Nat "King" Cole

Nathaniel Adams Coles (March 17, 1919February 15, 1965), known professionally as Nat King Cole, was a popular American jazz singer, songwriter, and pianist.

He first came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist, then switched his emphasis to singing, becoming one of the most popular and best-known singers of the 1950s.

Childhood and Chicago

He was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama. His birth date, according to the World Almanac, was on Saint Patrick's Day in 1919 [1]; other sources have erroneously listed his birthdate as 1917. His father was a butcher and a deacon 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.

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 $90 per week.

Nat married a 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. He didn't begin his singing career until a patron asked Nat to sing "Sweet Lorraine," at a nightclub in Los Angeles. Nat ignored the request. The patron said, "What's the matter, don't you know it?" Nat said, "Sure, I know it. But I'm a piano-player, not a singer." The irritated patron went to the owner of the club and complained. Soon the owner came to Nat and said, "He's one of our best customers. Every night he comes in and spends 2 or 3 dollars. If he wants to hear "Sweet Lorraine," he's going to hear "Sweet Lorraine." And so, Nat's singing career was born. In 1940 "Sweet Lorraine," written in 1928, became Nat's first hit. Nat's subdued style contrasted well with the belting approach of most jazz singers.

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 stayed with the recording company for the rest of Cole's 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.

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 the tune three times: in 1946, his first recording to include strings and the only one where he sings "reindeers," 1953, and 1961 - the last version is the one most often played today), "Nature Boy" (1948), "Mona Lisa" (1950), "Too Young" (the #1 song in 1951)[2], 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.
Enlarge picture
Nat King Cole with future star Billy Preston, aged 10 (1957).

Making television history

On 5 November 1956, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC-TV. While commentators have often erroneously 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.

Cancellation & racism

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 members of the White Citizens' Council who apparently were attempting to kidnap him. Cole completed the performance despite injuries, but never again performed in the South.

1950s and beyond

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.
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Nat King Cole and daughter Natalie Cole. Photo: Howard Frank Archives
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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, and played W. C. Handy in the film Saint 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.

Death & posthumous achievements

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 had died, he did a radio interview, stating: "I am feeling better than ever. I think I've finally got this cancer licked."

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" topped the UK charts in 1987.

In 1983, an archivist for Electrola Records, Capitol Records' subsidiary in the Netherlands, 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. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990.

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 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 at the Nat King Cole Society's web site.[3]

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, California.


On August 23, 1956, Cole spoke at the Republican National Convention in 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. Among the most notable was Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was upset that Cole did not take stronger action after being attacked on stage by white supremacists in 1956.


Notable TV appearances (other than his own)

  • Ed Sullivan: Nat King Cole was on the Ed Sullivan show six times before his own show ran regularly in 1957. He appeared twice after his show ended, once in 1958 and once in 1961.
Nat King Cole Appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show by: Season, Episode and Production Number, Air Date, Episode Title
  • * Season 9 (380.9-2 02-Oct-1955)
  • Scheduled: Nat King Cole; "Fanny" cast and Josh Logan
  • Season 9 (383.9-5 23-Oct-1955)
  • Scheduled: Nat King Cole & wife Maria; Jack Palance and Rod Steiger
  • Season 9 (404.9-26 18-Mar-1956)
  • Scheduled: Marcel Marceau; Eli Wallach; Nat King Cole and Cesare Siepe
  • Season 9 (405.9-27 25-Mar-1956)
  • Scheduled: Nat King Cole; Jack Carter and Reese & Davis
  • Season 9 (411.9-33 06-May-1956)
  • Scheduled: Tony Martin; Nat King Cole; Edie Adams; The Lovers and Will Jordan
  • Season 9 (416.9-38 10-Jun-1956)
  • Scheduled: Nat King Cole; Bob Hope (on film); Jack Carter and film: "A Short Vision"
  • Season 11 (510.11-29 13-Apr-1958)
  • Scheduled: Nat King Cole; Mickey Mantle; Yogi Berra and Jack Norworth
  • Season 14 (648.14-16 29-Jan-1961)
  • Scheduled: Carmen McRae; Carol Channing and Nat King Cole
  • Dinah Shore: Nat King Cole was also on the Dinah Shore show – singing "Mr. Cole Won’t Rock & Roll" — in the early-1960s.
  • Your Show of Shows ... aka Sid Caesar's Show of Shows - Episode dated 12 September 1953.

Discography (albums)

