Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole was an African American musician who first came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist. Although an accomplished pianist, he owes most of his popular musical fame to his soft baritone voice, which he used to perform in big band and jazz genres. He was one of the first black Americans to host a television variety show, and has maintained worldwide popularity since his untimely death; he is widely considered one of the most important musical personalities in United States history.
Born Nathaniel Adams Coles on March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, Cole was born into a family with a pivotal position in the black community. Nat's father was the Reverend Edward James Coles Sr. His mother's name was Perlina Adams Coles. Together they had thirteen children, but only five of them lived to adulthood. Nat's father was pastor of the First Baptist Church. In 1921, the family migrated to Chicago, part of the mass exodus seeking a better life in the prospering industrial towns of the north. Nat's mother knew that her children would go to public schools with facilities rarely enjoyed by negroes in the south.
At four years old, Nat King Cole was learning the piano by ear from his mother, a choir director in the church. His first public performance was at the age of four and when he was in Kindergarten he played for the other children. Nat regularly played in his father's church from the age of 11 and was an accomplished pianist by the age of 12. He left school at 15 to pursue a career as a jazz pianist. Cole’s first professional break came touring in the revival of the show “Shuffle Along.” When the show folded he was stranded in Los Angeles. Cole looked for club work and found it at the Century Club on Santa Monica Boulevard, where he made quite an impression with the “in” crowd.
In 1939, Cole formed a trio with Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass, notably they had no drummer. Gradually Cole would emerge as a singer. The group displayed a finesse and sophistication which expressed the new aspirations of the black community. In 1943, he recorded “Straighten Up And Fly Right,” for Capitol Records, inspired by one of his father’s sermons. It was an instant hit, assuring Cole’s future as a pop sensation. With the addition of strings in 1946 “The Christmas Song” began Cole’s evolution into a sentimental singer. In the 1940s he made several memorable sides with the Trio, including “It’s Only A Paper Moon” and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.” But by 1948, and “Nature Boy,” the move away from small-group jazz, towards his eventual position as one of the most popular vocalists of the day, was underway.
In October 1956, Nat started his own TV show. Cole's popularity allowed him to become the first African American to host a network variety program, The Nat King Cole Show, which debuted on NBC television in 1956. The show fell victim to the bigotry of the times, however, and was canceled after one season; few sponsors were willing to be associated with a black entertainer.
Cole had greater success with concert performances during the late 1950s and early '60s and twice toured with his own vaudeville-style reviews, The Merry World of Nat King Cole (1961) and Sights and Sounds (1963). His hits of the early '60s—“Ramblin' Rose,” “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer,” and “L-O-V-E”—indicate that he was moving even farther away from his jazz roots and concentrating almost exclusively on mainstream pop. Adapting his style, however, was one factor that kept Cole popular up to his early death from lung cancer in 1965.
In January 1964, Cole made one of his final television appearances on The Jack Benny Program. In his typically magnanimous fashion, Benny allowed his guest star to steal the show. Cole sang “When I Fall in Love” in perhaps his finest and most memorable performance. Cole was introduced as “the best friend a song ever had” and traded very humorous banter with Benny. Cole highlighted a classic Benny skit in which Benny is upstaged by an emergency stand-in drummer. Introduced as Cole’s cousin, five-year-old James Bradley Jr. stunned Benny with incredible drumming talent and participated with Cole in playful banter at Benny’s expense. It would prove to be one of Cole's last performances.
Cole fought racism all his life and refused to perform in segregated venues. In 1948, Cole purchased a house 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."
In 1956, Nat King Cole was assaulted on stage during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, while singing the song "Little Girl", by three members of the North Alabama White Citizens Council. The attacking group was led by Education of Little Tree author Asa "Forrest" Carter, although he was not among the attackers. They were apparently 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 melee 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.