✪ Nathaniel Adams Coles, known professionally by his stage name Nat King Cole, was an American singer, jazz pianist, and actor. Cole’s career as a jazz and pop vocalist started in the late 1930s and spanned almost three decades where he found success and recorded over 100 songs that became hits on the pop charts.
Cole started his career as a jazz pianist in the late 1930s, where he formed The King Cole Trio which became the top-selling group (and the only black act) on Capitol Records in the 1940s. His trio was the model for small jazz ensembles that followed. Starting in 1950 he transitioned to become a solo singer billed as Nat King Cole.
From 1956 to 1957, he hosted the NBC variety series The Nat King Cole Show, which became the first nationally broadcast television show hosted by an African American.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919. He had three brothers: Eddie (1910–1970), Ike (1927–2001), Freddy (1931–2020) and a half-sister, Joyce Coles. Each of the Coles brothers pursued their own musical careers. When Cole was four years old, his family moved to Chicago 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 “Yes! We Have No Bananas” at the age of four. He began formal piano lessons at age 12, learning jazz, gospel and classical music “from Johann Sebastian Bach to Sergei Rachmaninoff.” As a youth, he joined the news delivery boys’ “Bud Billiken Club“ band for The Chicago Defender.
The Cole family moved to the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, where Nat attended Wendell Phillips Academy High School, the school Sam Cooke would attend only a few years later. He also participated in Walter Dyett’s music program at DuSable High School. He would often sneak out of the house to visit and sit outside of nightclubs to listen to Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone.
When Cole was 15, he dropped out of high school to pursue a music career. After his brother Eddie, a bassist, came home from touring with Noble Sissle, they formed a sextet and recorded two singles for Decca in 1936 under the name of the Eddie Cole’s Swingsters. They also performed in a revival of the musical Shuffle Along. Nat would later go on tour with the musical. In 1937, Cole married his first wife, Nadine Robinson, who was a member of the musical’s cast. After the show ended Cole and Nadine settled In Los Angeles while he looked for work. He led a big band and found work playing piano in nightclubs.
Nat’s first official band called themselves the King Cole Swingsters after the nursery rhyme in which “Old King Cole was a merry old soul.” They changed their name to the King Cole Trio before making radio transcriptions and recording for small labels.
In 1940, Cole recorded “Sweet Lorraine” and it became his first hit single. According to legend, his career as a vocalist started when a drunken bar patron demanded that he sing a particular song, but because it was a song Cole did not know, he sang “Sweet Lorraine” instead. As people heard more of Cole’s vocal talent, they requested him to sing more often, which he happily obliged.
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, c. 1956
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. He joined the Scottish Rite Freemasonry, becoming a Master Mason. Cole was also “an avid baseball fan,” particularly of Hank Aaron.
Cole appeared in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts of 1944. He was credited on Mercury Records as “Shorty Nadine,” a derivative of his wife’s name, because he had an exclusive contract with Capitol since signing with the label the year before. In fact, the iconic Capitol Records Building in Hollywood is known as “the house that Nat built.” Cole also used a variety of other stage name pseudonyms for the same reason, including Eddie Laguna, Sam Schmaltz, Nature Boy and A Guy, “or whatever name for himself he could think of, but only as an instrumentalist, never as a vocalist.”
In 1946, the trio broadcast King Cole Trio Time, a 15-minute radio program. This was the first radio program ever to be hosted by a black musician.
In August 1948, Cole purchased a house from Col. Harry Gantz, the ex-husband of silent film actress Lois Weber, in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, a burning cross appeared on his front lawn and the property-owners association told Cole they did not want any “undesirables” moving into the neighborhood. Cole responded, “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”
Cole began to record and perform more pop-oriented material in which he was often accompanied by a string orchestra. His stature as a popular star was cemented by hits such as “All for You” (1943), “The Christmas Song” (1947), “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 6, (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” (1946), “There! I’ve Said It Again” (1947), “Nature Boy” (1948), “Frosty the Snowman, Mona Lisa” (The Number 1 song of 1950), “Orange Colored Sky” (1950) and “Too Young” (the Number 1 song of 1951).
On November 5, 1956, The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show debuted on NBC Television. The variety program was one of the first hosted by an African American. The program started at a length of fifteen minutes but was extended to a half-hour in July 1957. Rheingold Beer was the regional sponsor, but a national sponsor was never found. Despite efforts by NBC, the show struggled financially. Some of the musical guests who made appearances on the show included Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Frankie Laine, Peggy Lee, and Mel Tormé. Cole finally decided to end the program and the last episode aired on December 17, 1957. Commenting on the lack of corporate sponsorship, Cole said shortly after its demise: “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
Throughout the 1950s, Cole continued recording popular hits which sold millions throughout the world, such as “Smile, Pretend, A Blossom Fell,” and “If I May.” His pop hits often featured creative collaborations with Nelson Riddle. Riddle produced and arranged several of Cole’s 1950s albums, including Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love (1953).
In 1956, Cole was contracted to perform in Cuba. He wanted to stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana but was refused because it operated a color bar. However, Cole still honored his contract, and his concert at the Tropicana Club was a huge success.
