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For a mild-mannered man whose music was always easy on the ear, Nat King Cole managed to be a figure of considerable controversy during his 30 years as a professional musician. From the late '40s to the mid-'60s, he was a massively successful pop singer who ranked with such contemporaries as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Dean Martin. He shared with those peers a career that encompassed hit records, international touring, radio and television shows, and appearances in films. But unlike them, he had not emerged from a background as a band singer in the swing era. Instead, he had spent a decade as a celebrated jazz pianist, leading his own small group. Oddly, that was one source of controversy. For some reason, there seem to be more jazz critics than fans of traditional pop among music journalists, and Cole's transition from jazz to pop during a period when jazz itself was becoming less popular was seen by them as a betrayal. At the same time, as a prominent African-American entertainer during an era of tumultuous change in social relations among the races in the U.S., he sometimes found himself out of favor with different warring sides. His efforts at integration, which included suing hotels that refused to admit him and moving into a previously all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles, earned the enmity of racists; once, he was even physically attacked on-stage in Alabama. But civil rights activists sometimes criticized him for not doing enough for the cause.
Such controversies do not obscure his real talent as a performer, however. The dismay of jazz fans at his abandonment of jazz must be measured against his accomplishments as a jazz musician. An heir of Earl Hines, whom he studied closely as a child in Chicago, Cole was an influence on such followers as Oscar Peterson. And his trio, emerging in the dying days of the swing era, helped lead the way in small-band jazz. The rage felt by jazz fans as he moved primarily to pop singing is not unlike the anger folk music fans felt when Bob Dylan turned to rock in the mid-'60s; in both cases, it was all the more acute because fans felt one of their leaders, not just another musician, was going over to the enemy. Less well remembered, however, are Cole's accomplishments during and after the transition. His rich, husky voice and careful enunciation, and the warmth, intimacy, and good humor of his approach to singing, allowed him to succeed with both ballads and novelties such that he scored over 100 pop chart singles and more than two dozen chart albums over a period of 20 years, enough to rank him behind only Sinatra as the most successful pop singer of his generation.
Nat King Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles on Montgomery, AL, on March 17, 1919. (In his early years of music-making, he dispensed with the "s" at the end of his name.) As a black child born to a poor family in the American South at that time, he did not have a birth certificate; his March 17 birthday was recalled because it was also St. Patrick's Day. He listed conflicting years of birth on legal documents during his life; most sources give the year as 1917. (Biographer Daniel Mark Epstein, for his 1999 book Nat King Cole, consulted the 1920 census to determine that the Coles household had a male infant at that time and confirm the birth year as 1919.) Cole's father was a butcher who aspired to the Baptist ministry, and when Cole was four the family moved to Chicago, where his father eventually succeeded in becoming a preacher.
Like his older brother Eddie, who became a bass player, Cole showed an early interest in music. He was taught piano by his mother as a child and later took lessons. Also like his brother, he turned professional early; by his teens, he was leading a band, called either the Royal Dukes or the Rogues of Rhythm, and he dropped out of high school at 15 to go into music full-time. The following year, Eddie, who had been touring with Noble Sissle's band, returned to Chicago and the brothers organized their own sextet. On July 28, 1936, as Eddie Cole's Swingsters, they recorded two singles for Decca Records, Nat King Cole's recording debut. That fall, they were hired to perform in a revival of the all-black Broadway musical revue Shuffle Along. Unlike his brother, Cole remained with the show when it went on tour, in part because his girlfriend, dancer Nadine Robinson, stayed with it as well. The two married in Michigan on January 27, 1937, even though Cole was only 17 years old. The tour made its way around the country, finally closing in Los Angeles in May. Cole and his wife remained there, living at first with her aunt, while Cole sought employment as a musician. He briefly led a big band, then played solo piano in clubs.
