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Cole, Nat 'King' (Nathaniel Adam Coles)

                  Nat King Cole, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Nat 'King' Cole is best known for the television show he hosted in the 1950s, which made him a household name across America, and one of the era's most popular vocalists. However, long before this fame, he was known to jazz fans as a hard-swinging pianist and accomplished classical musician who could play everything from the blues to Rachmaninoff.

Cole was born Nathaniel Adam Coles on March 17th, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama. His father, Edward James Coles, was a preacher by trade while his mother Perlina was a musician, who gave Nat his first instruction on the piano and the organ. Nat was one of thirteen children.

When Nat was four years old, his family packed their bags and left Montgomery for Chicago, Illinois. Nat’s only real music teacher through his childhood was his mother who taught the young musician both gospel and European classical music, which he would later record and reinterpret on his first solo recordings for Capitol Records.

By the time Nat was eleven, he was playing organ at every service in his father’s church on the south side of Chicago. By the time he was a teenager, Cole was leading his own jazz groups with some of his brothers, playing the popular music of the day.

The budding musician occasionally snuck out to hear some of Chicago's jazz greats, like Earl “Fatha” Hines, perform. Hines's influence on Cole’s sound can be heard on the younger pianist's early trio recordings. Cole attended Wendell Phillips High School, on Chicago’s south side. While still a teenager, Cole showed an affinity for baseball, and drew the attention of several Negro League teams, but he didn’t pursue any of their offers.

Cole started his first band with his brother Eddie, and they called themselves the Solid Swingers. In 1936, Cole married his first wife Nadine Robinson, who was a dancer in the Eubie Blake show “Shuffle Along,” in which Cole played piano.

Cole toured the U.S. with the show that year, but was straneded in Califonia after the production ran into financial difficulties. Nat chose to stay in California. While he had difficulty finding steady work at first, he was soon offered an engagement at the Century Club, which was popular with local musicians and Hollywood people. Nat also appeared on his brother’s 1936 recordings for Decca under the name of Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers, which included the songs “Stompin’ At the Panama,” and “Thunder.”

In 1937, Cole started another engagement in Los Angeles, this time at the Sewanee Inn with the intended lineup of Lee Young on drums, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Wesley Prince on bass. When Young didn’t show up for the gig, the group went on as a trio, and the format stuck. It was also at the Sewanee Inn where Cole received his nickname of ‘King.’ The hotel's owner, Bob Lewis, nicknamed Cole as a publicity stunt, and had wanted Cole to wear a gold crown on his head.

The trio managed to record with Lionel Hampton’s Orchestra in 1939 for the Victor label. In 1940, the Nat ‘King’ Cole trio signed to Decca Records and recorded several songs, notably “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Sweet Lorraine.” The trio released several other songs for Decca and V-Discs for soldiers stationed overseas, before signing with Capitol Records.

Capitol recorded and released several 10-inch discs by the group over the next several years, the first being The King Cole Trio in 1943. Much of this material has been rereleased on CD as “best of” albums, which draw from the same material. The group was now beginning to find their focus as they had a hit with the Cole-penned song “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”

Unfortunately, Cole never made more than fifty dollars from this hit, because he sold the copyright to the song earlier in his career. Other successful songs for Cole and company included “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66" and “The Christmas Song.” Cole’s albums were some of the first to chart as number one albums on the newly formed Billboard charts.

On one hand, Cole’s recordings for Capitol represent his ascent in popular music but many of the cuts found on the King Cole Trio albums exhibit Cole’s versatility as a pianist and are sometimes overlooked by the general public. Such songs as “Jumpin’ At Capitol" find Cole along with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Johnny Miller exhibiting great technical ability as a trio. Cole’s trio also explored contemporary classical music, when they recorded a swinging and very accessible version of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude In C# Minor.”

Other parts of Cole’s ability as an entertainer are found on such songs as “The Frim Fram Sauce,” where he showcased his wit as a vocal personality, and on “If I Had You,” where he displayed his great gift for singing. Cole’s career was on the upbeat and more success found the entertainer. In 1950, after having a number one hit with “Nature Boy” and a top ten album with King Cole Trio Volume 4, the pianist/singer appeared on Ed Sullivan's variety show and toured Europe for the first time.

Cole’s film and television career were in full swing since the early 1940s. He appeared off-screen in the 1941 epic movie Citizen Kane and performed alongside Andy Kirk in the 1949 musical Killer Diller. By 1952, Cole had scored a number album with Penthouse Serenade and had a huge hit with the song “Unforgettable,” which was written by Irving Gordon. He appeared in the 1953 movie The Blue Gardenia and in 1954 Universal made a documentary about his life.

Along with singers Tony Bennett and Johnny Ray, Cole was a part of the emerging pop-jazz vocal music that swept the music industry during 1950s. By the mid-1950s the Nat King Cole trio was no more as Cole was billed as solo artist starting in 1951. In 1956, Cole became one of the first major black entertainers to host his own nationally syndicated variety show. The Nat King Cole Show debuted on November 5th. Although the show would only last for little over a year (it ended in December 1957), it proved to be one of more monumental moments in early television. It featured at different such musicians as Ella Fitzgerald and Harry Belafonte.

Cole still continued to record, tour, and release albums as he scored many hits during the 1950s including “Smile” and “A Blossom Fell.” He also recorded an all-Spanish album Cole en Español that was released on Capitol and became a hit in Latin America and the Untied States. Cole stayed in touch with his musical upbringing and released the 1957 album After Midnight. In 1958 Cole portrayed W.C. Handy in the film St. Louis Blues.

Cole’s popularity as a vocalist began to wane and by the early 1960s the American musical landscape had changed drastically, preferring rock n’roll acts over jazz-pop singers. He was able to have some minor success with such songs as “Dear, Lonely Heart” and “That Sunday, That Summer.” Cole who was a heavy smoker most of his life, developed an aggressive form of advanced lung cancer and succumbed to the disease on February 15th, 1965. He was just forty-five years old and at the height of his musical and acting career.

Cole was posthumously inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame, and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. His daughter from his second marriage, Natalie Cole had an enormous hit in 1991 when she added her vocals to her father’s classic performance of “Unforgettable.” She has gone on to win eight Grammy Awards. Natalie is the result of Cole’s second marriage to singer Martha Ellington, with whom he had two natural children and adopted two others.

Cole’s talents as a pianist may be overshadowed in popular memory by his success as a singer, but his swinging skills and refined musical tastes will be apparent to any who take the time to explore his recorded legacy.

Select Discography

As Nat King Cole/King Cole Trio

The King Cole Trio (Capitol, 1944)

The King Cole Trio Volume 2 (Capitol, 1946)

The King Cole Trio Volume 3 (Capitol, 1948)

The King Cole Trio Volume 4 (Capitol, 1949)

Penthouse Serenade (Capitol, 1955)

After Midnight (Capitol, 1957)

Cole en Español (Capitol, 1958)

The Magic of Christmas (Capitol, 1960)

More Cole en Español (Capitol, 1962)

L-O-V-E (Capitol, 1965)

Contributor: Jared Pauley