Nathaniel Adams Coles (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965), known professionally as Nat King Cole, was an American singer, jazz pianist, and actor. He recorded over 100 songs that became hits on the pop charts. His trio was the model for small jazz ensembles that followed. Cole also acted in films and on television and performed on Broadway. He was the first African-American man to host an American television series. He was the father of singer-songwriter Natalie Cole (1950–2015).
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919. He had three brothers: Eddie (1910–1970), Ike (1927–2001), and Freddy (1931–2020), and a half-sister, Joyce Coles. Each of the Cole brothers pursued careers in music. When Nat King Cole was four years old, the 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 “Yes! We Have No Bananas” at the age of four. He began formal lessons at 12, learning jazz, gospel, and classical music on piano “from Johann Sebastian Bach to Sergei Rachmaninoff”. As a youth, he joined the news delivery boys’ “Bud Billiken Club” band for The Chicago Defender.
The Cole family moved to the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, where he attended Wendell Phillips Academy High School, the school Sam Cooke attended a few years later. He participated in Walter Dyett’s music program at DuSable High School. He would sneak out of the house to visit clubs, sitting outside to hear Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Jimmie Noone.
When he was 15, Cole dropped out of high school to pursue a music career. After his brother Eddie, a bassist, came home from touring with Noble Sissle, they formed a sextet and recorded two singles for Decca in 1936 as Eddie Cole’s Swingsters. They performed in a revival of the musical Shuffle Along. Nat Cole went on tour with the musical. In 1937, he married Nadine Robinson, who was a member of the cast. After the show ended in Los Angeles, Cole and Nadine settled there while he looked for work. He led a big band, then found work playing piano in nightclubs. When a club owner asked him to form a band, he hired bassist Wesley Prince and guitarist Oscar Moore. They called themselves the King Cole Swingsters after the nursery rhyme in which “Old King Cole was a merry old soul”. They changed their name to the King Cole Trio before making radio transcriptions and recording for small labels.
Cole recorded “Sweet Lorraine” in 1940, and it became his first hit. According to legend, his career as a vocalist started when a drunken bar patron demanded that he sing the song. Cole said that this fabricated story sounded good, so he didn’t argue with it. In fact, there was a customer one night who demanded that he sing, but because it was a song Cole didn’t know, he sang “Sweet Lorraine” instead. As people heard Cole’s vocal talent, they requested more vocal songs, and he obliged.
In 1941, the trio recorded “That Ain’t Right” for Decca, followed the next year by “All for You” for Excelsior. They also recorded “I’m Lost”, a song written by Otis René, the owner of Excelsior.
I started out to become a jazz pianist; in the meantime I started singing and I sang the way I felt and that’s just the way it came out.
— Nat King Cole, Voice of America interview, c.1956.
Cole appeared in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in 1944. He was credited on Mercury as “Shorty Nadine”, a derivative of his wife’s name, because he had an exclusive contract with Capitol since signing with the label the year before. He recorded with Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young.
In 1946, the trio broadcast King Cole Trio Time, a 15-minute radio program. This was the first radio program to be sponsored by a black musician. Between 1946 and 1948, the trio recorded radio transcriptions for Capitol Records Transcription Service. They also performed on the radio programs Swing Soiree, Old Gold, The Chesterfield Supper Club, Kraft Music Hall, and The Orson Welles Almanac.
Cole began recording and performing pop-oriented material in which he was often accompanied by a string orchestra. His stature as a popular star was cemented by hits such as “All for You” (1943), “The Christmas Song” (1947), “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66”, “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” (1946), “There! I’ve Said It Again” (1947), “Nature Boy” (1948), “Frosty The Snowman”, “Mona Lisa” (No. 1 song of 1950), “Orange Colored Sky” (1950), “Too Young” (No. 1 song of 1951).
On June 7, 1953, Cole performed for the famed ninth Cavalcade of Jazz concert held at Wrigley Field in Chicago which was produced by Leon Hefflin, Sr. Also featured that day were Roy Brown and his Orchestra, Shorty Rogers, Earl Bostic, Don Tosti and His Mexican Jazzmen, and Louis Armstrong and his All Stars with Velma Middleton.
