Nat 'King' Cole (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965) was a hugely popular American singer and jazz musician.
Childhood and Chicago
Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama. The year of his birth has been reported as 1917 and 1915, but according to Daniel Mark Epstein's biography, the 1920 Census reported Nat as an infant.
Nat's father was a butcher in Montgomery 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, and it was she who taught him how to play piano. His first performance, at age 4, was of 'Yes, We have no bananas'. He learned not only jazz and gospel music, but classical as well, performing, as he said, 'from Bach to Rachmaninoff'.
The family lived in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, which was famous in the late-20s for its nightlife and jazz clubs. Nat would sneak out of the house and hang outside the clubs, listening to artists like 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 'Fatha' Hines, he 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. They had some success as a local band in and around Chicago and recorded for race music labels. Cole also was pianist in a national touring revival of ragtime and Broadway legend Eubie Blaker's review, Shuffle Along. When it suddenly failed in California, Cole decided to remain there.
Los Angeles and the King Cole Trio
Nat married Nadine Robinson 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 bass. The trio played in Los Angeles throughout the late 1930s and recorded many radio transcriptions.
Cole was considered a leading jazz pianist, appearing, for example, in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. His revolutionary lineup of piano, bass, and guitar in the time of the big bands became a popular configuration for a jazz trio. It was emulated by many musicians, among them Art Tatum, Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, and blues pianists Charles Brown and Ray Charles. He also performed as a pianist on sessions with Lester Young, Red Garland, and Lionel Hampton.
Cole did not achieve widespread popularity until 'Sweet Lorraine' in 1940. Although he sang ballads with the trio, he was shy about his voice. Although he prided himself on his diction, he never considered himself a strong singer. His subdued style, however, contrasted well with the belting approach of most jazz singers.
During World War II, Wesley Prince was drafted and Cole replaced him with Johnny Miller. The King Cole Trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records in the early 1940s and stayed with the recording company for the rest of his career. By the 1950s, Cole's popularity was so great that the Capitol Records building, on Hollywood and Vine, was sometimes referred to 'The House that Nat Built'.
His first vocal hit was with 'Straighten Up and Fly Right', based on a black folk tale that his father had used as a theme for a sermon. Although hardly a rocker, the song's success proved that an audience for folk-based material existed. It is considered a predecessor to the first rock and roll records. Indeed, Bo Diddley, who performed similar transformations of folk material, counted Cole as an influence.
In a move that was virtually unique at the time, Cole reached out to mainstream audiences with the number one hit 'Mona Lisa' in 1950. This began a new phase in his career, which had been primarily as a pop balladeer, though he never totally ignored his roots in jazz. As late as 1956, he recorded an all-jazz album, After Midnight. In 1991, Capitol Records opened eyes with their boxed set of Cole's trio recordings.
Cole was the first African American to have his own radio program. He repeated that success in the late-1950s with the first truly national television show starring an African-American. In both cases, the programs were ultimately cancelled because sponsors shied away from a black artist. Cole fought racism all his life, refusing to perform in segregated venues. In 1956, he was attacked on stage in Birmingham, Alabama by members of the White Citizens' Council who apparently were attempting to kidnap him. Despite injuries, Cole completed the show, then vowed never to perform in the South again, which he did not.
In 1948, Cole purchased a house in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. The property owners association told Cole they didn't 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.'
He and his second wife, Maria Ellington, were married in Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. They had five children, two adopted. His daughter, Natalie Cole, and his younger brothers, Freddie Cole and Ike Cole, are also singers.
Cole performed in many film shorts, and played W. C. Handy in the film Saint Louis Blues. He also appeared in The Nat King Cole Story and Cat Ballou.
Nat King Cole, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer in 1965 and was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
This biography is published under the GNU Licence
- 'Straighten Up and Fly Right'
- 'Sweet Lorraine'
- 'The Christmas Song', with its opening line 'chestnuts roasting on an open fire', written by Mel Torme
- 'Nature Boy' written by Eden Ahbez
- 'Mona Lisa', his first major crossover hit, used as the theme of the movie Mona Lisa.
- 'Lush Life'
- 'Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup'
- 'Answer Me, My Love'
- '(They Tried to Tell Us We're) Too Young'
- 'Ramblin' Rose'
- 'Unforgettable', later re-recorded as a duet by his daughter Natalie.