While performing at the Café Century during the summer of 1937, Cole was approached by the manager of the Swanee Inn, who invited him to put together a small band to play in the club. With guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince, the act debuted that fall, drawing upon the children's nursery rhyme ("Old King Cole was a merry old soul...") for the name the King Cole Swingsters, later simply the King Cole Trio. The group gradually built up a following, with Cole emerging as a singer as well as a pianist. By September 1938, they had begun making radio transcriptions, originally not intended for commercial release, though they have since been issued. In 1939 and 1940, they made occasional recordings for small labels while expanding their live performing to include appearances across the country and radio work. In late 1940 they were contracted by Decca. Their 1941 recording of Cole's composition "That Ain't Right" hit number one on Billboard magazine's Harlem Hit Parade (i.e., R&B) chart on January 30, 1943, Cole's first successful record. By that time, Prince had left the group to work for the war effort, replaced by Johnny Miller.
The King Cole Trio's contract with Decca expired before "That Ain't Right" became a hit. Their next single, "All for You," was recorded for the tiny Excelsior label in October 1942. After its initial release, it was purchased by Capitol Records and reissued. On November 20, 1943, it became the group's second number one hit on the Harlem Hit Parade. It also crossed over to the pop chart. With that, Capitol signed Cole directly. The trio's first Capitol session produced both the Cole composition "Straighten Up and Fly Right," which topped the black chart for the first of ten weeks on April 29, 1944, spent six weeks at the top of the folk (i.e., country) chart, and reached the Top Ten of the pop chart, and "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You," which topped the black chart on October 21 and also crossed over to the pop chart.
The trio placed another four titles in the black chart during 1944, and Capitol released its debut album, The King Cole Trio (catalog number BD-8) that fall. The collection of four 78 rpm discs contained eight tracks, only three of them featuring Cole vocals. When Billboard instituted its first album chart on March 24, 1945, The King Cole Trio was ranked at number one, a position it held for 12 weeks. At the same time, big-band swing music was declining in popularity, and many jazz fans were beginning to turn to the emerging style of bebop, a development that, whatever its artistic significance, spelled the end of jazz as a broadly popular style of music.
The King Cole Trio -- and particularly the singer/pianist then known as "King Cole" -- on the other hand, was going in exactly the opposite direction, as its success on records and at clubs and theaters around the country led to appearances in films and on radio. After numerous guest-star stints on Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall radio series, the trio, along with pianist Eddy Duchin, was hired to host the show's summer replacement program for 13 weeks beginning May 16, 1946. During that run, on August 17, The King Cole Trio, Vol. 2 (Capitol BD-29), another set of four 78s, hit number one. Over the next five days, the trio recorded two songs that would add to their pop success. Mel Tormé and Robert Wells' "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)" (better known by its opening line, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"), recorded August 19, was Cole's first disc to feature strings. "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," though it only featured the trio, demonstrated that Cole was more than capable of handling a straight romantic ballad, not just the uptempo novelties with which he and the group had succeeded up until this point.
"(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons" became Cole's first number one pop single on December 28, 1946; "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)" peaked at number three, going on to become a holiday perennial and million seller. While these hits were developing, the trio went from its summer replacement berth to its own network radio series, King Cole Trio Time, a 15-minute Saturday afternoon program that debuted on October 19, 1946, and ran until April 1948. The group's recording schedule during the first half of 1947 was relatively light, but the pace picked up considerably starting in August, in anticipation of the musicians' strike called for January 1, 1948. On August 22, 1947, with an orchestral backing, Cole recorded "Nature Boy," an unusual philosophical ballad. Released March 29, 1948, and credited to "King Cole," it hit number one for the first of eight weeks on May 8, becoming a gold record.
