Nathaniel Adams Coles (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965), known professionally as Nat King Cole, was an American singer who first came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist. He was widely noted for his soft baritone voice, performing in big band and jazz genres, and was a major force in popular music for three decades. Cole was one of the first African Americans to host a national television variety show, The Nat King Cole Show. His recordings remained popular worldwide after his death from lung cancer in February 1965.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919. He had three brothers—Eddie (1910–1970), Ike (1927–2001), and Freddy (born 1931)—and a half-sister, Joyce Coles. Each of his brothers pursued careers in music. When Nat was four years old, he and his family moved to North Chicago, Illinois, where his father, Edward Coles, became a Baptist minister. Nat learned to play the organ from his mother, Perlina Coles, the church organist. His first performance was of "Yes! We Have No Bananas" at the age of four. He began formal lessons at 12 and eventually learned not only jazz and gospel music but also Western classical music; he performed "from Johann Sebastian Bach to Sergei Rachmaninoff."
The family again moved to the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, where he attended Wendel Phillips High School (the same school Sam Cooke attended a few years later). Cole would sneak out of the house and hang around outside 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 performances of Hines, Cole began his performing career in the mid-1930s while still a teenager, adopting the name Nat Cole. Cole left Chicago in 1936 to lead a band in a revival of Eubie Blake's revue Shuffle Along. His older brother, Eddie, a bass player, soon joined Cole's band, and they made their first recording in 1936, under Eddie's name. They also were regular performers in clubs. Cole 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 tour of Shuffle Along. When it suddenly failed in Long Beach, California, Cole decided to remain there. He later returned to Chicago in triumph to play such venues as the Edgewater Beach Hotel.
Los Angeles and the King Cole Trio
The following year Cole formed a trio in Los Angeles with Oscar Moore (guitar) and Wesley Prince (double bass) known as the "King Cole Swingsters" in Long Beach and played in a number of local bars before getting a gig on the Long Beach Pike for US $90.00 per week ($1,553 in 2015). The trio played in Failsworth through the late 1930s and recorded many radio transcriptions for Capitol Transcriptions. Cole was the pianist and also the leader of the combo. Radio was important to the King Cole Trio's rise in popularity. Their first broadcast was with NBC's Blue Network in 1938. It was followed by performances on NBC's Swing Soiree. In the 1940s, the trio appeared on the radio shows Old Gold, The Chesterfield Supper Club and Kraft Music Hall. The King Cole Trio performed twice on CBS Radio's variety show The Orson Welles Almanac in 1944.
According to legend, Cole's singing career did not start until a drunken barroom patron demanded that he sing "Sweet Lorraine". Cole said that this fabricated story "sounded good, so I just let it ride." He frequently sang between instrumental numbers. Noticing that people started to request more vocal numbers, he obliged. Yet the story of the insistent customer is not without some truth. There was a customer who requested a certain song one night, but it was a song that Cole did not know, so instead he sang "Sweet Lorraine". The trio was tipped 15¢ ($2.59 in 2015) for the performance.
The Capitol Records Building, known as "The House That Nat Built"
During World War II, Wesley Prince left the group and was replaced by Johnny Miller, who in turn was replaced by Charlie Harris in the 1950s. The King Cole Trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records in 1943. The group had previously recorded for Excelsior Records, owned by Otis René, and had a hit with the song "I'm Lost", which René wrote, produced and distributed. 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 near 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 in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts (credited on the Mercury Record label as "Shorty Nadine"—derived from his wife's name—as he was under exclusive contract with Capitol Records at the time). His revolutionary lineup of piano, guitar, and bass in the era of the big band became a popular setup for jazz trios. It was emulated by many musicians, among them Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, and the blues pianists Charles Brown and Ray Charles. He also performed as a pianist on sessions with Lester Young, Red Callender, and Lionel Hampton. For contractual reasons, Cole was credited as "Aye Guy" on the album The Lester Young Buddy Rich Trio.
I started out to become a jazz pianist; in the meantime I started singing and I sang the way I felt and that's just the way it came out.
— Nat King Cole, Voice of America interview.
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 his fledgling Capitol Records. It sold over 500,000 copies, proving that folk-based material could appeal to a wide audience. Cole would never be considered a rocker, but the song can be seen as anticipating the first rock-and-roll records. Bo Diddley, who performed similar transformations of folk material, counted Cole as an influence.
