Nathaniel Adams Coles
(March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965), known
professionally as Nat King Cole
, was an American musician who first came
to prominence as a leading jazz pianist. Although an accomplished pianist, he
owes most of his popular musical fame to his soft baritone voice, which he used
to perform in big band and jazz genres. He was the first black American to host
a television variety show and has maintained worldwide popularity over 40 years
past his death; he is widely considered one of the most important musical
personalities in United States history.
Childhood and Chicago
He was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama on Saint Patrick's
Day in 1919 (some sources
erroneously listing his birth date as 1917), and his family moved to Chicago,
Illinois while he was still a child. There, his father became a Baptist
minister. Nat learned to play the organ from his mother, Perlina, the church
organist. His first performance, at age four, was of "Yes! We Have No Bananas".
He began formal lessons at the age of 12, eventually learning not only jazz and
gospel music but also European classical music, performing, as he said, "from
Johann Sebastian Bach to Sergei Rachmaninoff".
The family lived in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. Nat would sneak
out of the house and hang around outside the clubs, listening to artists such as
Louis Armstrong, Earl "Fatha" Hines and Jimmie Noone. He participated in Walter
Dyett's renowned music program at DuSable High School.
Inspired by the playing of Earl Hines, Cole began his performing career in
the mid-1930s while still a teenager, adopting the name "Nat Cole". His older
brother, Eddie Coles, a bass player, soon joined Nat's band, and the brothers
made their first recording in 1936 under Eddie's name. They were also regular
performers at clubs. In fact, Nat acquired his nickname "King" performing at one
jazz club, a nickname presumably reinforced by the otherwise unrelated nursery
rhyme about Old King Cole. He was also a pianist in a national touring revival
of ragtime and Broadway theatre legend Eubie Blake's revue, "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 US$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 double bass. The
trio played in Los Angeles throughout the late 1930s and recorded many radio
transcriptions. Nat's role was that of piano player and leader of the combo.
It is a common misconception that Nat Cole's singing career did not start
until a drunken barroom patron demanded that he sing "Sweet Lorraine." In fact,
Nat Cole has gone on record saying that the fabricated story "sounded good, so I
just let it ride." Nat Cole frequently sang in between instrumental numbers.
Noticing that people started to request more vocal numbers, he obliged. Yet, the
story of the insistent customer is not without merit. There was such a customer,
who requested a certain song one night, but a song that Nat did not know.
Instead he sang "Sweet Lorraine." The trio was tipped 15 cents for the
performance, a nickel apiece (Nat King Cole: An Intimate Biography, Maria Cole
with Louie Robinson, 1971).
During World War II, Wesley Prince left the group and Cole replaced him with
Johnny Miller. Miller would later be replaced by Charlie Harris in the 1950s.
The King Cole Trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records in 1943, and Cole
stayed with the recording company for the rest of his career. Revenues from
Cole's record sales fueled much of Capitol Records' success during this period.
The revenue is believed to have played a significant role in financing the
distinctive Capitol Records building on Hollywood and Vine, in Los Angeles.
Completed in 1956, it was the world's first circular office building and became
known as "the house that Nat built."
Cole was considered a leading jazz pianist, appearing, for example, in the
first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts (credited on the Mercury Record labels
as "Shorty Nadine," apparently derived from the name of his wife at the time).
His revolutionary lineup of piano, guitar, and bass in the time of the big bands
became a popular set up for a jazz trio. It was emulated by many musicians,
among them Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Tommy Flanagan
and blues pianists Charles Brown and Ray Charles. He also performed as a pianist
on sessions with Lester Young, Red Callender, and Lionel Hampton. The Page
Cavanaugh Trio with the same set up as Cole came out of the chute about the same
time, at the end of the war. It's still a toss up as to who was first, although
it is generally agreed that the credit goes to Nat Cole.
Early singing career
Cole's first mainstream vocal hit was his 1943 recording of one of his
compositions, "Straighten Up and Fly Right," based on a black folk tale that his
father had used as a theme for a sermon. Johnny Mercer invited him to record it
for the fledgling Capitol Records label. It sold over 500,000 copies, and proved
that folk-based material could appeal to a wide audience. Although Nat would
never be considered a rocker, the song can be seen as anticipating the first
rock and roll records. Indeed, Bo Diddley, who performed similar transformations
of folk material, counted Cole as an influence.
Beginning in the late 1940s, Cole began recording and performing more
pop-oriented material for mainstream audiences, often accompanied by a string
orchestra. His stature as a popular icon was cemented during this period by hits
such as "The Christmas Song". (Cole recorded that tune four times: June 14, 1946
as a pure Trio recording; August 19, 1946 with an added string section; August
24, 1953; and again in 1961 for the double album, The Nat King Cole Story. This
final version, recorded in stereo, is the one most often heard today.), "Nature
Boy" (1948), "Mona Lisa" (1950), "Too Young" (the #1 song in 1951), and his
signature tune "Unforgettable" (1951). While this shift to pop music led some
jazz critics and fans to accuse Cole of selling out, he never totally abandoned
his jazz roots; as late as 1956, for instance, he recorded an all-jazz album,
"After Midnight." Cole had one of his last big hits two years before his death,
in 1963, with the classic "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer", which reached
#6 on the Pop chart.
