Nat King Cole - Biography
By Stuart Kremsky
Nat “King” Cole, born too poor to have a birth certificate, went on to achieve not merely one, but two highly successful careers in music. He was a highly regarded pianist in the swing era, with a sound all his own, then became one of the biggest pop vocalists of the Fifties. Along the way, the smooth talking, handsome star managed to attract his share of controversy among jazz fans and civil rights activists even as his records regularly sold in the millions.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919. Family history had him born on St. Patrick's Day. Most early sources give his birth year as 1917, but biographer Daniel Mark Epstein confirmed the birth year as 1919 by consulting the 1920 census. While Nat was a child, the family moved to Chicago, where his father became a minister and his mother played organ at his church.
Both Nat and his older brother, Eddie, showed an early interest in music. Nat was just 4 when his mother started teaching him to play. As a child, he studied jazz, gospel, and classical music “from Bach to Rachmaninoff,” as he later characterized it. The Coles family lived in a Chicago neighborhood famous in the late Twenties for its nightlife and jazz clubs. Like so many other music-loving teenagers, Nat would sneak out of the house to hang around outside clubs to listen, where he heard stars like Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Noone. He was especially impressed by the innovative pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines. As a student at DuSable High School, he studied music under the renowned Capt. Walter Dyett.
By the age of 16, Cole was leading his own group. In 1936, he left school to concentrate on music. Cole made his first recordings on July 28 of that year in a band led by brother Eddie, now a bassist and vocalist. Toward the end of the year, Cole signed on as pianist for a national tour of Noble Sissles and Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along. When the show failed unexpectedly in California, Cole was stranded in Los Angeles. It would be his home for the rest of his life. Late in 1937, he took a gig at the Swanee Inn in Hollywood that turned out to be important on several accounts. First the owner convinced him to drop the final “s” from his name. He got the “King” nickname around this time, probably from the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole.” Then when his drummer didn’t show on opening night, Cole’s group with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince turned into a trio. The line-up proved to be just right for this particular blend of talents. The piano, guitar, and bass format was also historically significant, adopted by Art Tatum in 1943 and in later eras by such important pianists as Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal.
Cole was singing as well as playing right from the start. The trio’s first recording session, for Standard Transcriptions in late October 1938, featured group vocals on every track but one, and Cole sang lead on “Jingle Bells.” Transcription discs were produced for sale to radio stations only, not the general public. The trio recorded dozens of transcriptions before they did their first “official” recordings for Decca in 1940 and had a local hit with “Sweet Lorraine.” They received national exposure when their 1941 recording of Cole's own "That Ain't Right" for Decca made it to number one on Billboard magazine's Harlem Hit Parade chart on January 30, 1943. Johnny Miller replaced Prince on bass in early 1943, and the trio moved to the fledgling Capitol label later in the year. Their first Capitol session on November 30, 1943, yielded a national crossover hit in “Straight Up and Fly Right,” the first in a long stream of hit records that Cole would have for the label. In fact, Capitol’s trademark round tower in Hollywood was long known as “the house that Nat built,” for his unstoppable sales record. As a pianist, Cole made historic recordings with Lester Young in 1942 and 1946, and with Dexter Gordon in 1943. He also was featured at Norman Granz’ first Jazz At The Philharmonic concert in July 1944.
Although his skills at the piano as a soloist and an accompanist were highly regarded by his fellow musicians, Cole gradually turned more and more toward the vocal aspects of his talent. The trio’s success on record and in personal appearances across the country led to an offer to host the Kraft Music Hall radio program as a 1946 summer replacement for Bing Crosby. Also that summer, Cole made his first recording backed by strings, “The Christmas Song,” which peaked at number three that year and has been heard extensively every December since, usually in a stereo version from 1961. Three days later, the trio recorded “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” which became Cole’s first pop number one at the end of 1946. Meanwhile, the trio got its own radio show, a 15-minute spot on Saturday afternoon that ran from October 1946 until April 1948. Cole’s next smash was the unusual “Nature Boy,” which became a gold record in the summer of 1948 after eight weeks on the top of the charts.
Guitarist Moore left the trio in the fall of 1947 after 10 years, replaced by Irving Ashby, and bassist Miller gave it up the following August, succeeded by Joe Comfort. By the spring of 1950, Cole’s recordings were simply credited to “Nat ‘King’ Cole.” His third gold record and number one pop hit was the movie theme “Mona Lisa” in the summer of 1950. Ashby and Comfort both left in 1951. Thereafter when Cole toured, he was billed as a single act, though he actually kept a small group together for years, augmented by orchestras.
