Cole, Nat “King” (originally, Coles, Nathaniel Adams)

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Cole, Nat “King” (originally, Coles, Nathaniel Adams)

Nat “King” (originally, Coles, Nathaniel Adams), American singer, pianist, and actor; father of Natalie Cole; b. Montgomery, Ala., March 17, 1917; d. Santa Monica, Feb. 15, 1965. Beginning his career as a jazz pianist, Cole went on to become one of the most successful singers of the 1950s. His light, supple baritone was especially effective on ballads such as his biggest hits—”(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” “Nature Boy,” and “Mona Lisa”—but he also handled novelties and rhythm songs effectively. Although he worked in radio, TV, and film, he achieved his greatest success through personal appearances and on records, charting 41 albums and 104 singles between the 1940s and the 1990s.

Cole was the son of the Rev. Edward James Coles and Perlina Adams Coles. His mother, who played keyboard and led the choir in his father’s church, gave him his earliest musical instruction. The family moved to Chicago when he was a small child. At about the age of 11 he played organ in his father’s church and sang in the choir; at 12 he began taking piano lessons. While attending high school, he studied music with N. Clark Smith and Walter Dyett. By his teens he was playing in local bands. He made his recording debut in July 1936 with the Solid Swingers, a band also featuring his brother Eddie on bass. The following year, he joined the orchestra of a touring company of the revue Shuffle Along-, while on tour, he married dancer Nadine Robinson. They divorced in January 1948.

The tour ended in Los Angeles, where Cole remained, playing in clubs as a solo pianist and various combinations with other musicians, finally working as part of a trio with guitarist Oscar Moore and bass player Wesley Prince that came to be called the King Cole Trio. The group played jazz instrumentais as well as songs on which they sang together, and gradually Cole was featured as the sole singer. They recorded for various labels between 1939 and 1943, the most prominent being Decca Records, for which they did four sessions in 1940 and 1941. Although they performed primarily in L.A. and N.Y., they also appeared in other major cities. In August 1942 Prince was drafted and replaced by Johnny Miller. In November “That Ain’t Right” (music and lyrics by Cole and Irving Mills), which the group had recorded for Decca more than a year earlier, entered the R&B charts, rising to #1 in January 1943. In August 1943 they were filmed performing “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (music and lyrics by Cole and Irving Mills) for the feature Here Comes Elmer, which was released in October, and they also were in Pistol Packirí Mama, released in December.

Capitol Records signed the trio and reissued their October 1942 recording of “All for You” (music and lyrics by Robert Scherman), originally released on the Excelsior label. It topped the R&B charts in November 1943 and became the their first pop chart entry in December. The King Cole Trio had done its first Capitol session in November 1943, and from it came a recording of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” that entered the R&B charts in April 1944, rising to #1 and becoming the biggest R&B hit of the year. In May it entered the country charts, hitting #1 in June. And in June it reached the pop charts, peaking in the Top Ten in July, but it was bested by a cover by the Andrews Sisters. The trio returned to #1 on the R&B charts in October with “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” (music by Don Redman, lyrics by Redman and Andy Razaf), which also reached the pop charts. Their success on records allowed them to launch a six-month national tour in September. They also performed in two films released during the year, Stars on Parade and Swing in the Saddle.

The King Cole Trio was back in Los Angeles in March 1945, the month their album, The King Cole Trio, hit #1. In May they appeared in the film See My Lawyer. Their next movie appearance came July 1946 in Breakfast in Hollywood. The same month, King Cole TrioVol. 2 reached the album charts, hitting #1 in August. During the summer, they were in N.Y hosting the Kraft Music Hall radio series during Bing Crosby’s vacation. The stint was successful enough that the trio launched its own weekly 15-minute network radio series, King Cole Trio Time, in October; it ran until April 1948. This increased exposure, in turn, further stimulated record sales. The group’s revival of the 1931 song “You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)” (music and lyrics by Con Conrad, Gladys Du Bois, Russ Columbo, and Paul Gregory) made the pop Top Ten in September and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” (music by William Best, lyrics by Deek Watson) became their first pop #1 in December. That same month they peaked in the Top Ten with the million-seller “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)” (music by Mel Torme, lyrics by Robert Wells), which became a perennial hit and is notable as the first instance in which Cole’s vocal was backed by a string section as well as the trio. In 1974 the recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

The trio embarked on an extensive tour of the Northeast and Midwest in December 1946, continuing to do their radio series in remote broadcasts. They returned to Los Angeles in May 1947, remaining on the West Coast for the summer and then returning to the road. Oscar Moore left the group in October and was replaced by Irving Ashby. The trio hit the Top Ten of the album charts with King Cole TrioVol. 3 in January 1948, and in April “King Cole,” as he was billed, reached the charts with “Nature Boy” (music and lyrics by Eden Ahbez), on which he abandoned the piano and sang backed by an orchestra. The song hit #1 in May and sold a million copies. On March 28 Cole married singer Maria (Marie) Hawkins Ellington. They had three children and adopted two. Their first child, Natalie Maria Cole (b. Los Angeles, Feb. 6, 1950), became a successful singer. The trio continued to tour extensively during 1948; Johnny Miller left the group in August and was replaced by Joe Comfort.

