On this day in 1919, preeminent jazz pianist and musical personality Nat “King” Cole, was born. Known for his soft baritone, Cole was one of the first black Americans to host a TV variety show.
Born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, and raised in Chicago, Cole was reared on an eclectic musical smorgasbord. When his father became a Baptist minister, Cole learned to play the piano organ from his mother, the church organist. He began formal lessons at age 12, learning jazz, gospel, and Russian and European classical music. As a teen, he would sneak out of his room and hang out around clubs, soaking in the likes of Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Jimmie Noone. In fact, Cole was so inspired by Hines, a pioneer of modern jazz, that he dropped out of school at 15 to pursue a performing career. He adopted the name “Nat Cole,” invited brother Eddie, a bass player, to join the band, and made his first recording in 1936 under Eddie’s name. He got his nickname, “King,” inspired by the nursery rhyme, “Old King Cole,” while performing at a jazz club.
The following year, Cole quickly assembled the King Cole Trio, a touring group that landed on the charts in 1943 and 1944 with “That Ain’t Right” and “Straight Up and Fly Right.” They also landed in American homes with pop hits like the holiday classic, “The Christmas Song.” By the 1950s, Cole emerged as a popular solo performer with hits like “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young,” and “Unforgettable.” He worked with greats like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and befriended the likes of Frank Sinatra.
The famous crooner with the honey voice made TV history in 1956 when he became the first black American to host his own national program, The Nat King Cole Show, a variety mix that featured top performers. Unfortunately, the series lasted just one year, going off air in 1957 because of a dearth of sponsors–which, some argue, reflected an unwillingness by businesses to back a program featuring a black American.
As a prominent black American in the civil rights era, Cole struggled to stake his place in the national conversation on race. He was harassed by supremacists during performances in the south, but black Americans also rebuked him for not taking a more public stance on racism and civil rights. Cole said saw himself primarily as an entertainer and not an activist.
On 15 February 1965, Cole died from lung cancer. He was only 45. To this day, the velvet-voiced crooner remains an incredible influence in the music world and his music has found its way into countless films and TV soundtracks.
Credit: © AF archive / Alamy
Caption: Jazz legend Nat “King” Cole in front of a piano.