Nathaniel Adams Coles, b.k.a., Nat King Cole
Born March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, died February 15, 1965 in Santa Monica, California
His voice was a caress, a velvety baritone that did not so much sing a lyric as seduce it. And his phrasing was impeccable, each word placed with care and
enunciated with pointed clarity, an implicit rebuke to the forces of rhythm, blues and rock that were taking popular music to places he declined to go.
“Mr. Cole,” he once sang, “won’t rock ‘n’ roll.”
But he did woo and romance and in the process, Nat King Cole did more than rack up a multitude of hits. No, he made a multitude of hits indelibly his. Someone else might sing Mona Lisa, Unforgettable, Get Your Kicks (On Route 66) or The Christmas Song, but his version would invariably always be the definitive one, the one you turned to in order to understand how the song was meant to sound.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was one of the five children born to the Rev. Edward Coles and his wife, Perlina. She was musically inclined, and encouraged the art in her precocious son. At the age of four, he was playing Yes, We Have No Bananas on the piano. Later in life, he would say that his mother was the only music teacher he ever had.
The same year Cole made his piano debut, his father moved the family to Chicago, where the elder Cole became minister of the True Light Baptist Church. By the time he was 12, Nat was playing organ for his father’s services and signing in the choir. A few years later, he joined a band with brother, Eddie, who played bass. They called themselves the Rogues of Rhythm. That group recorded for Decca Records, but nothing big ever came of it.
When he graduated high school, Cole joined the traveling company of a noted “all Negro” revue, Shuffle Along. The show made it to Long Beach, California, where it folded. The teenage pianist found himself stranded. He was also newly married, having wed Nadine Robinson, a dancer from the show. Rather than return home in defeat, Cole survived by playing $5 a night gigs in “practically every beer joint in Los Angeles.”
In 1937, the proprietor of one of those dives, the Swanee Inn, urged Cole to form a group. Cole hired a guitarist and a bassist. Legend has it that the club proprietor put a paper crown on his head and Cole dropped the last letter from his surname. Thus was born the King Cole Trio.
Initially, the Trio performed only instrumental jazz. Then came the night a boozy patron insisted on hearing Sweet Lorraine. Cole complied and afterward, his soft baritone began to be a regularly featured part of the act. The King Cole Trio was signed in 1943 to a new record label called Capitol and scored a hit song right out of the box called Straighten Up And Fly Right, a novelty tune Cole had written based on one of his father’s sermons.
That success was not a financial bonanza for Cole; hungry for income, he had sold the tune for just $50. Still, Straighten Up And Fly Right changed the game for Cole. The jazz pianist was identified now as a singer, a role he would increasingly embrace over the next years. Within a few years, he would be recording exclusively under his own name.
It was in 1947 that Cole recorded the first version of what would be one of his most identifiable songs. Written by Mel Torme and Robert Wells, it came to called simply The Christmas Song, though it is arguably better known by is opening lyrics, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” King recorded the song several times over the years; the 1961 version, with a lush string section, is regarded as his definitive performance. It is a holiday standard.
In 1948, having divorced his first wife, Cole remarried. His new bride was a widow named Maria Ellington. She was not related to Duke Ellington, though she was a singer in Ellington’s band when she and future husband met.
At the time, Cole’s star was rising like a rocket on the strength of hits like (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons, Nature Boy, Mona Lisa and Too Young. His 1951 recording of the gauzy ballad, Unforgettable would become, along with The Christmas Song, his best-known recording. Cole also became one of the first African-American stars on radio, appearing in a musical show sponsored by Wildroot Cream Oil.
With his new bride, Cole moved into the posh Hancock Park area of Los Angeles. The dark-skinned new neighbors were a source of consternation to white people living in the well-heeled enclave. It was not uncommon for the Coles to awaken in the morning to find signs on their lawn bearing such sentiments as, “Nigger Heaven” or “Get Out!”
A lawyer for one of the white neighbors explained to Cole that his client simply didn’t want “undesirable people” in the neighborhood.
“Neither do I,” retorted Cole, “and if I see anybody undesirable coming into this neighborhood, I’ll be the first to complain.”
In 1951, Cole’s new house was threatened by a more formidable foe than the disgruntled neighbors. The Internal Revenue Service attached the house for a delinquent tax bill totaling $150,000. Cole agreed to pay the government back at a rate of $1000 a week. When he collapsed onstage at Carnegie Hall while performing on Easter Sunday of 1953 with what was later diagnosed as acute ulcers and internal hemorrhaging, there was speculation that the pressure of his huge debt had played a role.
As the decade rolled on, Cole took his talents to other media. He appeared in a handful of films, one of which, The Nat “King” Cole Musical Story, cast him as himself in his own biography. He also appeared in St. Louis Blues as music legend W.C. Handy. Nor did Cole bypass he new medium of television, performing on Show Time at the Apollo, a 1955 variety series spotlighting African-American entertainers.
In 1956, he headlined a variety program, The Nat King Cole Show. Unable to find a sponsor, NBC bore the production costs of the program itself in the belief that eventually some company would agree to buy time on the show. Advertisers refused to support the show, anticipating backlash from the South.
That same year, Southern antipathy took a more direct form. During a performance in Birmingham, Alabama, Cole was slightly injured by six white toughs who stormed the stage. An angry Cole canceled his next appearance, which was to have been in Atlanta, and announced that he would not sing in the South again “for a million dollars.”
Meanwhile, The Nat King Cole Show struggled along for another year. Though Cole’s show was attracting some of the top names of the day, including Jane Russell, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald, it was still not attracting sponsors. NBC was prepared to continue, but Cole himself pulled the plug. “Madison Avenue,” he said, is afraid of the dark.”
But the hits kept on coming, songs like Smile, A Blossom Fell, Darline Je Vous Aime Beaucoup and Rambling Rose. As the sixties dawned, Cole was earning a half million dollars a year performing in Las Vegas. He also embarked upon a world tour, wooing audiences in Australia, Europe and South America. In Great Britain, he gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II at the Palladium Theater in London.
But it all came to an abrupt and crushing end. In December of 1964, Cole was diagnosed with an advanced cancer that had invaded almost every vital organ. He died just two months later.
King Cole was given a funeral befitting show business royalty. Flags flew at half staff at the Music Center in Los Angeles. Luminaries like Sammy Davis, George Burns and Frank Sinatra served as honorary pallbearers.
Cole was survived by his wife, Maria and their five children. One of them, his daughter, Natalie, would go on to achieve success as a singer in her own right. In 1991, she recorded an album of her father’s greatest hits. The highlight of the album was a performance that electronically combined Nat and Natalie in a duet across the generations. The sentiment that song allowed the daughter to express to her father was one doubtless shared by any music lover anywhere who ever closed her eyes and allowed herself to be carried away by Nat King Cole’s velvet romance.
Unforgettable, that’s what he was.
Sources: NYTimes.com, Biography.com, Imdb.com, Billboard.com, The Dictionary of American Negro Biography by Rayford W. Lopgan and Michael W. Winston