Nathaniel Adams Coles (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965), known professionally as Nat King Cole, was a popular American jazz singer-songwriter and pianist.
Cole first came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist, then switched his emphasis to singing, becoming one of the most popular and best known vocalists of all time.
Cole was born in Montgomery, Alabama. His birth date, according to the World Almanac, was on Saint Patrick's Day in 1919; other sources have erroneously listed his birthdate as 1917. His father was a preacher in the Baptist church. His family moved to Chicago, Illinois, while he was still a child. There, his father became a minister; Nat's mother, Perlina, was the church organist. Nat learned to play the organ from his mother until the age of 12, when he began formal lessons. His first performance, at age four, was of Yes, We Have No Bananas. He learned not only jazz and gospel music, but European classical music as well, 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 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 he was still a teenager, and adopted the name "Nat Cole". His older brother, Eddie Coles, a bassist, soon joined Nat's band and they first recorded in 1936 under Eddie's name. They were also regular performers at clubs. In fact, Nat got 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.
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 a dancer Megan 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 as saying that the fabricated story "sounded good, so I just let it ride." In fact 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 did request 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. 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, and are 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, though generally agreed the credit goes to Nat Cole.
His 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 the 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.
On November 5, 1956, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC-TV. While commentators have often mistakenly hailed Cole as the first African-American to host a network television show — an honor belonging to jazz pianist and singer Hazel Scott in 1950 — the Cole program was the first of its kind hosted by a star of Nat Cole's magnitude.
Initially begun as a 15-minute show on Monday night, the show was expanded to a half hour in July 1957. Despite the efforts of NBC, as well as many of Cole's industry colleagues (beginning with Frankie Laine, who was the first white singer to break the "color barrier" by appearing as a guest on a black entertainer's show) -- most 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 a lack of 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 17 December 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, 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.
The TV show was ultimately cancelled because potential sponsors shied away from showcasing a black artist. Cole fought racism all his life and refused to perform in segregated venues. In 1956, he was assaulted on stage while singing the song "Little Girl" in Birmingham, Alabama, 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 attack began at the rear of the auditorium when three men ran down the aisles towards Cole and his band. The invasion of the stage was quickly snuffed out by local law enforcement but in the ensuing melée, he was toppled 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.Throughout the 1950s, Cole continued to rack up hit after hit, including "Smile", "Pretend", "A Blossom Fell", "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. 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 in the same vein 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, "Dear Lonely Hearts", "Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days Of Summer", 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.
Cole, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer on February 15, 1965, while still at the height of his singing career. 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 urban legend.
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.
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 at the Nat King Cole Society's web site.
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 — no relation to Duke Ellington although she had sung with Ellington's band. They were married in Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. They had five children: daughter Natalie was born in 1950, followed by adoption of Carol (the daughter of Maria's sister, born in 1944) and a son Nat Kelly Cole (born in 1959), who died in 1995 at 36. Twin girls Casey and Timolin were born in 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."
Cole carried on affairs throughout his marriage. By the time he contracted 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 interview, his wife Maria has expressed no lingering resentment over his affairs, but rather emphasised his musical legacy and the class he exhibited in all other aspects of his life.
Cole was a heavy smoker of KOOL menthol cigarettes, smoking up to three packs a day. 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.
On August 23, 1956, Cole spoke at the Republican National Conventionin the Cow Palace, San Francisco, California. 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 the issue of civil rights. Yet he was dogged by critics, who felt he shied away from controversy when it came to the civil rights issue.