Nat King Cole: A Ground-breaking Talent and Prince of a Human Being
“The only prejudice I have found anywhere in TV is in some advertising agencies, and there isn’t so much prejudice as just fear.”
So spoke Nat King Cole, indeed a king . . . of hearts, humanity, music, entertainment, and television. While “The Christmas Song” is considered his signature and the optimum Christmas carol, the joyful, warm message of that holiday tune clearly represents the type of man who sang it.
Cole enjoyed financial success but managed to retain a fine balance of priorities. As he once said, “I make no claim to being a business genius. You can make so much money in this business that it loses its value.”
The Nat King Cole Show became the first TV musical/variety series to be hosted by an African-American male, debuting November 5, 1956, on NBC.
According to Wikipedia, Cole’s program began as a fifteen-minute pop-oriented show, expanding to a half hour in July 1957. NBC made great strides to keep Cole’s show afloat and under budget, as did several of Cole’s associates, many of whom (Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt) worked for scale (or for free).
But no matter: The Nat King Cole Show was canceled mainly because it lacked a national sponsorship. The show’s final segment was broadcast December 17, 1957, after which the performer retorted, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” Heralded for his velvet vocal cords combined with an eloquent verbal style, Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919.
He had four siblings: a half-sister, Joyce, and brothers Eddie, Ike, and Freddy, the latter two of whom would also become musical performers. When he was only four, the Cole family relocated to Chicago, Illinois, where his father, Edward, was ordained a Baptist minister. His mother, Perlina Coles, was the church organist; she taught Nat to play, and he performed his first song, “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”
At age twelve, he began taking formal voice lessons, and soon honed his pristine vocal inflections, ultimately becoming a master of performing jazz, gospel, and classical music. His family settled in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and, by day, a young Nat studied music with the acclaimed Water Dyette at DuSable High School. At night he sneaked out to the clubs, where he would listen to performers like Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Jimmie Noone. At fifteen years old, he left school to work full-time as a jazz pianist, temporarily partnered with his brother Eddie and, in 1936, made his first professional recording. He later played piano with the national musical touring revue Shuffle Along, formed the King Cole Trio, which toured extensively and, in 1943, had a chart-topping hit with his own composition, “That Ain’t Right.”
The next year, “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” inspired by one of his dad’s sermons, became another hit for the trio, which continued to succeed with other hits like “The Christmas Song” and the ballad “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.” By the 1950s, Cole performed solo with other hits like “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young,” and “Unforgettable,” the latter of which was re-recorded decades later as a “duet” (utilizing contemporary technology) by his daughter Natalie Cole (who succumbed to ongoing health issues at only sixty-five on December 31, 2015).
Before that modern twist, however, Cole worked with other singing sensations like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and iconic arrangers including Nelson Riddle. He also met and befriended legends such as the one and only Frank Sinatra. As an African American, Cole was confronted by prejudice, particularly while touring in the South.
In 1956, he had been attacked by white supremacists during a mixed race performance in Alabama, while he was rebuked by fellow African Americans for his less-than-ancillary remarks about racial integration following his performance. Nat said he was just an entertainer, as opposed to a social or political activist. “The whites come to applaud a Negro performer just like the colored do. When you’ve got the respect for white and colored, you can ease a lot of things.”
By the late ’50s, his popularity declined only to have it reignited in the early ’60s, with country-inspired hits like “Ramblin’ Rose” which, in 1962, attained the #2 spot on the Billboard charts. The following spring, Nat released the happy hit, “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” and, in 1964, made his final appearances on the charts with less than super hits like “I Don’t Want to Hurt Anymore” and “I Don’t Want to See Tomorrow.”
The Golden Globe and Grammy award-winning Nat King Cole married twice: Nadine Robinson, from 1937 to 1948; and Maria Cole, from 1948 to his demise from lung cancer on February 15, 1965. His music, brought to the mainstream via his iconic television show, became his legacy. “I’m not playing for other musicians,” he said. “We’re trying to reach the guy who works all day and wants to spend a buck at night.” With his massive heart and talent, Nat King Cole touched many more lives than that.”
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This article is edited material from the book, DASHING, DARING, AND DEBONAIR: TV’S TOP MALE ICONS FROM THE ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s by Herbie J Pilato, and is available on Amazon.com. Click on the link below.