Cole began his first European tour in September 1950, the start of a pattern that kept him working in major nightclubs and concert halls in the US interspersed with the occasional trip to Asia, South America, and Europe, plus extended stays at resorts in Las Vegas. He played less and less piano, standing up most of the time to sing.
For five consecutive years, from 1953 to 1957, Cole was among the ten most successful singles artists, with songs like “Pretend,” “Answer Me, My Love,” and “Send For Me.” With the rise of rock and roll on the singles charts, Cole’s brand of string-laden pop balladry fell out of favor, and he had only one more Top Ten hit in the decade, 1958's "Looking Back." That year, Cole traveled to Havana, Cuba, to record Cole Español (1958 Capitol), an album sung entirely in Spanish. Popular in Latin American as well as in the US, two more similar efforts followed in 1959 (A Mis Amigos, Capitol) and 1962 (More Cole Español, Capitol).
Cole didn’t neglect his jazz side completely in the Fifties, collaborating with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra on an all-instrumental album, The Piano Style of Nat ‘King’ Cole (1955 Capitol), and adding jazz musicians Harry "Sweets" Edison, Stuff Smith, Willie Smith, and Juan Tizol to his regular group for a series of 1956 sessions released as After Midnight (1957 Capitol).
In many ways, Cole was a civil rights pioneer. On November 5, 1956, The Nat King Cole Show made television history when it debuted on NBC. While he wasn’t the first black artist to host a network television program -- pianist and singer Hazel Scott had a show on the air in 1950 -- the program was the first to be hosted by a star of Cole's magnitude. Initially a 15-minute show, it was expanded to a half hour in July of 1957. The program lasted until that December, done in by a crucial lack of sponsorship. Cole’s comment, shortly after the show’s demise, was "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark." Earlier that year, he’d been attacked on stage in his home town of Montgomery. Although he injured his back, he finished the show. He vowed never to return to the South, a promise that he kept. He was also known to sue hotels that refused to admit him. When he bought a house in a previously all-white section of Los Angeles, the property owners association told the singer that they did not want any undesirables moving in, to which he retorted "Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I'll be the first to complain." In his actions and attitude, Cole was clearly on the side of human rights and a supporter of the civil rights struggle. There were times this did not shield him from criticism that he wasn’t doing enough for the movement.
Cole had started acting in the early Fifties, taking small roles in the films The Blue Gardenia and Small Town Girl, and in the TV drama Song for a Banjo (all 1953). Later in the decade, he resumed his acting career with parts in Istanbul with Errol Flynn (1957) and director Samuel Fuller’s China Gate (1957). His one starring role came in 1958 when he played W.C. Handy in St. Louis Blues (1958), a film biography of the composer that also featured Eartha Kitt, Cab Calloway, and Ella Fitzgerald. His final film appearance was as an itinerant minstrel in the Western comedy Cat Ballou, released posthumously in 1965. In 1960, turning his sights onto legitimate theater, he organized a revue that was intended for Broadway. The show, I’m With You, with songs by Ray Rasch and Dotty Wayne, never made it to New York, but Cole’s recording of the song cycle, Wild Is Love (1960 Capitol), gave him his first hit album in years. From 1961 to 1964, Cole toured with a stage production called Sights and Sounds: The Merry World of Nat King Cole, which featured a troupe of dancers and singers. The country-flavored "Ramblin' Rose" put Cole back near the top of the singles chart at #2 when it came out in 1962. His last hit single was the catchy, "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer," which made it to the Top Ten in the summer of 1963.
Cole had always been a heavy cigarette smoker, and in December 1964, he received a diagnosis of lung cancer just a few days after finishing work on what would be his final album, L-O-V-E (1965 Capitol). Cole went into the hospital for treatment immediately, but died on February 15, 1965. His appeal as a pop singer has never wavered, evidenced by the 1991 Grammy for Record of the Year, won by a version of his 1952 hit "Unforgettable" with overdubbed vocals by daughter Natalie Cole. He was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990, and was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2007, he entered the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
The dual nature of his career continues to pointlessly divide his admirers into jazz purists who barely acknowledge his later work and the legions of vocal fans who focus on the voice without caring much about his piano playing. But there’s no need for an argument. Cole was a prolific recording artist. The early transcription sessions have been collected on CD. When specialist label Mosaic Records compiled Cole’s jazz-oriented work for Capitol, it came to an astonishing 349 tracks on 18 compact discs (now sadly out of print). And with collections of his vocal hits ubiquitous, there’s plenty for everyone to enjoy.