In 1946, the Cole trio paid to have their own 15-minute radio program on the air, King Cole Trio Time. It was the first radio program sponsored by a black performing artist. During those years, the trio recorded many "transcription" recordings, which were made in the radio studio for the broadcast. Later they were released as commercial records. Beginning in the late 1940s, Cole began recording and performing pop-oriented material for mainstream audiences, in which he was often accompanied by a string orchestra. His stature as a popular star was cemented during this period by hits such as "The Christmas Song", "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" (1946), "Nature Boy" (1948), "Mona Lisa" (1950), "Too Young" (the number 1 song in 1951), and his signature song, "Unforgettable" (1951) (Gainer 1). Cole's hit recording "The Christmas Song" was the first of his solo vocal recordings to be accompanied by a studio orchestra. This marked the start of his rise as an internationally acclaimed popular singer, with a smooth and sophisticated style. Cole's shift to pop music led some jazz critics and fans to accuse him of selling out, but he never abandoned his jazz roots; as late as 1956 he recorded an all-jazz album, After Midnight, and many of his albums after this are fundamentally jazz-based, being scored for big band without strings, although the arrangements focus primarily on the vocal rather than instrumental leads. Cole had one of his last major hits in 1963, two years before his death, with "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer", which reached number 6 on the Pop chart. "Unforgettable" was made famous again in 1991 by Cole's daughter Natalie when modern recording technology was used to reunite father and daughter in a duet. The duet version rose to the top of the pop charts, almost forty years after its original popularity.King Cole Trio Time on NBC in 1947, with Cole, Oscar Moore and Johnny Miller
On November 5, 1956, The Nat 'King' Cole Show debuted on NBC. The variety program was one of the first hosted by an African American, which created controversy at the time. Beginning as a 15-minute pops 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, Frankie Laine, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, Tony Bennett and the backing vocal group the Cheerleaders, worked for industry scale (or even for no pay) 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 end the program. Commenting on the lack of sponsorship his show received, Cole quipped shortly after its demise, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."
Throughout the 1950s, Cole continued to rack up successive hits, selling in millions throughout the world, 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, Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love (1953). In 1955, his single "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup" reached number 7 on the Billboard chart. Jenkins arranged Love Is the Thing, hitting number 1 on the charts in April 1957 and remaining for eight weeks, his only number 1 hit. In 1959, he was awarded a Grammy at the 2nd Annual Grammy Awards, the category Best Performance By a "Top 40" Artist, for his recording of "Midnight Flyer".
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, and also in the United States, 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 learned while performing in Caracas in 1958. He learned songs in languages other than English by rote. After the change in musical tastes during the late 1950s, Cole's ballad singing did not sell well with younger listeners, despite a successful stab at rock and roll with "Send for Me", which peaked at number 6 on the Pop chart. 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, Cole's longtime collaborator Nelson Riddle left Capitol Records for Frank Sinatra's newly formed Reprise Records. Riddle and Cole recorded one final hit album, Wild Is Love, with lyrics by Ray Rasch and Dotty Wayne. Cole later retooled the concept album into an Off-Broadway show, I'm with You.
Cole recorded some hit singles during the 1960s, including "Let There Be Love" with George Shearing in 1961, the country-flavored hit "Ramblin' Rose" in August 1962, "Dear Lonely Hearts", "That Sunday, That Summer" and "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer" (his final top-ten hit, reaching number 6 on the Pop chart). He performed in many short films, sitcoms, and 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). In January 1964, Cole made one of his final television appearances, on The Jack Benny Program. He was introduced as "the best friend a song ever had" and sang "When I Fall in Love". Cat Ballou (1965), his final film, was released several months after his death.
Around the time Cole launched his singing career, he entered into Freemasonry. He was raised in January 1944 in the Thomas Waller Lodge No. 49 in California. The lodge was named after fellow Prince Hall mason and jazz musician Fats Waller. Cole was "an avid baseball fan", particularly of Hank Aaron. In 1968, Nelson Riddle related an incident from some years earlier and told of music studio engineers, searching for a source of noise, finding Cole listening to a game on a transistor radio.
