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 one of the first black Americans to host a television variety show, and has maintained worldwide popularity since his untimely death; he is widely considered one of the most important musical personalities in United States history.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1919 (some sources erroneously list his birth year as 1917). At the age of 4, his family moved to Chicago, Illinois. There his father became a Baptist minister. Cole 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“.
Cole had three brothers; Eddie, Ike, and Freddy. The family lived in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. Cole would sneak out of the house and hang around outside the 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 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 Cole, a bass player, soon joined Cole’s band, and the brothers made their first recording in 1936 under Eddie’s name. They were also regular performers at clubs. In fact, 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 Broadway theatre legend Eubie Blake‘s revue, “Shuffle Along”. When it suddenly failed in Long Beach, California, Cole decided to remain there.
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 ($1,413 in current dollar terms) per week.
In January 1937, Cole married dancer Nadine Robinson, who was also in the musical Shuffle Along, and moved to Los Angeles. The trio consisted of Cole on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Wesley Prince on double bass. The trio played in Failsworth throughout the late 1930s and recorded many radio transcriptions. Cole’s role was that of piano player and leader of the combo.
It is a common misconception that Cole’s singing career did not start until a drunken barroom patron demanded that he sing “Sweet Lorraine”. In fact, Cole has gone on record saying that the fabricated story “sounded good, so I just let it ride.” 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 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 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. 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 setup for a jazz trio. It was emulated by many musicians, among them Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, 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 setup as Cole, came out of the chute about the same time, at the end of the war. It’s still a tossup as to who was first, although it is generally agreed that the credit goes to Cole.
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, proving that folk-based material could appeal to a wide audience. Although Cole 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: on June 14, 1946, as a pure Trio recording, on August 19, 1946, with an added string section, on August 24, 1953, and 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.
Nat King Cole, joined by the Oscar Peterson Trio and Coleman Hawkins singing, Mitchel Parish’s, “Sweet Lorraine.”
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, and Eartha Kitt 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.
Nat King Cole singing, “Caravan”
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, with 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 January 1964, Cole made one of his final television appearances on The Jack Benny Program. In his typically magnanimous fashion, Benny allowed his guest star to steal the show. 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. It would prove to be one of Cole’s last performances.
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, but was not allowed to because it operated a color bar. Cole honored his contract, however, 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.
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, which hit #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.
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 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 longtime 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 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, 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). Cat Ballou (1965), his final film, was released several months after his death.
Cole was a heavy smoker of Kool menthol cigarettes, believing smoking kept his voice low (Cole would smoke several cigarettes in rapid succession before a recording for this very purpose). The many years of smoking caught up with him, resulting in his death from lung cancer on February 15, 1965 at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California. Cole was just 45.
Cole’s 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. His 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 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 that 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. In 1990, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 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 LP set.)
Cole’s youngest brother, Freddy Cole, and Cole’s daughter Natalie are also singers. In the summer of 1991, Natalie Cole and her father had a hit when Natalie mixed her own voice with her father’s 1961 rendition of “Unforgettable” as part of a tribute album to her father’s music. The song and album of the same name won seven Grammy awards in 1992.
AKA Nathaniel Adams Coles
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Unforgettable
Father: Rev. Edward James Coles, Sr.
Mother: Perlina Adams Coles
Wife: Nadine Robinson (dancer, m. 1936)
Wife: Maria Ellington (singer, m. 28-Mar-1948)
Daughter: Natalie Maria Cole (b. 2-Jun-1950)
Daughter: Carol (“Cookie”, actress, adopted in 1949, b. 17-Oct-1944, d. 18-May-2009 lung cancer)
Son: Nat Kelly Cole (adopted 1959)
Daughter: Timolin (twins, b. 26-Sep-1961)
Daughter: Casey (twins, b. 26-Sep-1961)
High School: Wendell Phillips High School, Chicago, IL
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
Cat Ballou (24-Jun-1965)
Night of the Quarter Moon (4-Mar-1959)
St. Louis Blues (7-Apr-1958)
Autumn Leaves (1-Aug-1956)
The Scarlet Hour (Apr-1956)
The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1-Oct-1954)
Small Town Girl (10-Apr-1953) Himself
The Blue Gardenia (23-Mar-1953) Himself
Breakfast in Hollywood (26-Feb-1946) Himself