicians of the decade.
Tragedy stuck in August 1973, Wonder was in a car accident in North Carolina that left him in a coma for four days and resulted in a partial loss of smell and taste. However, he recovered and continued his performing schedule six months later, producing another album in the summer of 1974: Fulfillingness’ First Finale which won Album of the Year, which was again one of three Grammys won.
He followed the double album Grammy of Innervisions and Fulfillingness with one of his biggest masterpieces: Songs in the Key of Life. It was released in September 1976 and debuted at #1 in the Billboard charts, where it remained for 14 non-consecutive weeks. It also won Album of the Year and two other Grammys and ranks 56th on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
His work as an activist is also well-known especially his campaign to make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Wonder’s increased album sales, charity participation, high-profile collaborations, political impact, and television appearances made him identical to one of his next albums: Hotter than July (1980) which included his first platinum-selling single album, with “Happy Birthday,” a tribute to Dr. King and helped his campaign to establish Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday. The album also included “Master Blaster (Jammin’).”
Over the years, Wonder has used his time and talent to improve the quality of life for others that he knows, yet cannot see. With his multi-talented ability, he appeared as himself on The Cosby Show, “A Touch of Wonder” and was the first Motown artist to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song in a movie, “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from The Woman in Red.
He has collaborated with the best in the entertainment world, not only in Motown, but also elsewhere; with Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Babybace Edmonds, Indie Arie, John Legend and Mary J. Blige.
In 2008, Wonder performed at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” The next year he paid tribute to his fellow “Motownite,” Michael Jackson’s memorial service with “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” and “They Won’t Go When I Go.”
His charitable work and global activism include a historical “Wonder Dream Concert” in Kingston, Jamaica, a benefit for the Jamaican Institute for the Blind; being named a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2009; and a concert titled “Bridge Over Troubled Water” for the people of Haiti to help victims of the earthquake in 2010.
Wonder has been married twice: to Motown singer Syreeta Wright and fashion designer Kai Milla Morris. He has seven children from his two marriages and other relationships.
In Los Angeles, Wonder is widely known as the owner of radio station KJLH.