Cole, Nat "King" (1916?-1965)

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Cole, Nat "King" (1916?-1965)

Nat "King" Cole, pianist, songwriter, vocalist, and actor was one of the most influential African American performers from the early 1940s until his untimely death in 1965. Cole's warm, open, liquid, smooth voice was blessed with perfect intonation and diction, and appealed to a crossover audience, garnering not only acceptance in America but also worldwide. As a personality, Cole epitomized the suave sophistication that urban blacks were beginning to aspire to in the 1940s.

Cole's date of birth is in question. For his two marriages in 1937 and in 1948, Cole gave birthdates of 1915 and 1919, respectively. For the selective service he gave the year 1916. James Haskins and Leslie Gourse, two Cole biographers, accepted 1916 since it was his draft registration. Born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama on March 17, Cole was exposed to many types of black music. At the age of four, the family moved to Chicago where jazz and gospel were evolving. Cole's father, Edward James Coles, Sr., was a Baptist minister. His mother, Perlina Adames Coles, a pianist and choir director, taught him to play the piano by ear. At 12, Cole played organ, sang in his father's church, and studied classical piano. In high school, his mentors were N. Clark Smith, bandmaster, and Walter Dyett. His family was indeed musical. His three brothers Eddie, Fred, and Isaac were jazz musicians.

In Chicago, Cole led the Rogues of Rhythm and the Twelve Royal Dukes that often played Earl Hines arrangements. In 1936, Cole left Chicago to lead a band in a revival of the 1921 all black musical comedy Shuffle Along, with music by Eubie Blake and lyrics by Noble Sissle. When the show folded in Los Angeles, Cole landed a job as a pianist at the Century Club in Santa Monica. Cole's playing was impressive and thereafter, he began a stint at the Swanee Inn in Hollywood. Bob Lewis, the booking agent is said to have mused "Old King Cole" and billed Cole as "King" Cole. The name stuck with him throughout his career.

While Cole was best known as a vocalist and occasional pianist, his most musically enduring work can be heard in the trio format. Cole's piano stylings and compositions draw from be-bop, among other influences. The trio won the coveted Downbeat small combo award from 1944-1947, and the Metronome Apollo award in 1945-1948. Initially called King Cole and His Swingsters and later known as the King Cole Trio, the group was the first African American jazz combo to have its own sponsored radio series, from 1948-1949.

In the trio format, Cole dipped into the wellsprings of black music. The element of play and rhythmic vocal nuances can be heard in "Gone with the Draft." The influence of jive, folk narratives appear in the lyric "cool papa, don't you blow your top," from "Straighten Up and Fly Right." In "Are You Fer It," and "This Side Up," Cole delves into the early California blues tradition with riffs (repetitive phrases) in harmony with Moore's guitar. The new emerging style of be-bop is shown to good advantage in "Babs," while scatting (the interpolation of non-sense syllables) can be heard in "I Like to Riff."

Fats Waller, Count Basie, and principally Earl Hines influenced Cole's piano playing and, in turn, Cole's trio format and piano and vocal stylings influenced a number of subsequent musicians. Notable jazz trios that adopted Cole's instrumental format were the Oscar Peterson Trio, Art Tatum's Trio, and Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, among others. Cole also recorded with Lester Young in a session in Los Angeles in 1942.

The Nat King Cole Trio captured the attention of the popular market and paved the way for Cole to crossover from the rhythm and blues market to the pop charts, and to launch his successful solo career. From 1943 on, many of Cole's songs appealed to popular taste, beginning with "All For You" (1943), "Straighten Up and Fly Right" (1944), "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" (1944), and "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" (1946). It was "The Christmas Song" (1946), however, that squarely validated his crossover appeal. These standards, with string accompaniment led by arrangers such as Nelson Riddle, would help to build Capital records, Cole's principal recording label. From 1946, Cole became hugely successful as a popular vocalist and by 1951 had abandoned the trio format. Selected songs in this format include "I Love You for Sentimental Reasons" (1946), "Nature Boy" (1948), another recording of "The Christmas Song" (1949), "Mona Lisa" (1950), "Too Young" (1951), "Pre-tend" (1953), the rhythm and blues flavored "Send for Me" (1957), "Looking Back" (1958), and the country and western tinged "Ramblin' Rose" (1962). Throughout the 1950s, Cole continued to perform in clubs while putting on concerts abroad in Cuba, Australia, and Latin America. Cole also took singing and acting roles in a number of movies such as Small Town Girl, The Blue Gardenia, and Haija Baba, with his most effective role in St Louis Blues, where he played W.C. Handy.

Despite Cole's enormous appeal he could not escape the racism rampant in America. When he purchased a house in Los Angeles's fashionable Hancock Park, some white neighbors protested. He had to abandon his series on network television because of the lack of a national sponsor. Cole compromised by playing to segregated audiences, which drew impassioned criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP, commented that all Cole needed to complete his role as Uncle Tom was a banjo. In the 1960s, with the emergence of the civil rights movement, neither Cole's image as a popular vocalist nor his actions adopted the cause of black pride and consciousness. In spite of these setbacks, Cole's music penetrated many boundaries. In his time, Cole was a seminal figure in jazz and popular music, and leaves a legacy of enduring music—both as a vocalist and pianist—that continues to enrich us. Cole, a heavy chain smoker, succumbed to lung cancer and died on February 15, 1965.

—Willie Collins

Further Reading:

Cole, Maria, with Louie Robinson. Nat King Cole, An Intimate Biography. London, W. H. Allen, 1972.

Gourse, Leslie. Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Haskins, James, with Kathleen Benson. Nat King Cole: A Personal and Professional Biography. Chelsea, Scarborough House, 1980.

Whitburn, Joel. Top R & B Singles 1942-1988. Menomonee Falls, Record Research Inc., 1988.

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Cole, Nat "King" (1916?-1965)

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