Tonight we’ll take a little detour and cover a famous jazz pianist who, as a black American, had to deal with racism as he managed a very successful transition from jazz to pop singing. He is still remembered especially because his daughter Natalie has not only re-released much of his wonderful music, but also, she paid a huge tribute by doing her own newly-recorded voice track and mixing it with her father’s 1961 rendition of “Unforgettable“.
(March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965)
When I Fall In Love (1957)
Sweet Lorraine (1963)
Some of Cole’s biggest hits
Straighten Up and Fly Right – the King Cole Trio / Capitol / June 1944 / #9
(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons – the King Cole Trio / Capitol / Nov 1946 / #1
The Christmas Song – the King Cole Trio / Capitol / Nov 1946 / #9
Nature Boy – the King Cole Trio / Capitol / Apr 1948 / #1
Orange Colored Sky – / Capitol /1950 / #5
Mona Lisa / Capitol / Jun 1950 / #1
Too Young / Capitol #1449 / Apr 1951 / #1
Unforgettable / Capitol #1689 / Nov 1951 / #12 – became his signature tune
Walkin’ My Baby Back Home / Capitol /1952 / #5 R&B – also covered by Johnnie Ray and went to #4 in 1952
Pretend / Capitol #2346 / Feb 1953 / #2
Answer Me My Love / Capitol #2687 / Feb 1954 / #6
A Blossom Fell / Capitol / Feb 1955 /#2
Send for Me / Capitol / Feb 1955 #6 – a bluesy rock feel(a note from Gary) Nat said he would not do Rock and Roll, but this comes real close.
Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup / Capitol / Mar 1955 / #7
Looking Back / Capitol #3939 / Apr 1958 / #5
Ramblin’ Rose / Capitol #4804 / Aug 1962 / #2
Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer / Capitol / May 1963 / #6
Nathaniel Adams Coles (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965), known professionally as Nat King Cole, was an American musician who first came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist. Although an accomplished 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. He was one of the first black Americans to host a television variety show, and has maintained worldwide popularity since his death.
Cole’s mother, Perlina Coles, the church organist, taught him to play the organ. And his first performance, at age four, was of “Yes! We Have No Bananas“. He began formal lessons at the age of 12, eventually learning not only jazz and gospel music but also European classical music.
Inspired by the piano playing of Earl Hines, Cole began his performing career in the mid 1930s while still a teenager, adopting the name “Nat Cole”. His older brother, Eddie Cole, a singer and bass player, soon joined Cole’s band, and they made their first recording in 1936 under Eddie’s name.
In January 1937, Cole married dancer Nadine Robinson, who performed in the musical Shuffle Along, and moved to Los Angeles.
The first incarnation of the Nat King Cole trio got together in the Long Beach area of Los Angeles in 1937 as the “King Cole Swingsters.” The group was composed of Nat on piano, guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince. The musicians assembled to play at Los Angeles’ Swannee Inn and they was originally supposed to be a quartet with piano, bass, guitar and drums, but drummer Lee Young didn’t show up for the gig.
In future years Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal would all form piano/guitar/bass combos inspired by Cole’s group.
Nat’s trio played in a number of local bars before getting a gig on the Long Beach Pike for $90 per week ($1,427 in current U.S. dollar terms). They played in Los Angeles throughout the late 1930s and recorded many radio transcriptions. Cole’s role was that of piano player and leader of the combo.
Nat didn’t begin his singing career until a patron asked him to sing “Sweet Lorraine,” at a nightclub in Los Angeles. Nat ignored the request that evening, but by the time the trio had its first opportunity to record for Decca in December 1940, he had gained confidence in his singing. “Sweet Lorraine” resulted from that session and the Trio soon became quite popular.
During World War II, bassist Wesley Prince left the group and Cole replaced him with Johnny Miller. (Miller would later be replaced by Charlie Harris in the 1950’s.) The King Cole Trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records in 1943.