On November 5, 1956, The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show debuted on NBC. The variety program was one of the first hosted by an African American. The program started at a length of fifteen-minutes but was increased to a half-hour in July 1957. Rheingold Beer was a regional sponsor, but a national sponsor was never found. The show was in trouble financially despite efforts by NBC, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Frankie Laine, Peggy Lee, and Mel Tormé. Cole decided to end the program. The last episode aired on December 17, 1957. Commenting on the lack of sponsorship, Cole said shortly after its demise, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
Throughout the 1950s, Cole continued to record hits that sold millions throughout the world, such as “Smile”, “Pretend”, “A Blossom Fell”, and “If I May”. His pop hits were collaborations with Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Ralph Carmichael. Riddle arranged several of Cole’s 1950s albums, including Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love (1953), his first 10-inch LP. In 1955, “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” reached number 7 on the Billboard chart. Love Is the Thing went to number one in April 1957 remained his only number one album.
In 1959, he received a Grammy Award for Best Performance By a “Top 40” Artist for “Midnight Flyer”.
In 1958, Cole went to Havana, Cuba, to record Cole Español, an album sung entirely in Spanish. It was so popular in Latin America and the U.S. that it was followed by two more Spanish-language albums: A Mis Amigos (1959) and More Cole Español (1962).
After the change in musical tastes, Cole’s ballads appealed little to young listeners, despite a successful attempt at rock and roll with “Send for Me”, which peaked at number 6 on the pop chart. Like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett, he found that the pop chart had been taken over by youth-oriented acts.
In 1960, Cole’s longtime collaborator Nelson Riddle left Capitol to join Reprise Records, which was established by Frank Sinatra. Riddle and Cole recorded one final hit album, Wild Is Love, with lyrics by Ray Rasch and Dotty Wayne. Cole later retooled the concept album into an Off-Broadway show, I’m with You.
Nevertheless, Cole recorded several hit singles during the 1960s, including “Let There Be Love” with George Shearing in 1961, the country-flavored hit “Ramblin’ Rose” in August 1962 (reaching # 2 on the Pop chart), “Dear Lonely Hearts” (#13), “That Sunday, That Summer” (#12) and “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” (his final top-ten hit, reaching number 6 on the Pop chart). He 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. He 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.
Earlier on, Cole’s shift to traditional pop led some jazz critics and fans to accuse him of selling out, but he never abandoned his jazz roots; as late as 1956 he recorded an all-jazz album, After Midnight, and many of his albums after this are fundamentally jazz-based, being scored for big band without strings, although the arrangements focus primarily on the vocal rather than instrumental leads.
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 number 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.
Nat’s final studio album was titled, “L-O-V-E”. The album peaked at #4 on the Billboard Albums chart in the spring of 1965.
Around the time Cole launched his singing career, he entered into Freemasonry. He was raised in January 1944 in the Thomas Waller Lodge No. 49 in California. The lodge was named after fellow Prince Hall mason and jazz musician Fats Waller. He joined the Scottish Rite Freemasonry, becoming Master Mason. Cole was “an avid baseball fan”, particularly of Hank Aaron. In 1968, Nelson Riddle related an incident from some years earlier and told of music studio engineers, searching for a source of noise, finding Cole listening to a game on a transistor radio.
Marriages and children
Cole met his first wife, Nadine Robinson, while they were on tour for the all-black Broadway musical Shuffle Along. He was 18 when they married. She was the reason he moved to Los Angeles and formed the Nat King Cole trio. This marriage ended in divorce in 1948. On March 28, 1948 (Easter Sunday), six days after his divorce became final, Cole married the singer Maria Hawkins. The Coles were married in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. They had five children: Natalie (1950–2015), who had a successful career as a singer before dying of congestive heart failure at age 65; an adopted daughter, Carole (1944–2009, the daughter of Maria’s sister), who died of lung cancer at the age of 64; an adopted son, Nat Kelly Cole (1959–1995), who died of AIDS at the age of 36; and twin daughters, Casey and Timolin (born September 26, 1961), whose birth was announced in the “Milestones” column of Time magazine on October 6, 1961. Maria supported him during his final illness and stayed with him until his death. In an interview, she emphasized his musical legacy and the class he exhibited despite his imperfections.