Oscar Moore, the trio's original guitarist, left the group in October 1947 after ten years and was replaced by Irving Ashby. In March 1948, Cole divorced his wife and married singer Marie Ellington. Among the couple's children was Natalie Cole, who became a singer. Bass player Johnny Miller quit the trio in August 1948 and was replaced by Joe Comfort. In February 1949, Cole added percussionist Jack Costanzo to the group, which thereafter was billed as "Nat 'King' Cole & the Trio." As of the spring of 1950, Cole's recordings were being credited simply to "Nat 'King' Cole." On July 8 of that year, his recording of the wistful movie theme "Mona Lisa," featuring a string chart arranged by Nelson Riddle, became Cole's third number one pop hit and gold record.
That September, he traveled to Europe for his first international tour, beginning a pattern that would find him giving concerts almost continually in a combination of top nightclubs in major cities and concert halls around the U.S., with occasional trips to Europe, the Far East, and Latin America and extended stays at Las Vegas casinos. In these appearances, he stood for most of the show, only occasional sitting down to play a number or two at the piano. Ashby and Comfort left in 1951, and an announcement was made that the trio was officially dissolved, but that simply meant that Cole henceforth would be billed as a solo act. In practice, he continued to carry a guitarist, John Collins, and a bassist, Charles Harris, along with Costanzo (until he left in 1953 and was replaced by drummer Lee Young), while often augmenting them with an orchestra.
Cole scored his fourth number one pop hit and gold record with "Too Young," which topped the charts on June 23, 1951. His recording of "Unforgettable" peaked at only number 12 on February 2, 1952, but it went on to become one of his better remembered recordings; in 1991, a version of the song by Natalie Cole with the Nat King Cole recording dubbed onto it became a gold record and won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. With his 1952 LP Penthouse Serenade, Cole showed that he was not yet ready to dispense with his jazz chops entirely. The disc was an instrumental collection that spent one week at number ten in the album chart in October. Meanwhile, he was also looking for new challenges, taking on small acting roles in the films The Blue Gardenia and Small Town Girl and the television drama Song for a Banjo in 1953. His 1953 album Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love, arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, was a Top Ten hit in early 1954 that predated similar "concept" albums by Frank Sinatra.
Although Cole did not score a number one hit in 1953 ("Pretend" peaked at number two), his seven chart entries were enough to rank him among the ten most successful singles artists of the year. His five chart singles in 1954, among them the gold-selling Top Ten hit "Answer Me, My Love," allowed him to repeat this ranking the following year, and he did the same thing in 1955 with another eight chart entries, including the Top Ten hits "Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup," "A Blossom Fell," and "If I May." Nine more chart entries allowed him to stay among the most successful singles artists in 1956, even though none of them reached the Top Ten, and he maintained his rank for the fifth straight year in 1957, reaching the Top Ten (and the top of the R&B chart) with "Send for Me." Though he managed one more Top Ten hit, "Looking Back," in 1958, the rise of rock & roll diminished his success on the singles chart. Meanwhile, he returned to a jazz approach on his 1957 LP After Midnight, which paired his backup group with jazz musicians Harry "Sweets" Edison, Stuff Smith, Willie Smith, and Juan Tizol. It was a modest commercial success, quickly followed by the ballad album Love Is the Thing, arranged and conducted by Gordon Jenkins, which hit number one for the first of eight weeks on May 27, 1957, and eventually was certified platinum.
Meanwhile, in the fall of 1956, Cole became the first African-American host of a network television series when The Nat "King" Cole Show debuted as a 15-minute weekly program on November 5. The show was expanded to a half-hour in July 1957 and ran until December of that year, though it never attracted a national sponsor that might have made it an ongoing success. Cole attributed advertisers' reticence to racism. He returned to his acting career during 1957, appearing in Istanbul and China Gate, and got his most substantial role in 1958 playing blues musician W.C. Handy in a film biography, St. Louis Blues. His last acting role came in Night of the Quarter Moon in 1959. In 1960, he turned his attention to the theater, putting together a musical revue intended for Broadway. The songs were by Dotty Wayne and Ray Rasch, and the album Cole made of them, Wild Is Love, became his first Top Ten LP in three years. The corresponding stage show, I'm With You, was not as successful, opening what was intended to be a pre-Broadway tour in Denver on October 17, 1960, but closing in Detroit on November 26. Cole, however, salvaged the concept of the show for a stage production he called Sights and Sounds: The Merry World of Nat King Cole, featuring a group of dancers and singers, with which he toured regularly from 1961 to 1964.