In 1958, Cole returned to Havana to record Cole Español, an album he sung entirely in Spanish. It was so popular in Latin America and the US that it was followed by two more Spanish-language albums: A Mis Amigos (1959) and More Cole Español (1962).
In 1959, Cole received a Grammy Award for Best Performance By a Top 40″Artist for “Midnight Flyer.”
Cole was often targeted by the black community for his popularity with white audiences. Thurgood Marshall, then-the chief legal counsel of the NAACP, said “All Cole needs to complete his role as an Uncle Tom is a banjo.” Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, wrote Cole a scathing 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.
The Chicago Defender said Cole’s performances for all-white audiences were an insult to his race. The New York Amsterdam News said 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.”
Earlier on, Cole’s shift to traditional pop led some jazz critics and fans to accuse him of selling out, but he never abandoned his jazz roots. As late as 1956, he recorded an all-jazz album, After Midnight, and many of his albums after this were fundamentally jazz-based or scored for big band without strings.
Cole performed in 1956 for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s televised birthday celebration. At the 1956 Republican National Convention, he sang “That’s All There Is to That” and was greeted with enthusiastic applause.
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After the musical tastes of the public began to change in the late 1950’s, Cole’s ballads appealed less to young listeners, despite his successful attempt at Rock and Roll with “Send for Me” which peaked at number 6 on the pop charts. Like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, he discovered that the popular music had been taken over by youth-oriented acts.
Nevertheless, Cole recorded several more hit singles during the 1960s, including “Let There Be Love” in 1961, the country-flavored hit “Ramblin’ Rose” in August 1962 (reaching No. 2 on the Pop chart), “Dear Lonely Hearts” (No. 13), “That Sunday, That Summer” (No. 12) and “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” (his final top-ten single, reaching Number 6 ). He also performed in many short films, sitcoms and television shows. He played W. C. Handy in the film St. Louis Blues (1958). Cat Ballou (1965), his final film, was released several months after his death.
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In January 1964, Cole made one of his final television appearances on The Jack Benny Program, where he was introduced as “the best friend a song ever had” and sang “When I Fall in Love.”
Two years before his death, Cole had success with one of his final hits with “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer.” “Unforgettable” became popular and famous again in 1991 when Cole’s daughter Natalie re-released the song again using modern recording technology which allowed her to reunite and sing with her father in a father and daughter duet recording almost forty years after its original release.
Cole’s final studio album was entitled L-O-V-E. The album peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Albums chart in the spring of 1965.
Cole had met his first wife, Nadine Robinson, while they were on tour for the all-black Broadway musical Shuffle Along. He was 18 when they married. She was the reason he moved to Los Angeles and formed the Nat King Cole trio.Their marriage ended in divorce in 1948. On March 28, 1948 (Easter Sunday), six days after his divorce became final, Cole married the singer Maria Hawkins. Maria supported him during his final illness and stayed with him until his death.
In September 1964, Cole began to lose weight and experienced back problems. He collapsed in pain after performing at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. In December, he was working in San Francisco when he was finally persuaded by friends to seek medical help. A malignant tumor in an advanced state of growth on his left lung was observed on a chest X-ray. Cole, who was a heavy cigarette smoker, had lung cancer and was expected to have only months to live. Cole regularly smoked between 3-4 packs of unfiltered cigarettes daily and considered this habit as part of his normal daily routine, attributing it to the dark and smooth quality of his voice. Against his doctors’ wishes, Cole continued on in his work and made his final recordings between December 1 and 3, 1964 in San Francisco.
Cole entered Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica on December 7, 1964 to begin cobalt therapy on December 10th. On December 12, Frank Sinatra performed in Cole’s place at the grand opening of the new Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center. Cole’s condition gradually worsened, but he was released from the hospital over the New Year’s period. At home, Cole was able to see the hundreds of thousands of cards and letters that had been sent after news of his illness was made public. Cole returned to the hospital again in early January 1965.
He vowed that if he recovered he would go on television to urge people to stop smoking. On January 25, Cole’s entire left lung was surgically removed. To make matters worse, his father died of heart problems on February 1st. Throughout Cole’s illness his publicists continued to promote the idea he would soon recover and return to work, despite their private knowledge of his terminal condition. Billboard Magazine reported that “Nat King Cole has successfully come through a serious operation and… the future looks bright for ‘the master’ to resume his career again.” On Valentine’s Day 1965, Cole and his wife briefly left St. John’s to take a drive by the sea. He died at the hospital early in the morning hours of Monday, February 15, 1965, at the age of 45.
Cole’s funeral was held on February 18 at St. James’ Episcopal Church on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles; 400 people attended inside the church and thousands gathered outside. Hundreds of members of the public filed past the coffin the day before to pay their respects. Cole’s honorary pallbearers included Robert F. Kennedy, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis, George Burns, Danny Thomas, Jimmy Durante, Alan Livingston, Frankie Laine, Steve Allen and Pat Brown (the former Governor of California). Cole’s eulogy was delivered by Jack Benny.
Cole’s remains are interred in Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
In 1983, an archivist for EMI Electrola Records, a subsidiary of EMI (Capitol’s parent company until 2013), discovered some unreleased recordings by Cole, including one in Japanese and another in Spanish (“Tu Eres Tan Amable”). Capitol released them later that year as the LP Unreleased. ✪