Experiences with racism
In August 1948, Cole purchased a house from Col. Harry Gantz, the former husband of the silent film actress Lois Weber, in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Ku Klux Klan, which was active in Los Angeles in the 1950s, responded by placing a burning cross on his front lawn. Members of the property-owners association told Cole they did not want any “undesirables” moving into the neighborhood. Cole responded, “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”
In 1956 Cole was contracted to perform in Cuba. He wanted to stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana but was refused because it operated a color bar. Cole honored his contract, and the concert at the Tropicana Club was a huge success. During the following year, he returned to Cuba for another concert, singing many songs in Spanish.
In 1956 Cole was assaulted on stage during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, with the Ted Heath Band while singing the song “Little Girl”. Having circulated photographs of Cole with white female fans bearing incendiary boldface captions reading “Cole and His White Women” and “Cole and Your Daughter” three men belonging to the North Alabama Citizens Council assaulted Cole, apparently attempting to kidnap him. The three assailants ran down the aisles of the auditorium towards Cole. Local law enforcement quickly ended the invasion of the stage, but in the ensuing mêlée Cole was toppled from his piano bench and injured his back. He did not finish the concert. A fourth member of the group was later arrested. All were tried and convicted. Cole received a slight back injury during the scuffle. Six men, including 23-year-old Willie Richard Vinson, were formally charged with assault with intent to murder him, but later the charge against four of them was changed to conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor. The original plan to attack Cole included 150 men from Birmingham and nearby towns.
After being attacked in Birmingham, Cole said, “I can’t understand it … I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?” Cole said he wanted to forget the incident and continued to play for segregated audiences in the south. He said he could not change the situation in a day. He contributed money to the Montgomery bus boycott and had sued northern hotels that had hired him but refused to serve him. Thurgood Marshall, the chief legal counsel of the NAACP, called him an Uncle Tom and said he should perform with a banjo. Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, wrote him a telegram that said, “You have not been a crusader or engaged in an effort to change the customs or laws of the South. That responsibility, newspapers quote you as saying, you leave to the other guys. That attack upon you clearly indicates that organized bigotry makes no distinction between those who do not actively challenge racial discrimination and those who do. This is a fight which none of us can escape. We invite you to join us in a crusade against racism.”
The Chicago Defender said Cole’s performances for all-white audiences were an insult to his race. The New York Amsterdam News said that “thousands of Harlem blacks who have worshiped at the shrine of singer Nat King Cole turned their backs on him this week as the noted crooner turned his back on the NAACP and said that he will continue to play to Jim Crow audiences”. To play “Uncle Nat’s” discs, wrote a commentator in The American Negro, “would be supporting his ‘traitor’ ideas and narrow way of thinking”. Deeply hurt by the criticism in the black press, Cole was chastened. Emphasizing his opposition to racial segregation “in any form”, he agreed to join other entertainers in boycotting segregated venues. He paid $500 to become a lifetime member of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. Until his death in 1965, Cole was an active and visible participant in the civil rights movement, playing an important role in planning the March on Washington in 1963.
Cole performed in 1956 for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s televised birthday celebration. At the 1956 Republican National Convention, he sang “That’s All There Is to That” and was “greeted with applause”. He was also present at the Democratic National Convention in 1960 to support Senator John F. Kennedy. He was among the dozens of entertainers recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the Kennedy Inaugural gala in 1961. Cole consulted with President Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, on civil rights.
Illness and death
In September 1964, Cole began to lose weight and he experienced back problems. He collapsed with pain after performing at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. In December, he was working in San Francisco when he was finally persuaded by friends to seek medical help. A malignant tumor in an advanced state of growth on his left lung was observed on a chest X-ray. Cole, who had been a heavy cigarette smoker, had lung cancer and was expected to have only months to live. Against his doctors’ wishes, Cole carried on his work and made his final recordings between December 1 and 3 in San Francisco, with an orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael. The music was released on the album L-O-V-E shortly before his death. His daughter noted later that he did this to assure the welfare of his family.