Cole toured the Northeast with Woody Herman and His Thundering Herd in the late winter of 1949, adding a bongo player, Jack Costanzo, to his group, which came to be billed as Nat “King” Cole and His Trio. In April he appeared in the film Make-Believe Ballroom. The album King Cole TrioVol. 4 reached the Top Ten in July. He toured the South in June and July, then hooked up with Herman again for a West Coast tour into August and back on the East Coast in the fall. As of 1950 his record releases were credited to Nat “King” Cole and often featured orchestras and choruses in addition to or in place of the trio. In June he scored his first major single hit in more than two years, “Mona Lisa” (music and lyrics by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans), which topped the charts in July and sold a million copies. In the fall he toured Europe for the first time. “Orange Colored Sky” (music and lyrics by Milton De Lugg and William Stein), on which Cole and trio were accompanied by Stan Kenton and His Orch., hit the Top Ten in November, and “Frosty the Snowman” (music and lyrics by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins) hit in December.

Cole again topped the charts in June 1951 with the million-seller “Too Young” (music by Sid Lippman, lyrics by Sylvia Dee). That summer, Irving Ashby and Johnny Miller quit the group, and although Cole replaced them, he was billed as a solo artist thereafter; by 1955 he had disbanded the trio and toured with an orchestra. In November 1951 he reached the charts with “Unforgettable” (music and lyrics by Irving Gordon), one of his more impressive recordings. An Unforgettable album, released in November 1952, eventually sold a million copies. He hit the Top Ten with two songs in 1952: “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” (music and lyrics by Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert) in July and “Somewhere Along the Way” (music by Kurt Adams, lyrics by Sammy Gallop) in August. In October his album Penthouse Serenade made the Top Ten, and he had another Top Ten single with “Pretend” (music and lyrics by Lew Douglas, Cliff Parman, and Frank Levere) in March 1953. In April he played himself in the mystery film The Blue Gardenia, singing the title song. The following month he was in the musical Small Town Girl.

In January 1954 Cole released the album Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love, which, like Frank Sinatra’s concept albums of the time, was a collection of thematically chosen romantic ballads performed with an orchestra, which was conducted by Nelson Riddle. It was a Top Ten hit. Cole also reached the Top Ten in April with the single “Answer Me, My Love” (music by Gerhard Winkler and Fred Rauch, English lyrics by Carl Sigman), with the album 10th Anniversary in July, and with the single “Smile” (music by Charlie Chaplin, lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons) in October. Continuing to tour extensively, he had a three-week engagement at the Sands in Las Vegas in January, the start of a three-year contract with the hotel, and he toured Europe for a second time in March.

Cole had another three songs in the Top Ten in 1955: “Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” (music and lyrics by Anna Sosenko) in April and both sides of the single “A Blossom Fell” (music and lyrics by Howard Barnes, Harold Cornelius [real name Fields], and Dominic John [real name Joe Roncoroni])/”If I May” (music and lyrics by Charles Singleton and Rose Marie McCoy) in May. He starred in a 20-minute film biography, The Nat King Cole Story, released during the summer. In April 1956 he appeared in his next feature film, The Scarlet Hour. Among his nine singles chart entries in 1956, the most successful was “Night Lights” (music by Chester Conn, lyrics by Sammy Gallop), which reached the Top 40 in October Continuing to make live appearances, he toured Australia in February and signed a new three-year deal with the Sands for $500, 000. On Nov. 15, 1956, the premiere episode of The Nat “King” Cole Show, a weekly 15-minute music program, was broadcast on network television. The show ran on Monday nights through June 1957 and was expanded to a half-hour on Tuesday nights from July to December 1957.

Cole’s TV exposure increased his record sales. The album Love is the Thing, another collection of romantic ballads, arranged by Gordon Jenkins, released in March 1957, hit #1 in May, selling a million copies. “Send for Me” (music and lyrics by Ollie Jones) became his first Top Ten single in two years in July, also topping the R&B charts. Just One of Those Things, released in November, hit the Top Ten in December. He also found time to act and sing in supporting roles in two films: Istanbul in January and China Gate in May. The following year he had his only starring role in the movies, playing the part of W. C. Handy in the film biography Si. Louis Blues, released in April 1958. His single “Looking Back” (music and lyrics by Brook Benton, Belford Hendricks, and Clyde Otis) made the Top Ten in May and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance.

