Nat King Cole (1919-1965)
Born on March 17, 1919, in Montgomery, Alabama, Nat King Cole was an American musician who first came to prominence as a jazz 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. Known for his smooth and well-articulated vocal style, Nat King Cole actually started out as a piano man. He first learned to play around the age of 4 with help from his mother, a church choir director. The son of a Baptist pastor, Cole may have started out playing religious music.
Cole started to put together what would become the King Cole Trio, the name being a play on the children’s nursery rhyme. They toured extensively and finally landed on the charts in 1943 with “That Ain’t Right,” penned by Cole. “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” inspired by one of his father’s sermons, became another hit for the group in 1944. The trio continued its rise to the top with such pop hits as the holiday classic “The Christmas Song” and the ballad “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.”
By the 1950s, Nat King Cole emerged as a popular solo performer. He scored numerous hits, with such songs as “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young, ” and “Unforgettable.” As an African American performer, Cole struggled to find his place in the civil rights movement. He had encountered racism firsthand, especially while touring in the South. In 1956, Cole had been attacked by white supremacists during a mixed race performance in Alabama. He was rebuked by other African Americans, however, for his less-than-supportive comments about racial integration made after the show. Cole basically took the stance that he was an entertainer, not an activist.
Cole made television history in 1956, when he became the first African-American performer to host a variety TV series. The Nat King Cole Show featured many of the leading performers of the day, including Count Basie and Sammy Davis, Jr.
Unfortunately, the series didn’t last long, going off the air in December 1957. Cole blamed the show’s demise on the lack of a national sponsor. The sponsorship problem has been seen as a reflection of the racial issues of the times with no company seemingly wanting to back a program that featured African-American entertainers.
In 1964, Cole discovered that he had lung cancer. He succumbed to the disease just months later, on February 15, 1965, at the age of 45, in Santa Monica, California. A “who’s who” of the entertainment world, including the likes of Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra. Since his death, Cole’s music has endured. His rendition of “The Christmas Song” has become a holiday classic and many of his other signature songs are frequently selected for film and television soundtracks.