Cole entered Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica on December 7, and cobalt therapy was started on December 10. Frank Sinatra performed in Cole’s place at the grand opening of the new Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center on December 12. Cole’s condition gradually worsened, but he was released from the hospital over the New Year’s period. At home Cole was able to see the hundreds of thousands of cards and letters that had been sent after news of his illness was made public. Cole returned to the hospital in early January. He also sent $5,000 (US$41,722 in 2020 dollars) to actress and singer Gunilla Hutton, with whom he had been romantically involved since early 1964. Hutton later telephoned Maria and implored her to divorce him. Maria confronted her husband, and Cole finally broke off the relationship with Hutton. Cole’s illness reconciled him with his wife, and he vowed that if he recovered he would go on television to urge people to stop smoking. On January 25, Cole’s entire left lung was surgically removed. His father died of heart problems on February 1. Throughout Cole’s illness his publicists promoted the idea that he would soon be well and working, despite the private knowledge of his terminal condition. Billboard magazine reported that “Nat King Cole has successfully come through a serious operation and… the future looks bright for ‘the master’ to resume his career again”. On Valentine’s Day, Cole and his wife briefly left St. John’s to drive by the sea. He died at the hospital early in the morning of February 15, 1965.
Cole’s funeral was held on February 18 at St.James’ Episcopal Church on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles; 400 people were present, and thousands gathered outside the church. Hundreds of members of the public had filed past the coffin the day before. Honorary pallbearers included Robert F. Kennedy, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis, George Burns, Danny Thomas, Jimmy Durante, Alan Livingston, Frankie Laine, Steve Allen, and Pat Brown (the governor of California). The eulogy was delivered by Jack Benny, who said that “Nat Cole was a man who gave so much and still had so much to give. He gave it in song, in friendship to his fellow man, devotion to his family. He was a star, a tremendous success as an entertainer, an institution. But he was an even greater success as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a friend.” Cole’s remains were interred in Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California.
Cole’s last album, L-O-V-E, was recorded in early December 1964—just a few days before he entered the hospital for cancer treatment—and was released just before he died. It peaked at number 4 on the Billboard Albums chart in the spring of 1965. A Best Of album was certified a gold record in 1968. His 1957 recording of “When I Fall in Love” reached number 4 in the UK charts in 1987, released in reaction to a version by Rick Astley challenging for the coveted Christmas number 1 spot.
In 1983, an archivist for EMI Electrola Records, a subsidiary of EMI Records (Capitol’s parent company) in Germany, discovered some unreleased recordings by Cole, including one in Japanese and another in Spanish (“Tu Eres Tan Amable”). Capitol released them later that year as the LP Unreleased.
In 1991, Mosaic Records released The Complete Capitol Records Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio, a compilation of 349 songs available as an 18-CD or a 27-LP set. In 2008 it was re-released in digital-download format through services like iTunes and Amazon Music.
Also in 1991, Natalie Cole recorded a new vocal track that was mixed with her father’s 1961 stereo re-recording of his 1951 hit “Unforgettable” for a tribute album of the same title. The song and album won seven Grammy awards in 1992 for Best Album and Best Song.
His hit singles include “Straighten Up and Fly Right” 1944 #8, “The Christmas Song” 1946/1962/2018 #?/#65/#11, “Nature Boy” 1948 #1, “Mona Lisa 1950 #1, “Frosty, The Snowman” 1950 #9, “Too Young” 1951 #1, “Unforgettable” 1951 #12, “Somewhere Along the Way” 1952 #8, “Answer Me, My Love” 1954 #6, “A Blossom Fell” 1955 #2, “If I May” 1955 #8, “Send for Me” 1957 #6, “Looking Back” 1958 #5, “Ramblin’ Rose” 1962 #2, “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer” 1963 #6, “Unforgettable” 1991 (with daughter Natalie)
|1943||Here Comes Elmer||Himself|
|1943||Pistol Packin’ Mama||As part of the King Cole Trio||Uncredited|
|1944||Pin Up Girl||Canteen pianist||Uncredited|