Making television history
On November 5, 1956, "The Nat King Cole Show" debuted on NBC-TV. The Cole
program was the first of its kind hosted by an African-American.
It initially began as a 15-minute show on Monday night, the program was
expanded to a half hour in July 1957. Despite the efforts of NBC, as well as
many of Cole's industry colleagues—many of whom, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Harry
Belafonte, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee and Eartha Kitt worked for industry scale in
order to help the show save money—The Nat King Cole Show was ultimately
done in by lack of a national sponsorship.
Companies such as Rheingold Beer assumed regional sponsorship of the show, but a
national sponsor never appeared.
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."
This statement, plus the passing of time, has fueled the urban legend that
Cole's show had to close down despite enormous popularity. In fact, the Cole
program was routinely beaten by the competition at ABC, which was then riding
high with its travel and western shows.
In addition, musical variety series have always been risky enterprises with a
fickle public; among the one-season casualties are Frank Sinatra in 1957, Judy
Garland in 1963 and Julie Andrews in 1972.
In 1964, Nat King Cole made his final television appearance on The Jack Benny
Program. Benny in true fashion allowed his guest star to steal the show at a
time when racism was still rampant in America. Cole sang “When I Fall in Love”
in perhaps his finest and most memorable performance. Cole was introduced as
“the best friend a song ever had” and traded very humorous banter with Benny.
Cole highlighted a classic Benny skit, in which Benny is upstaged by an
emergency stand-in drummer. Introduced as Cole’s cousin, five year old James
Bradley Jr. stunned Benny with incredible drumming talent and participated with
Cole in playful banter at Benny’s expense. Cole’s dignified performance was
years ahead of its time, though this would prove to be his last.
Cole fought racism all his life and refused to perform in segregated venues.
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 (a group led by Education of Little Tree author
Asa "Forrest" Carter, himself not among the attackers), 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 melée toppled Cole from his piano
bench and injured his back. Cole 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 1956 he was contracted to perform in Cuba and wanted to stay at the Hotel
Nacional de Cuba, Havana. He was not allowed to because it operated a color bar,
but Cole honored his contract and the concert at the Tropicana was a huge
success. The following year he returned to Cuba for another concert, singing
many songs in Spanish. There is now a tribute to him in the form of a bust and a
juke box in the Hotel Nacional.
1950s and beyond
Throughout the 1950s, Cole continued to rack up hit after hit, including
"Smile," "Pretend," "A Blossom Fell," and "If I May." His pop hits were
collaborations with well-known arrangers and conductors of the day, including
Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Ralph Carmichael. Riddle arranged several of
Cole's 1950s albums, including his first 10-inch long-play album, his 1953 "Nat
King Cole Sings For Two In Love." In 1955, his single "Darling Je Vous Aime
Beaucoup" reached #7 on the Billboard chart. Jenkins arranged "Love Is the
Thing," #1 on the album charts in April 1957.
In 1958, Cole went to Havana, Cuba
to record "Cole Español," an album sung entirely in Spanish. The album was so
popular in Latin America as well as in the USA, that two others of the same
variety followed: "A Mis Amigos" (sung in Spanish and Portuguese) in 1959, and
"More Cole Español" in 1962. "A Mis Amigos" contains the Venezuelan hit "Ansiedad,"
whose lyrics Cole had learned while performing in Caracas in 1958. Cole learned
songs in languages other than English by rote.
The change in musical tastes during the late 1950s meant that Cole's ballad
singing did not sell well with younger listeners, despite a successful stab at
rock n' roll with "Send For Me" (peaked at #6 pop). Along with his
contemporaries Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett, Cole found that the
pop singles chart had been almost entirely taken over by youth-oriented acts. In
1960, Nat's long-time collaborator Nelson Riddle left Capitol Records for Frank
Sinatra's newly formed Reprise Records label. Riddle and Cole recorded one final
hit album "Wild Is Love," based on lyrics by Ray Rasch and Dotty Wayne. Cole
later retooled the concept album into an off-Broadway show, "I'm With You."
Cole did manage to record some hit singles during the 1960s, including the
country-flavored hit "Ramblin' Rose" in August of 1962, as well as "Dear Lonely
Hearts," "Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days Of Summer" (his final hit, reaching #6
pop), and "That Sunday, That Summer".
Cole performed in many short films, sitcoms, television shows, and played W.
C. Handy in the film "St. Louis Blues" (1958). He also appeared in "The Nat King
Cole Story," "China Gate," and "The Blue Gardenia" (1953) (see photo above).
"Cat Ballou" (1965), his final film, was released several months after his
Death and posthumous achievements
Cole, a smoker of three packs of cigarettes a day, died of lung cancer on
February 15, 1965. The day before he died, he did a radio interview, stating: "I
am feeling better than ever. I think I've finally got this cancer licked."