Cole returned to the Top Ten of the singles chart for the first time in four years with the country-tinged "Ramblin' Rose" in 1962; his album of the same name also reached the Top Ten and eventually was certified platinum. "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer" became his last Top Ten hit in the summer of 1963. In December 1964, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Two months later, he died of it at the age of 45.
After his death, Cole continued to appeal to the two almost mutually exclusive audiences that had appreciated him during his life. Jazz fans continued to treasure his recordings of the 1930s and 1940s and to dismiss the non-jazz recordings he had made later. (In 1994, German discographer Klaus Teubig compiled Straighten Up and Fly Right: A Chronology and Discography of Nat "King" Cole, which pointedly cut off in the early '50s.) Pop fans clamored for reissues of Cole's 1950s and '60s music, awarding gold record status to compilations that Capitol continued to assemble, without much worrying about the singer's talent as a piano player. (And, as his recordings fell into the public domain in Europe, where there is a 50-year copyright limit, a spate of low-quality reissues assumed flood levels.) But the ongoing debate was only testament to Cole's ongoing attraction for music lovers, which, in the decades following his untimely end, showed no signs of abating.
Nathaniel Adams Coles (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965), known professionally as Nat King Cole, was an American singer who first came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist. He was widely noted for his soft, baritone voice, which he used to perform in big band and jazz genres.
Cole was one of the first African Americans to host a television variety show, The Nat King Cole Show, and has maintained worldwide popularity since his death from lung cancer in February 1965.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919. Cole had three brothers: Eddie, Ike, and Freddy, and a half-sister, Joyce Coles. Ike and Freddy would later pursue careers in music as well. When Cole was four years old, he and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where his father, Edward Coles, became a Baptist minister. Cole learned to play the organ from his mother, Perlina Coles, the church organist. His first performance was of "Yes! We Have No Bananas" at age four. He began formal lessons at 12, eventually learning not only jazz and gospel music, but also Western classical music, performing, as he said, "from Johann Sebastian Bach to Sergei Rachmaninoff".
The family lived in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, where he attended Wendel Phillips High School (the same school Sam Cooke would attend a few years later). 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.Nat King Cole Society "Nat King Cole". Nat King Cole. Retrieved 2010-03-04.
ContentsCareer1.1 Los Angeles and the King Cole Trio1.2 Success1.3 Television1.4 Later career
Inspired by the performances 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, a bass player, soon joined Cole's band, and they made their first recording in 1936 under Eddie's name. They also were regular performers at clubs. 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 also was 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. He would later return to Chicago in triumph to play such venues as the famed Edgewater Beach Hotel.
Los Angeles and the King Cole Trio
Cole and two other musicians formed the "King Cole Swingsters" in Long Beach and played in a number of local bars before getting a gig on the Long Beach Pike for US$90 ($1,530 today) per week. 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 for Capitol Transcriptions. Cole was not only pianist but leader of the combo as well.
Radio was important to the King Cole Trio's rise in popularity. Their first broadcast was with NBC's Blue Network in 1938. It was followed by appearances on NBC's Swing Soiree. In the 1940s, the trio appeared on the Old Gold, Chesterfield Supper Club and Kraft Music Hall radio shows. The King Cole Trio performed twice on CBS Radio's variety show The Orson Welles Almanac (1944).
Legend was that Cole's singing career did not start until a drunken barroom patron demanded that he sing "Sweet Lorraine". Cole, in fact, 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 ($0.85 today)for the performance, a nickel apiece.
