Nat King Cole Biography
Nathaniel Adams Coles, known professionally as Nat King Cole (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965) was a popular American singer, songwriter, and jazz pianist.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama. His father was a butcher 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. Nat learned to play piano from his mother until the age of 12, when he began formal lessons. His first performance, at age four, was of "Yes, We Have No Bananas." He learned not only jazz and gospel music, but European classical music as well, performing, as he said, "from Johann Sebastian Bach to Rachmaninoff."
The family lived in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, which was famous in the 1920s for its nightlife and jazz clubs. Nat would sneak out of the house and hang outside the clubs, listening to artists such as Louis Armstrong, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and Jimmie Noone. He participated in Walter Dyett's renowned music program at DuSable High School.
Inspired by the playing of Fatha Hines, Cole began his performing career in the mid 1930s while he was still a teenager, and adopted the name Nat Cole (losing the "s" from his last name). His older brother, Eddie Coles, a bassist, soon joined Nat's band and they first recorded in 1936 under Eddie's name. They were also regular performers at clubs. In fact, Nat got his nickname "King" performing at one jazz club, a nickname presumably reinforced by the otherwise-unrelated nursery rhyme about "Old King Cole". Cole also was pianist in a national touring revival of ragtime and Broadway legend Eubie Blake's revue, Shuffle Along. When it suddenly failed in Long Beach, California, Cole decided to remain there.
Nat Cole and three other musicians formed the "King Cole Swingers" in Long Beach and played in a number of local bars before getting a gig on the Long Beach Pike for $90 per week.
Nat married a dancer Nadine Robinson, who was also with Shuffle Along, 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 double bass. The trio played in Los Angeles throughout the late 1930s and recorded many radio transcriptions.
Cole did not achieve widespread popularity until "Sweet Lorraine" in 1940. Although he sang ballads with the trio, he was shy about his voice. While Cole 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 left the group and Cole replaced him with Johnny Miller. The King Cole Trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records in 1943 and stayed with the recording company for the rest of Cole's career. By the 1950s, Cole's popularity was so great that the Capitol Records building, on Hollywood and Vine, was sometimes referred to as "The House that Nat Built".
Cole was considered a leading jazz pianist, appearing, for example, in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. His revolutionary lineup of piano, guitar and bass in the time of the big bands became a popular set up 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 Callender, and Lionel Hampton.
On August 23, 1956, Cole spoke at the Republican National Convention in the Cow Palace, San Francisco, California. He was also present at the Democratic National Convention in 1960, to throw his support behind President John F. Kennedy. Cole was also among the dozens of entertainers recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the Kennedy Inaugural gala in 1961. Nat King Cole frequently consulted with President Kennedy (and later President Johnson) on the issue of civil rights. Yet he was dogged by critics, who felt he shied away from controversy when it came to the civil rights issue. Among the most notable was Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was upset that Cole didn't take stronger action after being attacked on stage by white supremacists in 1956 (see below).
King Cole's first mainstream vocal hit was his own "Straighten Up and Fly Right", based on a black folk tale that his father had used as a theme for a sermon and recorded in 1943 at Johnny Mercer's invitation for the start-up Capitol Records label. Selling over 500,000 copies, the song's success propelled Nat into the charts while showing that folk-based material could appeal to a wide audience. Although Nat would never be considered a rocker, this song 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.
Beginning in the late 1940s, Cole began recording and performing more pop-oriented material for mainstream audiences, often accompanied by a string orchestra. His stature as a popular icon was cemented during this period with such hits as "The Christmas Song" (1946), "Nature Boy" (1948), "Mona Lisa" (1950), "Too Young" (the #1 song in 1951), and his signature tune "Unforgettable" (1951). While this shift to pop music led some jazz critics and fans to accuse Cole of selling out, he never totally abandoned his musical roots; as late as 1956, for instance, he recorded an all-jazz album, After Midnight. In 1991, Mosaic Records released the Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio, which contained 349 songs on 27 LPs or 18 CDs. Cole's unparalleled record sales revenues helped fuel much of Capitol Records' success during this period; this commercial success is also widely acknowledged to have played a significant role in financing the distincitve Capitol Records building on Vine Street in Los Angeles, California. Completed in 1956, the world's first circular office building was and is known by many as "the house that Nat built."
On November 5, 1956, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC-TV. While commentators have often erroneously hailed Cole as the first African-American to host a network television show (an honor belonging to Hazel Scott in 1950), the Cole program was the first of its kind hosted by a star of Nat Cole's magnitude. Initially begun as a 15 minute show on Monday night, the show was expanded to a half hour in July 1957. Despite the efforts of NBC, as well as many of Cole's industry colleagues, (most of whom, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Harry Belafonte, worked for industry scale in order to help the show save money), The Nat King Cole Show was ultimately done in by a lack of national sponsorship (companies such as Rheingold Beer assumed regional sponsorship of the show, but a national sponsor never appeared). The last episode of The Nat King Cole Show aired December 17, 1957. Cole had survived for over a year, and it was he, not NBC, who ultimately decided to pull the plug on the show (NBC, as well as Cole himself, had been operating at an extreme financial loss). Commenting on the lack of sponsorship his show received, Cole quipped shortly after its demise, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."
Notable appearances on Television shows other than his own:
It is not certain that Nat King Cole was born in 1919, and the correct date may never be known. Nat used four different dates himself on official documents. These are 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1919.
Cole's first marriage, to Nadine Robinson, ended in 1948. On March 28 (Easter Sunday), just 6 days after his divorce became final, Nat King Cole married singer Maria Hawkins Ellington (no relation to Duke although she had sung with his band). They were married in Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.. They had five children: daughter Natalie was born in 1950, followed by adoption of Carol (the daughter of Maria's sister) and a son Nat Kelly Cole, who died in 1995. Twin girls Casey and Timolin were born in 1961.
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."
Nat carried on affairs throughout his marriage. By the time he contracted lung cancer, he was estranged from his wife Maria in favor of actress Gunilla Hutton (Nurse Goodbody of Hee Haw fame). However, he was together with his wife during his illness and she stayed with him until his death. In interview, his wife Maria has expressed no lingering resentment over his affairs, but rather focused on his musical legacy and the class he exhibited in all other aspects of his life.
Nat was a heavy smoker, smoking up to three packs a day. He believed smoking kept his voice low. (He would, in fact, smoke several cigarettes in quick succession before a recording for this very purpose.) He died of lung cancer on February 15, 1965, at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California. His funeral was held at St. James Episcopal Church on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. His remains were interred inside Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.