February 15, 1965 – Nat King Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles on March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama. Cole had three brothers: Eddie, Ike, and Freddy and a half-sister, Joyce Coles. Each of Cole’s brothers would later pursue careers in music as well. When Cole was four years old, he and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where his father, Edward Coles, became a Baptist minister. Cole learned to play the organ from his mother, Perlina Coles, the church organist. His first performance was of “Yes! We Have No Bananas” at age four. He began formal lessons at 12, eventually learning not only jazz and gospel music, but also Western classical music, performing, as he said, “from Johann Sebastian Bach to Sergei Rachmaninoff”.
The family lived in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, where he attended Wendel Phillips High School (the same school Sam Cooke would attend a few years later). Cole would sneak out of the house and hang around outside the clubs, listening to artists such as Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone. He participated in Walter Dyett’s renowned music program at DuSable High School.
Inspired by the performances 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, a bass player, soon joined Cole’s band, and they made their first recording in 1936 under Eddie’s name. They also were regular performers at clubs. Cole acquired his nickname, “King”, performing at one jazz club, a nickname presumably reinforced by the otherwise unrelated nursery rhyme about “Old King Cole”. He also was a pianist in a national tour of Eubie Blake’s revue Shuffle Along. When it suddenly failed in Long Beach, California, Cole decided to remain there. He would later return to Chicago in triumph to play such venues as the Edgewater Beach Hotel.
His rich, husky voice, careful enunciation and the warmth, intimacy, and good humor of his approach to singing, allowed him to succeed with both ballads and novelties such that he scored over 100 pop chart singles and more than two dozen chart albums over a period of 20 years, enough to rank him behind only Sinatra as the most successful pop singer of his generation.
Cole was considered a leading jazz pianist, appearing in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts (credited on the Mercury Record label as “Shorty Nadine”—derived from his wife’s name—as he was under exclusive contract to Capitol Records at the time). His revolutionary lineup of piano, guitar, and bass in the time of the big bands became a popular setup for a jazz trio. It was emulated by many musicians, among them Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, and blues pianists Charles Brown and Ray Charles. He also performed as a pianist on sessions with Lester Young, Red Callender, and Lionel Hampton. For contract reasons, Cole was credited as “Aye Guy” on the album The Lester Young Buddy Rich Trio.
His hits included “Nature Boy”, “Mona Lisa”, “Too Young”, “Some Enchanted Evening”, “Ramblin’ Rose” and his signature tune “Unforgettable”. He 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.
In 1946, the Cole trio paid to have their own 15-minute radio program on the air, called “King Cole Trio Time”. It became the first radio program sponsored by a black performing artist. During those years, the trio recorded many “transcription” recordings, which were recordings made in the radio studio for the broadcast. Later they were used for commercial records.
His stature as a popular music icon was cemented during this period by hits such as “The Christmas Song”, “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” (1946), “Nature Boy” (1948), “Mona Lisa” (1950), “Too Young” (the #1 song in 1951) and his signature tune “Unforgettable” (1951) (Gainer 1). While this shift to pop music led some jazz critics and fans to accuse Cole of selling out, he never completely abandoned his jazz roots; as late as 1956 he recorded an all-jazz album After Midnight. Cole had one of his last major hits in 1963, two years before his death, with “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer”, which reached #6 on the Pop chart. “Unforgettable” was made famous again in 1991 by Cole’s daughter Natalie when modern recording technology was used to reunite father and daughter in a duet. The duet version rose to the top of the pop charts, almost forty years after its original popularity.
In 1956, he was one of the first black Americans to host a television variety show, and has maintained worldwide popularity since his death; he is widely considered one of the most important musical personalities in United States history. An official United States postage stamp featuring Nat’s likeness was issued in 1994 and in 2000 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the major influences for early Rock and Roll.
In 1958, Cole went to Havana, Cuba, to record Cole Español, an album sung entirely in Spanish. The album was so popular in Latin America, as well as in the United States, that two others of the same variety followed: A Mis Amigos (sung in Spanish and Portuguese) in 1959 and More Cole Español in 1962. A Mis Amigos contains the Venezuelan hit “Ansiedad”, whose lyrics Cole had learned while performing in Caracas in 1958. Cole learned songs in languages other than English by rote.
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. In 1960, Nat’s longtime collaborator Nelson Riddle left Capitol Records for Frank Sinatra’s newly formed Reprise Records label. Riddle and Cole recorded one final hit album, Wild Is Love, based on lyrics by Ray Rasch and Dotty Wayne. Cole later retooled the concept album into an Off-Broadway show, “I’m With You”.
Cole did manage to record some hit singles during the 1960s, including in 1961 “Let There Be Love” with George Shearing, the country-flavored hit “Ramblin’ Rose” in August 1962, “Dear Lonely Hearts”, “That Sunday, That Summer” and “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days Of Summer” (his final top-ten hit, reaching No. 6 pop).
Cole performed in many short films, sitcoms, and television shows and played W. C. Handy in the film St. Louis Blues (1958). He also appeared in The Nat King Cole Story, China Gate, and The Blue Gardenia (1953). In January 1964, Cole made one of his final television appearances on The Jack Benny Program. Cole was introduced as “the best friend a song ever had”, and sang “When I Fall in Love”. Cat Ballou (1965), his final film, was released several months after his death.
Nat sadly lost his battle with lung cancer on February 15, 1965 at the age of 45. On Valentine’s Day Cole and his wife briefly left St. John’s to drive by the sea, and Cole died at the hospital early in the next morning.