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. The group had previously recorded for Excelsior Records, owned by Otis René, and had a hit with the song "I'm Lost", which René wrote, produced and distributed. 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 near 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 in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts (credited on the Mercury Record label as "Shorty Nadine"—derived from his wife's name—as he was under exclusive contract to Capitol Records 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. For contract reasons, Cole was credited as "Aye Guy" on the album The Lester Young Buddy Rich Trio.
I started out to become a jazz pianist; in the meantime I started singing and I sang the way I felt and that's just the way it came out. — Nat King Cole, Voice of America interview
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 his 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.
In 1946, the Cole trio paid to have their own 15-minute radio program on the air. It was called, "King Cole Trio Time." It became the first radio program sponsored by a black performing artist. During those years, the trio recorded many "transcription" recordings, which were recordings made in the radio studio for the broadcast. Later they were used for commercial records.
Beginning in the late 1940s, Cole began recording and performing pop-oriented material for mainstream audiences, in which he was 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 song four times: on June 14, 1946, as a 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), "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" (1946), "Nature Boy" (1948), "Mona Lisa" (1950), "Too Young" (the #1 song in 1951), and his signature tune "Unforgettable" (1951) (Gainer 1). While this shift to pop music led some jazz critics and fans to accuse Cole of selling out, he never completely abandoned his jazz roots; as late as 1956 he recorded an all-jazz album After Midnight. Cole had one of his last major hits in 1963, two years before his death, with "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer", which reached #6 on the Pop chart. "Unforgettable” was made famous again in 1991 by Cole's daughter Natalie when modern recording technology was used to reunite father and daughter in a duet. The duet version rose to the top of the Pop charts, almost forty years after its original popularity.
On November 5, 1956, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC. The variety program was the first of its kind hosted by an African-American, which created controversy at the time. 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, Eartha Kitt, and backing vocal group The Cheerleaders 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.
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. Commenting on the lack of sponsorship his show received, Cole quipped shortly after its demise, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."
Throughout the 1950s, Cole continued to rack up successive hits, selling in millions throughout the world, 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 in 1961 "Let There Be Love" with George Shearing, the country-flavored hit "Ramblin' Rose" in August 1962, "Dear Lonely Hearts", "That Sunday, That Summer" and "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days Of Summer" (his final top-ten hit, reaching #6 pop).
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). In January 1964, Cole made one of his final television appearances on The Jack Benny Program. Cole was introduced as “the best friend a song ever had," and sang “When I Fall in Love." It was one of Cole's last performances. Cat Ballou (1965), his final film, was released several months after his death."Capitol Transcriptions ad" (PDF). Broadcasting. June 28, 1948. Retrieved 22 December 2014. "Radio Almanac". RadioGOLDINdex. Retrieved 2014-02-13. "Orson Welles Almanac—Part 1". Internet Archive. Retrieved 2014-02-13. Maria Cole with Louie Robinson, Nat King Cole: An Intimate Biography, William Morrow, 1971. ISBN 978-0688021535. "Buck-Five Disk of Indies Seen Different Ways". Billboard. September 1, 1945. Retrieved 2012-02-24. Nat King Cole Biography at Highstreets.co.uk Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 22 – Smack Dab in the Middle on Route 66: A skinny dip in the easy listening mainstream. [Part 1]" (AUDIO). Pop Chronicles. Digital.library.unt.edu. A-D — University of North Texas Libraries "''Billboard'' website". Billboard.com. Retrieved 2010-03-04. Teachout, Terry (1992). "Nat King Cole". The American Scholar 26. Retrieved 1 October 2014. Shulman, Arthur; Youman, Roger (1966). How Sweet It Was. Television: A Pictorial Commentary. Bonanza Books, a division of Crown Publishers. . Book has no page numbers; source: Chapter III, The Sounds of Music. Gourse, Leslie, Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. Gourse (p. 185) quotes Cole in an interview he gave in Hollywood to announce that he was leaving television because of advertising agencies: "The network supported this show from the beginning. From Mr. Sarnoff on down, they tried to sell it to agencies. They could have dropped it after the first thirteen weeks. Shows that made more money than mine were dropped. They offered me a new time at 7:00 p.m. on Saturdays on a cooperative basis, but I decided not to take it. I feel played out." Quotestar Advertising Age.