Cole toured South America in 1959, promoting his Spanish-language album Cole Español and acted in the film Night of the Quarter Moon, released in March. His single “Midnight Flyer” (music and lyrics by Mayme Watts and Robert Mosely) reached the Top 40 in September; it earned a Grammy nomination for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance and won the Grammy Award for Best Performance by a “Top 40” Artist.

Cole toured Europe in 1960. His album Wild Is Love, released in September, reached the Top Ten and earned Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Best Vocal Performance, Male. He re-recorded his better known songs for the multidisc set The Nat King Cole Story, released in 1961, and it earned him a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. In 1962 he toured Japan. For his U.S. performances he mounted an elaborate stage show, Sights and Sounds. He had his first Top Ten single in four years with the million-selling “Ramblin’ Rose” (music and lyrics by Noel Sherman and Joe Sherman) in September 1962. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Record of the Year, and a Ramblin’ Rose LP reached the Top Ten, sold a million copies, and remained in the charts more than three years.

Cole’s final Top Ten single came in June 1963 with “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer.” He toured Great Britain that summer. His seasonal LP The Christmas Song, released in September, eventually went gold.

In the summer and fall of 1964, Cole shot his last film, the comic Western Cat Ballou, acting as a singing narrator; it was released in June 1965. He died of lung cancer in February 1965. In the wake of his death, his current album, L-O-V-E, released in January, hit the Top Ten in March. Capitol Records successfully repackaged his recordings for many years. The Best of Nat King Cole, released in August 1968, eventually went gold. The album 20 Golden Greats, released in the U.K., hit #1 there in April 1978. In June 1991, Natalie Cole released Unforgettable, with Love, an album on which she performed songs associated with her father. On “Unforgettable,” she overdubbed her voice onto her father’s original recording. Released as a single, it reached the Top 40, sold a million copies, and won Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Traditional Pop Performance. Collectors Series, another compilation of Cole’s hits released simultaneously, went gold.


From the Very Beginning (1941); Anatomy of a Jam Session (1945); Big Band C. (1950); Jazz Encounters (1950); The Billy May Sessions (1951); Penthouse Serenade (1952); Unforgettable (1952); N. K. C. Sings for Two in Love (and More) (1954); In the Beginning (1956); The Piano Style of N. K. C.(1956); Love Is the Thing (1957); Just One of Those Things (1957); The Very Thought of You (1958); Wild Is Love (1960); The Magic of Christmas (1960); N. K. C. Sings/George Shearing Plays (1961); The N. K. C. Story (1961); Ramblin Rose (and More) (1962); The Christmas Song (1963); The Best ofN. K. C. (1968); Hit That Jive, Jack: The Earliest Recordings, 1940-41 (1990); Greatest Country Hits (1990); The Jazz Collector Edition (1991); The Trio Recordings (1991); The Complete Capitol Recordings of the N. K. C. Trio (1991); The Trio Recordings, Vol. II (1991); The Trio Recordings, Vol. Ill (1991); The Trio Recordings, Vol. IV (1991); N. K. C. (box set; 1992); The Unforgettable N. K. C. (1992); The Best of the N. K. C. Trio: Instrumental Classics (1992); Early Years of the N. K. C. Trio (1993); N. K. G & the K. C. Trio: Straighten up & Fly Right (radio broadcasts, 1942-–8; 1993); The Greatest Hits (1994); The N. K. G Trio: World War II Transcriptions (1994); Spotlight on N. K. G (1995); The Jazzman (1995); To Whom It May Concern (1995); Swinging Easy down Memory Lane (1995); The Complete after Midnight Sessions (1996); Sweet Lorraine (1938-41 transcriptions; 1996); Best of: Vocal Classics 1947-50 (1996); The Vocal Classics (1996); The N. K. C. TV Show (1996); The McGregor Years: 1941-45 (1996); Love Is the Thing (1997); Revue Collection (1997); G, Christmas, and Kids (1997); A&E Biography: A Musical Anthology (1998); The Best of the N. K. C. Trio (1998); Christmas for Kids: From One to Ninety-Two (2000).


M. Cole (his widow) with L. Robinson, N. K. G: An Intimate Biography (N.Y., 1971); J. Haskins with K. Benson, N. K. C: A Personal and Professional Biography (N.Y., 1984; rev. ed. 1990); C. Garrod and B. Korst, N. “K.” C: His Voice and His Piano (Zephyrhills, Fla., 1987); L. Gourse, Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique ofN. K. G (N.Y., 1991); K. Teubig, ’’Straighten Up and Fly Right”: A Chronology and Discography ofN. “K.” C.(Westport, Conn., 1994).

—William Ruhlmann

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Cole, Nat “King” (originally, Coles, Nathaniel Adams)

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