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Nat King Cole (1919-1965)

Nat King Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama. When Cole was four years old, his father, Edward, a Baptist minister, accepted a pastorship of a church in Chicago. The family, which included Cole's mother, Perlina, his older brother, Edward, and two sisters, Eddie Mae and Evelyn, moved north. Two younger brothers, Issac and Lionel (called Freddie), were born later in Chicago. Perlina Coles, choir director at her husband's church, introduced her children to music early on and all four of her sons became professional musicians. As a small child, Cole could pump out "Yes, We Have No Bananas" on the piano and liked to stand in front of the radio with a ruler in his hand, pretending to conduct an orchestra. At age 12, Cole began taking formal lessons in piano and also began playing the organ in his father's church. If his keyboard skills weren't needed at church, he was put into the choir.

While attending Wendell Phillips High School, Cole became enamored of jazz music. The African American community on Chicago's southside was a center of jazz action in the 1930s. Cole and his older brother Eddie went as often as possible to hear jazz and be with jazz musicians. When admission to a performance could not be afforded, Cole would stand in alleys listening at the stage door. He was most influenced by the style of pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines. "It was his driving force that appealed to me ... I was just a kid and coming up, but I latched onto that new Hines style. Guess I still show the influence today," Cole told John Tynan of Down Beat in 1957.

Early Musical Career

As a teenager, Cole organized two musical groups a 14-piece band called the Rogues of Rhythm, and a quintet called Nat Coles and his Royal Dukes. He would play with whichever group could get a booking. In addition to music, athletics played a big role in Cole's adolescence and his talent on the baseball diamond drew the interest of scouts from the Negro Leagues. Cole remained a sports fan throughout his life. "The only sport I'm not interested in is horse racing, and that's because I don't know the horses personally," Cole told The Saturday Evening Post in 1954.

At age 16, Cole became the pianist for the Solid Swingers, a quintet formed by his brother Eddie. Late night engagements made keeping up with academic work difficult and Cole gradually dropped out of school before earning a diploma. In 1936, as pianist for the Solid Swingers, Cole participated on several records for the Decca company's Sepia Series. These were "race" records aimed at black audiences. Though the Solid Swingers' recordings did not enjoy much popularity, the fact that a record company had been interested enough to make them in the first place was a big encouragement for Cole to pursue a career in music.

In 1937, Cole and his brother Eddie joined a revival of the revue Shuffle Along. After a six week run in Chicago, the show went on the road. During the tour, Cole married dancer Nadine Robinson. When the Shuffle Along company suddenly folded in Long Beach, California, Cole and Robinson decided to stay on the West Coast. To pay the rent, Cole took whatever job was available. "It was a tough workout. I must have played every beer joint from San Diego to Bakersfield," Cole told The Saturday Evening Post. Despite having to play on out of tune pianos at third rate venues, Cole's extraordinary talent was noticed and he was soon a regular performer at the Century Club, a favorite hangout for Los Angeles area jazz musicians. "All the musicians dug him. We went there just to listen to him because nobody was like him. That cat could play! He was unique," said a musician who saw Cole at the Century Club to biographer James Haskins.

"King Cole"

In late 1937 or early 1938, dates differ, Cole was asked to put together a small group to play at the Sewanee Inn, a Los Angeles nightclub. Cole got guitarist Oscar Moore, bassist Wesley Prince, and drummer Lee Young to join the group. When Young failed to appear on opening night, the group went on as a drummer-less trio. Cole was still using his real name Coles. Sewanee Inn owner Bob Lewis nicknamed him King Cole and requested that he wear a gold paper crown during performances. The crown soon disappeared but the nickname stuck. The group became known as the King Cole Trio and its leader became Nat King Cole.

Developed Enthusiastic Following

The music scene of the late 1930s was dominated by dance orchestras or "big bands." A trio, especially one without a drummer, was an oddity. Nonetheless, the King Cole Trio developed an enthusiastic local following and found almost constant work at Los Angeles nightspots, including many clubs which had never before hired black performers. The trio recorded with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and made some recordings of their own for the "race record" market. In early 1941, the trio went on a national tour and ended up spending several months in New York City, playing at top jazz clubs. Though the trio was primarily an instrumental group, Cole occasionally supplied a vocal line to add variation. The shy Cole was a reluctant singer who didn't think he had much vocal talent. Even after becoming one of the most popular singers in the world, his opinion was unchanged. He told The Saturday Evening Post in 1954 "My voice is nothing to be proud of. It runs maybe two octaves in range. I guess it's the hoarse, breathy noise that some like."

In 1942, soon after the United States entered World War II, the trio's bassist Wesley Prince was drafted into the military. He was replaced by Johnny Miller. Cole was exempted from the draft. Differing accounts attribute this to either flat feet or hypertension. The trio settled into a 48-week run at Los Angeles' 331 Club. In 1943, the trio was signed by Capitol Records, a fledgling operation founded in the previous year by well-known lyricists Johnny Mercer and Buddy DeSylva, and record store owner Glen Wallichs. The trio's Capitol recording of "Straighten Up and Fly Right," with Cole on piano and as featured vocalist, became a hit in 1944. The song appealed to both black and white audiences and crossed the barrier between jazz and popular music. Cole had composed "Straighten Up and Fly Right," basing its lyrics on one of his father's sermons, but he had sold away all rights to the song several years earlier for $50 and earned nothing extra from the hit recording.