ContentsPersonal life1.1 Marriage and children1.2 Racism1.3 Politics
Around the time Cole launched his singing career, he entered into Freemasonry. He was raised in January 1944 in the Thomas Waller Lodge No. 49 in California. The lodge was named after fellow Prince Hall mason and jazz musician Fats Waller. Cole was "an avid baseball fan", particularly of Hank Aaron. In 1968, Nelson Riddle related an incident from some years earlier and told of music studio engineers, searching for a source of noise, finding Cole listening to a game on a transistor radio.
Marriage and children
Cole's first marriage, to Nadine Robinson, ended in 1948. On March 28, 1948 (Easter Sunday), just six days after his divorce became final, Cole married singer Maria Hawkins Ellington (although Maria had sung with the Duke Ellington band, she was not related to Duke Ellington). The Coles were married in Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. They had five children: Natalie (born 1950), who herself would go on to have a successful career as a singer; adopted daughter Carole (1944–2009, the daughter of Maria's sister), who died of lung cancer at 64; adopted son Nat Kelly Cole (1959–95), who died of AIDS at 36; and twin daughters Casey and Timolin (born 1961).
Cole had affairs throughout his marriages. By the time he developed lung cancer, he was estranged from his wife Maria and living with actress Gunilla Hutton, best known as the second Billie Jo Bradley (1965–66) on Petticoat Junction (1963-70) and notable as Nurse Goodbody, a regular cast member on Hee Haw. But Cole was with Maria during his illness, and she stayed with him until his death. In an interview, Maria expressed no lingering resentment over his affairs. Instead, she emphasized his musical legacy and the class he exhibited in all other aspects of his life.
In August 1948, Cole purchased a house from Col. Harry Gantz, the former husband of Lois Weber, in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Ku Klux Klan, still active in Los Angeles well into the 1950s, responded by placing a burning cross on his front lawn. Members of 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 fought racism all his life and rarely performed in segregated venues. In 1956, he was assaulted on stage during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, with the Ted Heath Band (while singing the song "Little Girl"), by three members of the North Alabama 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 in Havana, but was not allowed to because it operated a color bar. Cole honored his contract, 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.
After his attack in Birmingham, Cole stated: "I can't understand it ... I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?" A native of Alabama, he seemed eager to assure southern whites that he would not challenge the customs and traditions of the region. A few would keep the protests going for a while, he claimed, but "I'd just like to forget about the whole thing." Cole had no intention of altering his practice of playing to segregated audiences in the South. He did not condone the practice but was not a politician and believed "I can't change the situation in a day." African-American communities responded to Nat King Cole's self-professed political indifference with an immediate, harsh, and virtually unanimous rejection, unaffected by his revelations that he had contributed money to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and had sued several northern hotels that had hired but refused to serve him. Thurgood Marshall, chief legal counsel of the NAACP, reportedly suggested that since he was an Uncle Tom, Cole ought to perform with a banjo. Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the organization, challenged Cole in a telegram: "You have not been a crusader or engaged in an effort to change the customs or laws of the South. That responsibility, newspapers quote you as saying, you leave to the other guys. That attack upon you clearly indicates that organized bigotry makes no distinction between those who do not actively challenge racial discrimination and those who do. This is a fight which none of us can escape. We invite you to join us in a crusade against racism."