YearAlbum Title
1944The King Cole Trio - Capitol Records (10 inch LP)
1946The King Cole Trio Volume 2 (10 inch LP)
1948The King Cole Trio Volume 3 (10 inch LP)
1950Nat King Cole At The Piano (10 inch LP)
1952Penthouse Serenade (10 inch LP)
1952Top Pops (10 inch LP version)
1952Harvest Of Hits (10 inch LP)
1953Sings For Two In Love (10 inch LP)
1954Unforgettable (10 inch originally, 12 inch following year)
1955Penthouse Serenade (12 inch LP version)
1955Nat King Cole Sings For Two In Love (12 inch LP version)
195510th Anniversary Album (12 inch LP version)
1955Top Pops (12 inch LP version)
1955The Piano Style of Nat King Cole
1956Ballads of the Day
1957This Is Nat King Cole
1957After Midnight
1957Just One Of Those Things
1957Love Is The Thing
1958Cole Español
1958St. Louis Blues
1958The Very Thought Of You
1958To Whom It May Concern
1959Welcome To The Club
1959A Mis Amigos
1960Tell Me All About Yourself
1960Everytime I Feel The Spirit
1960Wild Is Love
1960The Magic of Christmas
1961The Nat King Cole Story
1961The Touch of Your Lips
1962Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays (Bonus LP added to later pressings)
1962Ramblin' Rose
1962Dear Lonely Hearts
1962Chartbusters: Volume 2 (Capitol Compilation LP, features "Ramblin Rose")
1962More Cole Español
1962Swingin' Side Of Nat King Cole (Reissue Of "Welcome To the Club")
1963Nat King Cole Sings the Blues (Reissue Of St. Louis Blues)
1963Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer
1963Chartbusters: Volume 3 (Capitol Compilation LP, features "That Sunday, That Summer" & "Mr. Wishing Well")
1963Top Pops (Reissue of 1955 album)
1963Where Did Everyone Go?
1963The Christmas Song (Reissue Of Magic Of Christmas plus title song)
1964Chartbusters: Volume 4 (Capitol Compilation LP, features "My True Carrie, Love")
1964Nat King Cole Sings My Fair Lady
1964Let's Face The Music!
1964I Don't Want To Be Hurt Anymore
1965L-O-V-E (Released weeks before Cole Died)
Re-Releases (Released Posthumously)
1965Sings Songs From Cat Ballou & Other Motion Pictures
1965Looking Back
1965Unforgettable (1965 reissue of 1954 album)
1965Sings Hymns & Spirituals (Reissue Of Every Time I Feel the Spirit)
1965Nat King Cole Trio: The Vintage Years
1965Nature Boy
1966Nat King Cole At the Sands (Recorded Live on January 14, 1960)
1966Sincerely, Nat King Cole
1966Nat Cole Sings the Great Songs!
1966Longines Symphonette Society Presents the Unforgettable Nat King Cole (Box Set)
1967The Beautiful Ballads
1967Thank You, Pretty Baby
1968Best Of Nat King Cole
1970The Magic Of Christmas With Children (Safeway Supermarket Promo LP)
1973Nature Boy
1974Love is a Many Splendored Thing
1979Reader's Digest Presents: The Great Nat King Cole (4LP Box Set)
1982Greatest Love Songs
1983Unforgettable (Australia)
1990Hit That Jive, Jack
1990Jumpin' at Capitol
1990Capitol Collectors' Series
1990Cole, Christmas and Kids
1991Big Band Cole (Repackaging of "Welcome To the Club" with bonus tracks)
1991The Unforgettable Nat King Cole
1992Christmas Favorites
1992Selections From The Nat King Cole 4-CD Box Set (Promo)
1992The Best Of The Nat King Cole Trio: The Instrumental Classics
1993The Billy May Sessions (2Cd Set)
1993Mis Mejores Canciones - 19 Super Exitos
1994Greatest Hits (DCC Gold Disc version released 1995)
1994Let's Face the Music & Dance (Not the 1964 album)
1998The Frim Fram Sauce
1999Live At The Circle Room (Radio Transcriptions From a 1944 Performance)
2000Coast To Coast Live (1963 Concert At the Riverside Inn, Fresno, CA/1962 WNEW Radio Show)
2000Route 66
2000Christmas & Kids: From One To Ninety Two (Reissue Of Cole, Christmas & Kids)
2001The King Swings
2001Try Not To Cry
2001Night Lights (album recorded in 1956, but never released)
2003Stepping Out of a Dream
2003The Classic Singles (4 CD Book)
200320 Golden Greats
2003The Best Of...
2003Love Songs
2003The Nat King Cole Trio (With Famous Guests)
2003The One And Only Nat King Cole
2005The World Of Nat King Cole (Bonus DVD added 2006)
2006The Very Best of Nat King Cole
2006Stardust: The Complete Capitol Recordings, 1955-59
2006L-O-V-E: The Complete Capitol Recordings, 1960-64


Features: Short Subjects:
  • 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)

See also


External links

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Louis[1] Armstrong[2] (4 August, 1901[3] – July 6, 1971), nicknamed Satchmo[4] and Pops, was an American jazz musician.
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Earl Kenneth Hines, universally known as Earl "Fatha" Hines, (28 December, 1903[1] Duquesne, Pennsylvania – 22 April, 1983 in Oakland, California) was one of the most important pianists in the history of jazz.
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Jimmie Noone (or Jimmy Noone; born April 23 1895 in Cut Off, Louisiana – died April 19 1944 in Los Angeles, California) was an American jazz clarinetist.


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Walter Henri Dyett (11 January 1901 – 17 November 1969[1]) was an American violinist and music educator. As musical director at Jean Baptiste Point DuSable High School in Chicago, he trained many students who went on to become well-known musicians.
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DuSable High School is a Bronzeville high school opened in 1934. It is named after Chicago's first non-native inhabitant and trader, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable. DuSable was first built to accommodate the growing Phillips High School in the 1930's, but instead the campus was
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Earl Kenneth Hines, universally known as Earl "Fatha" Hines, (28 December, 1903[1] Duquesne, Pennsylvania – 22 April, 1983 in Oakland, California) was one of the most important pianists in the history of jazz.
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