Moved Away from Jazz

The success of the King Cole Trio continued with the hits "Get Your Kicks on Route 66," and "For Sentimental Reasons." The trio also performed in movies including The Stork Club, Breakfast in Hollywood, and See My Lawyer. In 1946 they were hired, along with pianist Eddy Duchin, as summer replacements for Bing Crosby on the radio program Kraft Music Hall. "You have no idea how much satisfaction I got from the acceptance of the trio, because we opened the way for countless other small groups, units that before were strictly for cocktail lounges," Cole told Down Beat in 1957. Cole's career took a major step away from jazz when the trio recorded Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." A hit in the winter of 1946-1947, "The Christmas Song" was the trio's first recording with a string section accompaniment and was the first recording to emphasize Cole as a singer rather than a singing pianist leading a trio.

Cole's move towards being a singer of popular music was viewed by many jazz purists as an artistic sellout. This shift to the mainstream has been attributed to the influence of Maria Ellington, an intelligent and sophisticated young singer whom Cole met in 1946. "Maria saw that Nat had a limited future as a jazz pianist. He couldn't just sit there and sing and become a big hit. He had to stand up and sing with strings," said Duke Niles, a song-plugger who knew Cole, to biographer Leslie Gourse. Many people around Cole, including fellow trio members Moore and Miller, thought the well-educated Ellington was calculating, domineering, and snobbish. Others say that Cole enjoyed many kinds of music (he was also an excellent classical pianist) and felt hindered by the confines of jazz. He very much wanted to be a big mainstream star and Ellington's guidance merely assisted him in achieving that goal. After obtaining a divorce from Nadine Robinson, Cole married Ellington at a lavish ceremony conducted by Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1948. Cole and Ellington had three daughters and adopted a son and another daughter.

Became Showcased Singer

Having added string accompaniment to his recording of "The Christmas Song," Cole took another step away from jazz with "Nature Boy," which he sang with the backing of a full orchestra. The exotic-sounding ballad was a major hit of 1948. In 1950, another somewhat offbeat ballad, "Mona Lisa," soared to the top of the charts and stayed there for weeks. Gradually Cole began singing "stand up" rather than sitting in front of a piano. The King Cole Trio devolved into window dressing for Cole's solo performances and was finally disbanded in 1955. Success continued with "Unforgettable," "Too Young," "Answer Me, My Love," and "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup." Cole's mellow delivery was in opposition to the belting offered by other popular singers of the early 1950s such as Eddie Fisher, Johnny Ray, and the young Tony Bennett. His careful enunciation of a lyric enabled him to convey a song with depth and meaning and made his rather limited vocal range seem irrelevant. "Mine is a casual approach to a song; I lean heavily on the lyrics. By that I mean I try to tell a story with the melody as background," Cole told Down Beat in 1954.

  (During The Nat King Cole Show)

Not Immune to Racial Prejudice

In 1956, Cole was given his own television show on NBC-TV. Despite good ratings, the program failed to find a sponsor and left the air after a year. Cole's being African American was seen as the primary cause for the lack of advertising interest. Sponsoring a program that drew a large, if by no means exclusively, black audience was seen as a waste of money by advertisers. Racial incidents cropped up from time to time during Cole's starring career. When he and his wife bought a house in the exclusive Hancock Park section of Los Angeles in 1949, neighbors formed an association to prevent them from moving in. In 1956, at the height of his fame, Cole was attacked by a group of white men while performing in Birmingham, Alabama. Cole was sometimes criticized by other blacks for not taking a more aggressive stand against unfair treatment of racial minorities. He did not refuse to perform before segregated audiences, believing that goodwill and an exhibition of his talent were more effective than formal protests in combating racism.

The advent of rock and roll, the revitalized career of Frank Sinatra (to whom Cole was often compared), and competition from younger black "crooners" such as Johnny Mathis and Harry Belafonte, caused Cole's popularity to fade slightly in the later 1950s. To boost his sagging career, Cole acted in a several films, and organized a touring concert show called "Sights and Sounds," in which he appeared with a group of young singers and dancers called the Merry Young Souls. In the early 1960s, he returned to the top ten with the hits "Ramblin' Rose," and "Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer." Some critics remarked that these vacuous, though catchy, songs were not up to the quality of his earlier hits.

Throughout his adult life, Cole was a heavy smoker who was rarely seen without a cigarette in his hand. After an operation for stomach ulcers in 1953, he was advised to stop smoking but did not do so. Keeping up with a hectic schedule of recording and live appearances, he ignored signs of ill health. In late 1964 he was diagnosed with an advanced case of lung cancer. After unsuccessful medical treatments, he died on February 15, 1965, at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California.

Cole's recordings, both his jazz material and his mainstream work, have been discovered by new generations of fans. In 1991, Cole made a strong resurgence when his daughter Natalie blended her voice with his on a chart-topping new rendition of "Unforgettable." Also in 1991, the Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio were released to the delight of jazz fans. Listening to the trio's complete recordings brought new insight into Cole's career. Jay Cocks of Time wrote of Cole, "He wasn't corrupted by the mainstream. He used jazz to enrich and renew it, and left behind a lasting legacy. Very like a king."