A 1997 edition of "Chicken Soup for the Soul" published a story stating that
Cole's wife, Maria, nearly missed his death due to car trouble, but this is an
His last album, "L-O-V-E," was recorded in early December 1964 — just a few
days before entering the hospital for lung cancer treatment — and released just
prior to his death. It peaked at #4 on the Billboard Albums chart in the spring
of 1965. A "Best Of" album went gold in 1968. His 1957 recording of "When I Fall
In Love" reached #4 in the UK charts in 1987.
In 1983, an archivist for EMI Electrola Records, EMI (Capitol's parent
company) Records' subsidiary in Germany, discovered some songs Cole had recorded
but had never been released, including one in Japanese and another in Spanish ("Tu
Eres Tan Amable"). Capitol released them later that year as the LP "Unreleased."
Cole was inducted into both the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama
Jazz Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990,
and in 1997 was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. In 2007,
he was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
In 1991, Mosaic Records released "The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat
King Cole Trio," an 18 compact disc set, consisting of 349 songs. (This special
compilation also was available as a 27 high-quality LP record set.)
Nat's youngest brother Freddy Cole, and Nat's daughter, Natalie Cole are also
singers. In the summer of 1991, Natalie and her father had an unexpected hit
when Natalie mixed her own voice with her father's 1961 rendition of
"Unforgettable," as part of her album paying tribute to her father's music. The
song and the album of the same name won seven Grammy awards in 1992.
Marriage, children and other personal details
There has been some confusion as to Cole's actual year of birth. Nat himself
used four different dates on official documents: 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1919.
However, Nathaniel is listed with his parents and older siblings in the 1920
U.S. Federal census for Montgomery Ward 7 and his age is given as nine months
old. Since this is a contemporary record, it is very likely he was born in 1919.
This is also consistent with the 1930 census which finds him at age 11 with his
family in Chicago's Ward 3. In the 1920 census, the race of all members of the
family (Ed., Perlina, Eddie M., Edward D., Evelina and Nathaniel) is recorded as
mulatto. Cole's birth year is also listed as 1919 on the Nat King Cole Society's
Cole's first marriage, to Nadine Robinson, ended in 1948. On March 28, 1948
(Easter Sunday), just six days after his divorce became final, Nat King Cole
married singer Maria Hawkins Ellington. While Maria had sung with Ellington's
band, Ellington is no relation to Duke Ellington. They were married in Harlem's
Abyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. They had five children:
daughter Natalie was born in 1950; adoption of Carol (the daughter of Maria's
sister, born in 1944); adopted son Nat Kelly Cole (1959), who died in 1995 at
36; twin girls Casey and Timolin (1961).
In 1948, Cole purchased a house in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood of
Los Angeles. The property owners association told Cole they did not 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."
The Ku Klux Klan, still active in Los Angeles well into the 1950s, responded
by placing a burning cross on his front lawn.
Cole carried on affairs throughout his marriage. By the time he developed
lung cancer, he was estranged from his wife Maria in favor of actress Gunilla
Hutton, best known as Nurse Goodbody of "Hee Haw" fame. However, he was together
with his wife during his illness, and she stayed with him until his death. In an
interview, his wife Maria had expressed no lingering resentment over his
affairs. Instead she emphasized his musical legacy and the class he exhibited in
all other aspects of his life.
Cole was a heavy smoker of KOOL menthol cigarettes. He believed smoking kept
his voice low. (He would, in fact, smoke several cigarettes in quick succession
before a recording for this very purpose.) He died of lung cancer on February
15, 1965, at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California. His funeral was
held at St. James Episcopal Church on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. His
remains were interred inside Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in
Glendale, Los Angeles.
Although numerous Internet sites state that Cole spoke at the 1956 Republican
National Convention in the Cow Palace, San Francisco, California, in fact, on
August 23, 1956, his "singing [there] of 'That's All There Is To That' was
greeted with applause." There is no record in the Official Report of the
Proceedings of his having spoken.
He was also present at the Democratic National Convention in 1960, to throw his
support behind President John F. Kennedy. Cole was also among the dozens of
entertainers recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the Kennedy Inaugural gala
in 1961. Nat King Cole frequently consulted with President Kennedy (and later
President Johnson) on civil rights.
- Citizen Kane (1941) (off-screen)
- Here Comes Elmer (1943)
- Pistol Packin' Mama (1943)
- Pin Up Girl (1944)
- Stars on Parade (1944)
- Swing in the Saddle (1944)
- See My Lawyer (1945)
- Breakfast in Hollywood (1946)
- Killer Diller (1948)
- Make Believe Ballroom (1949)
- The Blue Gardenia (1953)
- Small Town Girl (1953)
- Rock 'n' Roll Revue (1955)
- Rhythm and Blues Revue (1955)
- Basin Street Revue (1956)
- The Scarlet Hour (1956)
- Istanbul (1957)
- China Gate (1957)
- St. Louis Blues (1958)
- Night of the Quarter Moon (1959)
- Schlager-Raketen (1960)
- Cat Ballou (1965)
- King Cole Trio & Benny Carter Orchestra (1950)
- Nat King Cole and Joe Adams Orchestra (1952)
- Nat King Cole and Russ Morgan and His Orchestra (1953)
- The Nat King Cole Musical Story (1955)