Cole’s first mainstream vocal hit was his 1943 recording of one of his compositions, “Straighten Up and Fly Right”. Johnny Mercer invited him to record it for his fledgling Capitol Records label. It sold over 500,000 copies, proving that folk-based material could appeal to a wide audience.
“Straighten Up and Fly Right”appealed to both black and white audiences and crossed the barrier between jazz and popular music. Cole had composed the song, basing its lyrics on one of his father’s sermons, but he had sold away all rights to the song several years earlier for $50 and earned nothing extra from the hit recording.
Although Cole would never be considered a rocker, the song can be seen as anticipating 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 by hits such as “The Christmas Song“
“Answer Me, My Love ” (“Mutterlein“) originally written in German by Gerhard Winkler and Fred Rauch with English lyrics written by Carl Sigman, was recorded by Nat King Cole with Nelson Riddle for Capitol Records on 12/3/53. This wonderful ballad was a hit single in 1954 and was included on Nat’s Unforgettable album.
“Nature Boy” (1948), “Mona Lisa” (1950), “Too Young” (the #1 song in 1951),and his signature tune “Unforgettable” (1951) constituted a significant shift to pop music, and this shift led some jazz critics and fans to accuse Cole of selling out. But he never totally abandoned his jazz roots; as late as 1956, for instance, he recorded an all-jazz album After Midnight.
On November 5, 1956, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC-TV. The Cole program was the first of its kind hosted by an African-American, which created controversy at the time.
Beginning as a 15-minute pops show on Monday night, the program was expanded to a half hour in July 1957. Despite the efforts of NBC, as well as many of Cole’s industry colleagues—many of whom, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Frankie Laine, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, and Eartha Kitt worked for industry scale (or even for no pay) in order to help the show save money—The Nat King Cole Show was ultimately done in by lack of a national sponsorship.Companies such as Rheingold Beer assumed regional sponsorship of the show, but a national sponsor never appeared.
Cole fought racism all his life and rarely performed in segregated venues. In 1956, he was assaulted on stage during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, with the Ted Heath Band, (while singing the song “Little Girl“). The ensuing melée toppled Cole from his piano bench and injured his back. Cole did not finish the concert and never again performed in the South.
Throughout the 1950s, Cole continued to rack up hit after hit, including “Smile“, “Pretend“, “A Blossom Fell“, and “If I May“. In 1955, his single “Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” reached #7 on the Billboard chart.
Revenues from Cole’s record sales are believed to have played a significant role in financing the distinctive Capitol Records building on Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. Completed in 1956, it was the world’s first circular office building and became known as “the house that Nat built”.
Gordon Jenkins arranged “Love Is the Thing”, which hit #1 on the album charts in April 1957.
After the change in musical tastes during the late 1950s, Cole’s ballad singing did not sell well with younger listeners, despite a successful stab at rock n’ roll with “Send For Me” (peaked at #6 pop).
Along with his contemporaries Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett, Cole found that the pop singles chart had been almost entirely taken over by youth-oriented acts.
Cole did manage to record some hit singles during the 1960s, including the country-flavored hit “Ramblin’ Rose” in August 1962 as well as “Dear Lonely Hearts” and “That Sunday, That Summer“.
Cole had one of his last big hits in 1963, two years before his death, with the classic “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer“, which reached #6 on the Pop chart.
Cole was a heavy smoker of Kool menthol cigarettes, believing that smoking up to three packs a day gave his voice the rich sound it had (Cole would smoke several cigarettes in rapid succession before a recording for this very purpose). The many years of smoking caught up with him, resulting in his death from lung cancer on February 15, 1965, at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California. Cole was a month short of his 46th birthday.
Cole was inducted into both the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1990, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 1991, Mosaic Records released “The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio,” an 18-compact-disc set consisting of 349 songs. (This special compilation also was available as a 27-LP set.)
In the summer of 1991, Natalie Cole and her father had a hit when Natalie’s own newly-recorded voice track was mixed with her father’s 1961 rendition of “Unforgettable” into a new duet version as part of a tribute album to her father’s music. The song and album of the same name won seven Grammy awards in 1992.
In 1997 Cole was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
In 2007, he was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.