When his career was cut short at the age of 45, he had more than one hundred hits to his name and played to sold-out audiences across the nation. But his humble beginnings suggested his success on stage would be a hard-fought battle off stage.
Born the son of a poor Baptist preacher in Montgomery, Alabama, Nathaniel (Nat ‘King’) Cole was first introduced to the piano at the age of four, with help from his mother (the church choir director). Nat showed real promise at the keyboard, and by his early teens he was taking formal classical piano training. But as much as he enjoyed playing religious and classical music, he soon abandoned both genres for his real musical passion- jazz. At 15, he dropped out of school to become a jazz pianist full time. Influenced by piano greats such as Earl “Fatha” Hines, the young Cole joined forces with his brother Eddie (who was also a child musical prodigy), which led to his first professional recordings in 1936. And while he might have seemed ‘soft-spoken’ in person, his piano skills and well-articulated smooth vocal style gave him the boldness to catapult him to national fame.
In late 1936, Nat joined a national tour for the musical revue Shuffle Along, performing as a pianist. By 1937, Cole assembled what would become the ‘King Cole Trio’- featuring Oscar Moore on guitar, Johnny Miller on double bass, and Nat on piano and vocals. They toured extensively and finally landed on the charts in 1943 with a recording of an original composition by Nat, “That Ain’t Right.” The following year another Cole original, “Straighten Up & Fly Right,” (inspired by one of his father’s sermons), became another hit record for the group. Over the course of the post-war years, the trio continued its rise to the top with such hits as the holiday classic “The Christmas Song” and the ballad “I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons).”
As an African-American, Cole struggled to find acceptance as a performer. Even once he became a major recording artist, he continued to experience racism firsthand, especially while touring in the South, where Cole had been attacked by white supremacists during a mixed race performance in his home state of Alabama. But in spite of these challenges, Cole became the first African-American performer to host a network variety television series, and for many white families, he was the first black man welcomed into their living rooms each night. The Nat King Cole Show featured many leading performers of the day, including Count Basie, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Junior and Tony Bennett. On film, he had a starring role in 1958 in the drama St. Louis Blues, along side Eartha Kitt and Cab Calloway. Cole played the role of blues great W.C. Handy in the movie. His final film appearance came in 1965 when he appeared with Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin in the Western Cat Ballou.
In the late ‘40s and ‘50s, Cole had emerged as a popular solo performer. He had numerous chart hits, including “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young” and the million-record seller “Unforgettable.” His rising star allowed him to record with some of the artists he had admired as a young performer, including Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and arrangers like Nelson Riddle. He also met and was befriended other big stars of the era, including the likes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
By the time the ‘60s had arrived, Cole was recognized as a solid television, radio and record star. His 1962 country-influenced hit “Rambin’ Rose” reached the number two spot on the Billboard charts. The following spring, Cole had another huge hit with light-hearted “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer.”
Sadly, in December of 1964 it was discovered that his years of cigarette smoking had led to lung cancer. He lost his short-fought battle with cancer in February of the following year. Nat King Cole was just 45 years old. His funeral attracted all of Hollywood’s ‘A-List’ stars, including Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra and Jack Benny.
Cole married twice; in 1936 to Nadine Robinson (whom he divorced in 1948), and later to singer Maria Hawkins Ellington, with whom he raised five children. The couple had three biological children, daughters Natalie, Casey and Timolin, and two adopted children, daughter Carol and son Nat Kelly. Daughter Natalie began singing in 1972, and by the mid ‘70s had become a star in her own right. Natalie died of congestive heart failure in 2015. Some of her most enduring hits were the covers she recorded of her late father’s songs.
Since his death, Cole’s music has endured. His rendition of “The Christmas Song” continues to be a holiday favorite and many of his other signature songs are frequently used in film and television soundtracks. Cole was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990. He was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2007. A United States postage stamp with Cole’s likeness was issued in 1994. Cole’s success at Capitol Records, for which he recorded more than 150 singles that reached the charts, has yet to be matched by any Capitol artist. His records sold 50 million copies during his career.
Swing Street Radio celebrates the centennial of Nat King Cole’s birth all this month.