Marriage and children
Cole met his first wife, Nadine Robinson, while they were on tour for the all-black Broadway musical Shuffle Along. He was only 17 when they married. She was the reason he landed in Los Angeles and formed the Nat King Cole trio. This marriage ended in divorce in 1948. On March 28, 1948 (Easter Sunday), just six days after his divorce became final, Cole married the singer Maria Hawkins Ellington (she had sung with the Duke Ellington band but was not related to Duke Ellington). The Coles were married in Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. They had five children: Natalie (1950–2015), who had a successful career as a singer; an adopted daughter, Carole (1944–2009, the daughter of Maria's sister), who died of lung cancer at the age of 64; an adopted son, Nat Kelly Cole (1959–1995), who died of AIDS at the age of 36; and twin daughters, Casey and Timolin (born September 26, 1961), whose birth was announced in the "Milestones" column of Time magazine on October 6, 1961 (along with the birth of Melissa Newman). Maria supported him during his final illness and stayed with him until his death. In an interview, she emphasized his musical legacy and the class he exhibited despite his imperfections. Nat and his second wife, Maria, 1951
Experiences with racism
In August 1948, Cole purchased a house from Col. Harry Gantz, the former husband of the silent film actress Lois Weber, in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Ku Klux Klan, still active in Los Angeles well into the 1950s, responded by placing a burning cross on his front lawn. Members of the property-owners association told Cole they did not want any "undesirables" moving into the neighborhood. Cole retorted, "Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I'll be the first to complain."Nat King Cole corner in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba
In 1956, Cole was assaulted on stage during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, with the Ted Heath Band (while singing the song "Little Girl"). Having already circulated photographs of Cole with white female fans bearing incendiary boldface captions reading "COLE AND HIS WHITE WOMEN" and "COLE AND YOUR DAUGHTER," three men belonging to the North Alabama Citizens Council physically assaulted Cole, apparently attempting to kidnap him. The three assailants ran down the aisles of the auditorium towards Cole and his band. Local law enforcement quickly ended the invasion of the stage, but in the ensuing melée Cole was toppled 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 tried and convicted for their roles in the crime.
In 1956, Cole was contracted to perform in Cuba and wanted to stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, but was not allowed to, because it operated a color bar. 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 jukebox in the Hotel Nacional.
After his attack in Birmingham, Cole said, "I can't understand it ... I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?" A native of Alabama, he seemed eager to assure southern whites that he would not challenge the customs and traditions of the region. A few would keep the protests going for a while, he said, but "I'd just like to forget about the whole thing." Cole had no intention of altering his practice of playing to segregated audiences in the South. He did not condone the practice, but he was not a politician and believed that "I can't change the situation in a day." Some African Americans responded to Cole's self-professed political indifference with an immediate, harsh, and virtually unanimous rejection, unaffected by his revelations that he had contributed money to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and had sued several northern hotels that had hired but refused to serve him. Thurgood Marshall, the chief legal counsel of the NAACP, reportedly suggested that he was an Uncle Tom and therefore ought to perform with a banjo. Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the organization, challenged Cole in a telegram: "You have not been a crusader or engaged in an effort to change the customs or laws of the South. That responsibility, newspapers quote you as saying, you leave to the other guys. That attack upon you clearly indicates that organized bigotry makes no distinction between those who do not actively challenge racial discrimination and those who do. This is a fight which none of us can escape. We invite you to join us in a crusade against racism."
Cole's appearances before all-white audiences, the Chicago Defender charged, were "an insult to his race". As boycotts of his records and shows were organized, the New York Amsterdam News claimed that "thousands of Harlem blacks who have worshiped at the shrine of singer Nat King Cole turned their backs on him this week as the noted crooner turned his back on the NAACP and said that he will continue to play to Jim Crow audiences." To play "Uncle Nat's" discs, wrote a commentator in The American Negro, "would be supporting his 'traitor' ideas and narrow way of thinking". Deeply hurt by the criticism in the black press, Cole was also chastened. Emphasizing his opposition to racial segregation "in any form", he agreed to join other entertainers in boycotting segregated venues. He quickly and conspicuously paid $500 to become a life member of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. Until his death in 1965, Cole was an active and visible participant in the civil rights movement, playing an important role in planning the March on Washington in 1963.
Cole sang at the 1956 Republican National Convention in the Cow Palace, Daly City, California, to show support for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He sang "That's All There Is to That" and was "greeted with applause." He was also present at the Democratic National Convention in 1960 to support Senator John F. Kennedy. He was among the dozens of entertainers recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the Kennedy Inaugural gala in 1961. Cole consulted with President Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, on civil rights.