Cole's appearances before all-white audiences, the Chicago Defender charged, were "an insult to his race". As boycotts of his records and shows were organized, the Amsterdam News claimed that "thousands of Harlem blacks who have worshiped at the shrine of singer Nat King Cole turned their backs on him this week as the noted crooner turned his back on the NAACP and said that he will continue to play to Jim Crow audiences." To play "Uncle Nat's" discs, wrote a commentator in The American Negro, "would be supporting his 'traitor' ideas and narrow way of thinking". Deeply hurt by the criticism of the black press, Cole was also suitably chastened. Emphasizing his opposition to racial segregation "in any form", he agreed to join other entertainers in boycotting segregated venues. He quickly and conspicuously paid $500 to become a life member of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. Until his death in 1965, Cole was an active and visible participant in the civil rights movement, playing an important role in planning the March on Washington in 1963.
Cole sang at the 1956 Republican National Convention in the Cow Palace, San Francisco, California, on August 23, as his "singing of 'That's All There Is To That' was greeted with applause." He was also present at the Democratic National Convention in 1960 to throw his support behind Senator John F. Kennedy. Cole was also among the dozens of entertainers recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the Kennedy Inaugural gala in 1961. Cole frequently consulted with President Kennedy (and successor Lyndon B. Johnson) on civil rights."Famous Masons". Pinal Lodge No. 30. Cite error: The named reference pc22 was invoked but never defined (see the help page). "TCM". TCM. Retrieved 2010-03-04. "Gale:Free Resources:Black History:Biographies: Nat King Cole". Gale. Retrieved 2012-04-20. Levinson, Peter J. (2001). September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle. New York: Billboard Books. p. 89. ISBN 0-8230-7672-5. Retrieved 2010-10-10. Eyewitness Account published in The Birmingham News. Felts, Jim. Letter to the Editor. December 15, 2007. "Cuba Now". Cuba Now. 2007-04-30. Retrieved 2010-03-04. Glenn C. Altschuler, All Shook Up: How Rock 'n' Roll Changed America Oxford University Press, 2003. James Gilbert, A Cycle of Outrage: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 9; Warren Sussman, with the assistance of Edward Griffin, "Did Success Spoil the United States?: Dual Representations in Postwar America," in Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of the Cold War, ed. Lary May (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989, ISBN 0226511758). Official Report of the Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth Republican National Convention, August 20–23, 1956, p. 327.
Cole was a heavy smoker throughout his life and was rarely seen without a cigarette in his hand. He was a smoker of Kool menthol cigarettes, believing that smoking up to three packs a day gave his voice its rich sound. (Cole would smoke several cigarettes in rapid succession before a recording.) After an operation for stomach ulcers in 1953, he had been advised by doctors to stop smoking but did not do so.
Cole was scheduled to appear as the first popular music artist to perform at the grand opening of the new Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center in December, 1964. However, he was hospitalized with lung cancer on December 6 and was unable to appear.
He underwent cobalt and radiation therapy and was initially given a positive prognosis. On January 25, he underwent surgery to remove his left lung. Despite medical treatments, he died on February 15, 1965 at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California.
Cole's funeral was held on February 18 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.Farnon v. Cole, 259 Cal. App. 2d 855 (1968). "Nat King Cole Loses Battle With Cancer". Sarasota Journal. February 15, 1965. p. 1. Retrieved February 4, 2013. "Nat King Cole Funeral Is Set For Thursday". The Times-News. February 19, 1965. p. 12. Retrieved February 4, 2013.
Cole's 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.
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.)
Also in 1991, Natalie Cole and her father had a hit when Natalie's own newly recorded vocal track was added to her father's 1961 stereo re-recording of his original 1951 hit of "Unforgettable" and mixed into a new duet version 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.
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.
An official United States postage stamp featuring Cole's likeness was issued in 1994.
In 2000, Cole was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the major influences on early rock and roll. In 2013, he was inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame for his contribution to the Latin music genre.
"The Christmas Song", performed by Cole, still receives a lot of airplay every holiday season.Cite error: The named reference natkingcole1 was invoked but never defined (see the help page). "Special Awards – Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame". Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame. 2013. Retrieved 2014-03-23. http://www.billboard.com/charts/holiday-songs