Full name Nathaniel Adams Coles; born March 17, 1919, in Montgomery, Ala.; daughter of Edward James (a Baptist minister) and Perlina Coles; married Nadine Robinson (a dancer), c. 1937 (marriage ended); married Maria Hawkins Ellington (a singer), 1948; children: Carol (adopted), Natalie, Kelly (adopted son), Timolin, Casey (twin daughters); died of lung cancer in Santa Monica, Calif., February 15, 1965. Education: Wendell Phillips High School, Chicago. Addresses: Record company-- Capitol Records, 1750 North Vine Street., Hollywood, CA 91522.

Nat King Cole was one of the most popular performers in the history of the music business. From the early 1940s with his jazz combo, the King Cole Trio, through his later solo career, he was responsible for numerous hit records, including pop and ballad classics such as "Sweet Lorraine," "Nature Boy," "The Christmas Song," "Ramblin' Rose," and "Mona Lisa." Cole was one of the first recording artists to sign with Capitol Records, and was that company's most dependable talent for many years. Perhaps because of his enormous success with both black and white music fans, in 1957 he became the first black man to host a variety show on national television. Cole also appeared in motion pictures; his best remembered film performance, as a strolling balladeer in Cat Ballou , was completed a few months before his death in 1965.

Born Nathaniel Adams Coles on March 17, 1919, in Montgomery, Alabama, to a Baptist minister and his wife, Cole moved with his family to Chicago, Illinois, as a young child. Soon afterwards, at the age of four, he gave his first public performance, singing "Yes, We Have No Bananas" in a talent contest. Despite the fact that his older brother Edward had to push him onstage, young Nat won a turkey.

Cole's mother, Perlina, taught him to play the piano in the hopes that he would someday become a classic pianist. According to Maria Cole, the singer's second wife, in her book, Nat King Cole: An Intimate Biography, his musical talents were quickly put to practical, if not classical, use. In kindergarten, he played piano for the teacher as musical accompaniment to classroom games. By the time Cole was eleven, he and his sister shared the piano duties of their father's ministry at the True Light Baptist Church. But when he was sixteen, his interests turned to jazz, and he formed his own group, the Royal Dukes. They played for small change, or, as Maria Cole recounted, "when they couldn't get cash, often settled for hot dogs and hamburgers." Nat did not sing, because the other members of the group did not like his voice. Shortly afterwards, however, Cole left the Dukes to join the group his brother had formed, the Rogues of Rhythm.

The Rogues eventually joined the cast of "Shuffle Along," a black musical revue. While Cole was serving as the revue's pianist, he became acquainted with Nadine Robinson, one of its dancers. As the show was en route to California, Robinson became Cole's first wife, but "Shuffle Along" closed when it got to Long Beach, leaving Cole unemployed. He began playing piano in Los Angeles area bars to support himself. In one of these bars, Cole was discovered by another club owner, Bob Lewis, who urged Cole to form a small backup group and drop the s from his surname. Lewis wanted the more traditional quartet, but Cole could only find two other suitable musicians--thus, with the help of Wesley Prince on bass and Oscar Moore on guitar, the Nat Cole Swingsters Three began their first steady job in Lewis's club.

The group, quickly renamed by Lewis as the Nat King Cole Trio, was at first strictly instrumental. A traditional story says Cole was first led to use his voice professionally because of a persistent, drunken customer who kept demanding that he sing "Sweet Lorraine." More accurately, according to Maria Cole, the pianist began to sing a little to break the monotony of solid instrumental numbers. Though the Trio soon acquired renown in the Los Angeles area, a nationwide tour was not particularly successful.

But when Glenn Wallichs got together with songwriter Johnny Mercer and producer Buddy DeSylva to form Capitol Records in 1942, he remembered meeting Cole and his band, and decided to sign them to a record contract. By 1943 the Trio had recorded its first hit, "Straighten Up and Fly Right." A few years later, when Cole met his second wife, the former Maria Ellington, he was already well-known throughout the United States due to recordings like "Sweet Lorraine," "It's Only a Paper Moon," and "Get Your Kicks on Route 66." In 1948, when his divorce became final and he married Maria, "Nature Boy," a song he recorded the previous year, became a tremendous hit and transformed Cole into a household name.

As time went on, Cole realized that he was having far more hit records when he sang solo ballads backed by a big band than when he played and sang jazz with the trio. In 1951, a year after he released what is perhaps his most famous song, "Mona Lisa," he left the trio and ceased playing the piano on his records. Even so, Cole is still recognized, in the words of critic Terry Teachout in High Fidelity, as "an extraordinarily gifted jazz pianist." The decision proved a turning point in the singer's career, and many gold records, featuring what Teachout described as Cole's "dark, grainy baritone," followed. "Unforgettable," "Ballerina," "When You're Smiling," and "Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer" are a few of the hits that helped make Cole a favorite of music fans in the United States and worldwide. As Maria Cole explained, "Nat's impeccable taste and vocal styling ... established him not only as one of the leading crooners of the day, but also as one of the best song salesmen in the business. He could take the most unlikely lyric and transform it to a hum or whistle on everybody's lips." She quoted Wallichs as once saying: "'All the publishers offer [Capitol] a tune for him first, because they know if Cole sings it, they have an eighty to twenty chance of having a hit.'"

In late 1964, while still experiencing much success as a concert performer and recording artist, Cole developed a severe cough and searing chest pains. A smoker, he was diagnosed with a fast-growing, cancerous tumor of the lung. Cole checked into a Santa Monica hospital in December; he died on February 15, 1965. Besides remaining popular through the legacy of his many recordings, Cole served as an influence for other pop balladeers, including Johnny Mathis, and Cole's own daughter, Natalie.

by Elizabeth Thomas

Nat King Cole's Career

Singer, pianist. Formed musical group, The Royal Dukes, c. 1935; joined brother Edward's group, The Rogues of Rhythm, c.1936; joined revue "Shuffle Along," c. 1936; played piano in bars in Los Angeles, Calif., 1937. Formed the Nat Cole Swingsters Three (later the King Cole Trio), 1937; solo recording artist and concert performer, 1951-65. Appeared in films including China Gate and Cat Ballou. Had own radio show during late 1940s; own television show for National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), 1957.

Nat King Cole's Awards

Recipient of many gold records.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Books

Periodicals

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 9 years ago

was nat king cole the first artist of lazy hazy crazy days of summer???