Illness and death
In September 1964, Cole began losing weight and experiencing back pain. His declining health was aggravated by the stresses of his personal and professional life. He was appearing in a touring musical revue, Sights and Sounds, commuting to Los Angeles to film music for Cat Ballou, and becoming increasingly involved in an extramarital relationship with a 19-year-old Swedish dancer, Gunilla Hutton, which led Maria Cole to contemplate divorce. Cole collapsed with pain after performing at the Sands in Las Vegas and was finally persuaded by friends to seek medical help in December, when he was working in San Francisco. A malignant tumor on his left lung, in an advanced state of growth, was observed on a chest X-ray. Cole, who had been a heavy cigarette smoker, had lung cancer, and it was expected that he had only months to live. He carried on working, against his doctors' wishes, and made his final recordings December 1–3 in San Francisco, with an orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael, released on the album L-O-V-E shortly before his death. Sadly, the movie 'Cat Ballou' (his last movie) was a movie he never got to see, as he died during the post-production of the movie, a few weeks before its theatrical release in 1965.
Cole entered St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica on December 7, and cobalt therapy was started on December 10. Frank Sinatra performed in Cole's place at the grand opening of the new Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center on December 12. Cole's condition gradually worsened, but he was released from the hospital over the New Year's period. At home Cole was able to see the hundreds of thousands of cards and letters that had been sent after news of his illness was made public. Cole returned to the hospital in early January. He also sent $5,000 to Hutton, who later telephoned Maria and implored her to divorce him. Maria confronted her husband, and Cole finally broke off the relationship with Hutton. Cole's illness reconciled him with his wife, and he vowed that if he recovered he would go on television to urge people to stop smoking. On January 25 Cole's left lung was removed. His father died of heart problems on February 1. Throughout Cole's illness his publicists promoted the idea that he would soon be well and working, despite the private knowledge of his terminal condition. Billboard magazine reported that "Nat King Cole has successfully come through a serious operation and ... the future looks bright for 'the master' to resume his career again." On Valentine's Day Cole and his wife briefly left St. John's to drive by the sea. He died at the hospital early in the morning of February 15, aged 45.
Cole's funeral was held on February 18 at St. James Episcopal Church on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles; 400 people were present, and thousands gathered outside the church. Hundreds of members of the public had filed past the coffin the day before. Notable honorary pallbearers included Robert F. Kennedy, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis, George Burns, Danny Thomas, Jimmy Durante, Alan Livingston, Frankie Laine, Steve Allen, and Pat Brown (the governor of California). The eulogy was delivered by Jack Benny, who said that "Nat Cole was a man who gave so much and still had so much to give. He gave it in song, in friendship to his fellow man, devotion to his family. He was a star, a tremendous success as an entertainer, an institution. But he was an even greater success as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a friend." Cole's remains were interred in Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California.
Cole's last album, L-O-V-E, was recorded in early December 1964—just a few days before he entered the hospital for cancer treatment—and was released just before he died. It peaked at number 4 on the Billboard Albums chart in the spring of 1965. A Best Of album was certified a gold record in 1968. His 1957 recording of "When I Fall in Love" reached number 4 in the UK charts in 1987.
In 1983, an archivist for EMI Electrola Records, a subsidiary of EMI Records (Capitol's parent company) in Germany, discovered some unreleased recordings by Cole, including one in Japanese and another in Spanish ("Tu Eres Tan Amable"). Capitol released them later that year as the LP Unreleased.
In 1991, Mosaic Records released The Complete Capitol Records Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio, a compilation of 349 songs available as an 18-CD or a 27-LP set. In 2008 it was re-released in digital-download format through services like iTunes and Amazon Music.
Also in 1991, Natalie Cole recorded a new vocal track that was mixed with her father's 1961 stereo re-recording of his 1951 hit "Unforgettable" for a tribute album of the same title. The song and album won seven Grammy awards in 1992 for Best Album and Best Song.
Cole was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990. He was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2007. A United States postage stamp featuring Cole's likeness was issued in 1994. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, as a major influence on early rock and roll, and the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2013, for his contribution to Latin music.
Cole's success at Capitol Records, for which he recorded more than 150 singles that reached the Billboard Pop, R&B, and Country charts, has yet to be matched by any Capitol artist. His records sold 50 million copies during his career. His recording of "The Christmas Song" still receives airplay every holiday season.