Nat King Cole
* March 17, 1917 † February 15, 1965
United States
Solo Artist
The popular audience worships its icons and, should they die prematurely -as pianist, singing-actor and heart-throb Nat ‘King’ Cole did, aged 45, in Santa Monica Hospital, on February 15, 1965- it remembers primarily with nostalgia. However, many who are instantly transported by the black-velvet sentiments of “Mona Lisa” (1950), “When I Fall In Love” (1957) or “Ramblin’ Rose” (1962) to old-style Sunday lunches and radio Family Favourites programmes, may overlook the fact that Nat was not just a pop singer but also a fine jazz technician in the tradition of Earl Hines.

Nat was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1917, the son of First Baptist Church minister the Reverend Edward Coles and his choir-mistress wife, Perlina. When he was four his family moved to Chicago where Nat soon began to show a precocious talent for the piano. Encouraged by his mother, who weaned him on the classics, he first learned to play by ear before receiving more expert tuition from musical educators Walter Dyett and N. Clark Smith. The result of this nurturing was that by the age of 12 he played the organ in his father’s church and had absorbed classical keyboard literature “from Bach to Rachmaninov”. At 17, while still at school, he was already fronting his own jazz band and at 19, in 1936, joined in Chicago by his bass-playing brother Eddie, formed Cole’s Solid Swingers. Before long, this group’s engagement at the prestigious Panama Club 58th Street had earned them a contract with Decca Records.

Nat met his future first wife Nadine at the Panama (they married in 1938) and in 1937, in company with his brother Eddie, they toured in a revival of Eubie Blake’s revue Shuffle Along. The tour ended in Los Angeles and there, while playing solo piano at the Century on Santa Monica Boulevard, he was invited to form a quartet, the ‘King Cole Swingsters’ (by now he’d dropped the “s” from Coles) at Lewis’s Swanee Inn Club. Originally comprising Oscar Moore on guitar, Wesley Prince (bass) and Lee Young (drums), this quartet was soon pared down to the famous trio. At first one of the hottest small combos of its day, it survived until 1947. Between 1939 and 1941 with this trio Nat provided backings to The Dreamers and recorded some 200 radio transcription discs (mainly for the Davis & Schwegler company), including solos and backings to, among others, Bonnie Lake and Anita O’Day but also, prior to 1943, was an influential force - both on and off records - with Lionel Hampton, Harry Edison, Dexter Gordon, Lester Young and other great bebop-era jazzmen.

In 1943, while playing the Radio Room in Los Angeles, he was heard by Johnny Mercer and invited to record for his new Capitol Records company. At his first session he got off to a good start with his own composition Straighten Up And Fly Right, which at No.9 became his second vocal hit to chart in the States and paved the way for a string other successes, including “It’s Only A Paper Moon”, “Frim Fram Sauce” and “Get Your Kicks On Route 66”, all prominent vocal vehicles for Nat, who by now aspired also to the movie world with his appearance in Here Comes Elmer.

During 1944 Nat was involved in early Jazz At The Philharmonic presentations in company with Illinois Jacquet, Les Paul and others, toured with Benny Carter and made a further B-movie screen appearance in Pin-Up Girl, Stars On Parade and
Swing In The Saddle. In March 1945 the King Cole Trio were voted Number One in Billboard Magazine’s first album chart and the following year they clocked a US pop
No.1 hit with “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons”. Pre-1948, the ever-growing list of their charted hits included “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You” (US No.15), “You Call It Madness” (a revival of a Russ Columbo hit of 1930) and “I Can’t See For Looking” (tinged with a certain self-mockery this one for the short-sighted Nat - at No.2) and with his best-selling US No.3 version of Mel Torme’s famous “Christmas Song” (this charted in three separate years: 1946, 1947 and 1949) there was no turning back for Nat the solo singer, whose commercial success was such that by 1947 the Trio had degenerated from a hot jazz ensemble to a backing-group for his increasingly laid-back vocalising.

By 1948 Nat was expected to sing whether or not he wanted to. That year he became one of the first black jazz artists to host his own weekly radio show and was pushed into the international front-rank with his first two million-selling discs : “Little Girl” (a revival of a 1931 Guy Lombardo hit) and “Nature Boy”. Penned by a Brooklyn-born Yogi named ‘eden ahbez’, the manuscript of this last, according to a legend fostered by Nat himself, was left in a paper bag for Nat’s approval at the stage-door of one of his Californian gigs in June 1947. Whatever the truth may be, its success was immediate and unequivocal: a seven-week US No.1 and a 15-week US bestseller.

In 1951, following his third Golden Disc success the previous year with “Mona Lisa” (from the Paramount melodrama Captain Carey, USA, aka After Midnight, this was voted Academy Award Best Film Song of 1950), Nat finally quit the Trio and turned full-time solo vocalist. In this capacity he toured with various bands and notched up many further top hits, including “Too Young” (No.1, 1951), “Pretend” (No.2, 1953), “Answer Me” (1954) and “A Blossom Fell” (1955) and made further low-key film appearances in Blue Gardenia and Small Town Girl (1953) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

In 1956 Nat, who by his own admission had never lost “that jazz feeling”, made a welcome return to his first calling as pianist in a quartet on the Capitol LP “After Midnight”. He hosted his own TV show (1956-1957), played further undistinguished cameos (in Istanbul and China Gate, 1957) and in a 1958 starring-role portrayed piano-playing blues-pioneer W.C. Handy in Paramount’s biopic St. Louis Blues. In 1961 he teamed as vocalist with pianist George Shearing for the album “NKC Sings - GS Plays” and in 1964 was pianist and vocalist on tour with the Quincy Jones Orchestra and made a final screen appearance in Columbia’s Oscar-winning spoof Western Cat Ballou.

One of the most charismatic and enduringly popular singers in recording history, Nat’s records have never stopped selling. Between 1956 and 1966, 24 of his LP albums found places in Billboard’s Top 100 and, at the time of his death, from throat cancer, in 1965, overall sales of his records were already estimated at almost 75 million.

(Source: Peter Dempsey on
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