|1944||Stars on Parade||As part of the King Cole Trio|
|1944||Swing in the Saddle||As part of the King Cole Trio||Uncredited|
|1944||See My Lawyer||Specialty act||As part of the King Cole Trio|
|1944||Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t My Baby?||Himself||Short subject|
|1945||Frim Fram Sauce||Himself||Short subject|
|1946||Breakfast in Hollywood||As part of the King Cole Trio|
|1946||Errand Boy for Rhythm||Himself||Short subject|
|1946||Come to Baby Do||Himself||Short subject|
|1948||Killer Diller||Himself||As part of the King Cole Trio|
|1949||Make Believe Ballroom||Himself||As part of the King Cole Trio|
|1950||King Cole Trio & Benny Carter Orchestra||Himself||Short subject|
|1951||You Call It Madness||Himself||Short subject|
|1951||When I Fall in Love||Himself||Short subject|
|1951||The Trouble with Me Is You||Himself||Short subject|
|1951||Sweet Lorraine||Himself||Short subject|
|1951||Route 66||Himself||Short subject|
|1951||Nature Boy||Himself||Short subject|
|1951||Mona Lisa||Himself||Short subject|
|1951||For Sentimental Reasons||Himself||Short subject|
|1951||Calypso Blues||Himself||Short subject|
|1952||Nat “King” Cole and Joe Adams Orchestra||Himself||Short subject|
|1953||The Blue Gardenia||Himself|
|1953||Small Town Girl||Himself|
|1953||Nat “King” Cole and Russ Morgan and His Orchestra||Himself||Short subject|
|1955||Kiss Me Deadly||Singer||Voice|
|1955||Rhythm and Blues Revue||Himself||Documentary|
|1955||Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue||Himself||Short subject|
|1955||The Nat ‘King’ Cole Musical Story||Himself||Short subject|
|1955||Rhythm and Blues Revue||Himself||Documentary|
|1956||The Scarlet Hour||Nightclub vocalist|
|1956||Basin Street Revue||Himself|
|1958||St. Louis Blues||W. C. Handy|
|1959||Night of the Quarter Moon||Cy Robbin||A.k.a. The Color of Her Skin|
|1959||Premier Khrushchev in the USA||Himself||Documentary|
|1965||Cat Ballou||Shouter||Released posthumously, (final film role)|
|1989||Benny Carter: Symphony in Riffs||Himself||Documentary|
|1950||The Ed Sullivan Show||Himself||14 episodes|
|1951–1952||Texaco Star Theatre||Himself||3 episodes|
|1952–1955||The Jackie Gleason Show||Himself||2 episodes|
|1953||The Red Skelton Show||Himself||Episode #2.20|
|1953–1961||What’s My Line?||“Mystery guest”||2 episodes|
|1954–1955||The Colgate Comedy Hour||Himself||4 episodes|
|1955||Ford Star Jubilee||Himself||2 episodes|
|1956–1957||The Nat King Cole Show||Host||42 episodes|
|1957–1960||The Dinah Shore Chevy Show||Himself||2 episodes|
|1958||The Patti Page Show||Himself||Episode #1.5|
|1959||The Perry Como Show||Himself||Episode: January 17, 1959|
|1959||The George Gobel Show||Himself||Episode #5.10|
|1960||The Steve Allen Show||Himself||Episode #5.21|
|1960||This Is Your Life||Himself||Episode: “Nat King Cole”|
|1960||Academy Award Songs||Himself||TV movie|
|1960||Special Gala to Support Kennedy Campaign||Himself||TV movie|
|1961||Main Event||Himself||TV movie|
|1961–1964||The Garry Moore Show||Himself||4 episodes|
|1962–1964||The Jack Paar Program||Himself||4 episodes|
|1963||An Evening with Nat King Cole||Himself||TV movie|
|1963||An Evening with Nat King Cole||Himself||BBC Television special|
|1963||The Danny Kaye Show||Himself||Episode #1.14|
|1964||Freedom Spectacular||Himself||TV movie|
|1964||The Jack Benny Program||Nat||Episode: “Nat King Cole, Guest”|
Awards and honors
Cole was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990. He was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2007. A United States postage stamp with Cole’s likeness was issued in 1994. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2013.
Cole’s success at Capitol Records, for which he recorded more than 150 singles that reached the Billboard Pop, R&B, and Country charts, has yet to be matched by any Capitol artist. His records sold 50 million copies during his career. His recording of “The Christmas Song” still receives airplay every holiday season, even hitting the Billboard Top 40 in December 2017.
In popular culture
Cole’s music is used throughout Wong Kar-wai’s romantic drama In the Mood for Love (2000) including the songs, “Aquellos Ojos Verdes”, “Te Quiero Dijiste”, “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”. Cole’s song L-O-V-E was used at the beginning of Nancy Meyers’ The Parent Trap (1998) with his daughter singing, Everlasting Love as the ending credits song. Cole’s music was also used in Terence Davies’ film The Long Day Closes (1990) including his rendition of The Long Day Closes.