Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


COLE, Nat 'King'

(b Nathaniel Adams Coles, 17 March 1917, Montgomery AL; d 15 February 1965, Santa Monica CA) Jazz pianist leading a trio, then a leading ballad singer from late '40s until death from lung cancer. He grew up in Chicago, his father a Baptist minister; his brothers Eddie, Fred and Isaac were all musicians; he led his own band '34 and organized a big band to tour with Shuffle Along revue, ending on West Coast playing clubs as solo pianist. Formed King Cole Trio '39 with guitarist Oscar Moore (b 25 December 1912, Austin TX; d 8 October 1981, Las Vegas), whose electric guitar was still unusual then, and bassist Wesley Prince, replaced later by Johnny Miller: the story was that a drummer didn't show up first night at Hollywood's Swanee Inn and they decided they didn't need one.

Cole was a superb jazz pianist influenced by Earl Hines, underrated because of his later huge success as a vocalist; the trio's tasteful style had piano and guitar integrated, and unison singing; Cole's vocals became more and more popular. Cole also wrote; his best-known song was the trio's first hit 'Straighten Up And Fly Right' '42. Toured with Benny Carter '44-5; made films Here Comes Elmer '43, Stars On Parade '44, Breakfast In Hollywood '46, Make Believe Ballroom '49. Irving Ashby (later with Oscar Peterson) and Joe Comfort replaced Moore and Miller; the trio recorded for Decca, Atlas, Excelsior, then Capitol. Cole's earliest recordings 1936-41 are compiled on EPM/Allegro; The MacGregor Years 1941-5 are transcriptions for broadcast, with vocalists including Anita O'Day, complete on a Music and Arts CD; complete transcriptions (made for radio broadcast) 1937-48 on five VJC CDs; Hit That Jive, Jack: The Earliest Recordings 1940-41 on Decca Jazz compiled the Deccas; The Complete Capitol Recordings Of The Nat Cole Trio began October 1942 and filled 18 CDs in a Mosaic set; Anatomy Of A Jam Session '45 on Black Lion has Cole, Buddy Rich, Herbie Haymer, Charlie Shavers and John Simmons; there are also recordings with Lester Young, Dexter Gordon etc in and out of print. Hittin' The Ramp: The Early Years 1936-1943 (2020) was a 7-CD compilation (or 10 LPs) on Resonance, the completest yet, with a 60-page booklet.

Cole's voice and vocal phrasing were already exceptional; then he had three no. 1 hits with ballad material: 'I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)' '46, 'Nature Boy' '48 accompanied by Frank DeVol orchestra, and 'Mona Lisa' arranged by Nelson Riddle '50.

The trio was dissolved late '51; he became one of USA's best-loved artists, not a 'sepia Sinatra' but a star in his own right, with 78 Billboard hit singles '44-64 (more than three a year), 49 of them in the top 40. Highlights: 'Too Young' (no. 1), 'Unforgettable' (14), both '51; biggest of three covers of 'Pretend' '53; 'Answer Me, My Love' '54; 'Ballerina' and 'Send For Me' '57. The EP Love Is The Thing made no. 79 on the singles chart '57 with 'Stardust', perhaps the best-loved American song, reviving the beautiful introduction to the verse; composer Hoagy Carmichael said it was his favourite version. Cole was beaten by members of White Citizens Council at a '56 concert in Birmingham AL; next year a TV series failed allegedly because of racist sponsors; this was at a time of reaction to rock'n'roll, and nothing to do with Cole except that stupid racists perceived his as 'nigger music', while one-stop record dealers distributing to shops in black neighbourhoods reported that Elvis Presley records sold better there than Cole's. Yet Brook Benton, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, many others had heard Cole all their lives; his smoothness and lovely vocal colour had its effect on soul music. Chuck Berry said, 'If I had only one artist to listen to through eternity, it would be Nat Cole' (reported by Arnold Shaw).

Cole made films Blue Gardenia and Small Town Girl '53, Istanbul and China Gate '57; St Louis Blues '58 (portraying W. C. Handy; soundtrack LP charted), Night Of The Quarter Moon '59, sang title song Cat Ballou '65. Two dozen LPs '56-66 in the top 100 of Billboard LP chart included Ballads Of The Day '56 (reissued as Close-Up), After Midnight '57 (re-created trio with John Collins, guitar; Charlie Harris, bass, adding Lee Young on drums and with solos by Willie Smith, Harry Edison, Stuff Smith and Juan Tizol), no. 1 LP '57 Love Is The Thing (with 'Stardust') and The Very Thought Of You '58 with Gordon Jenkins, To Whom It May Concern '58 with Riddle, Nat Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays '62. Welcome To The Club '58 with a big band pleased jazz fans: the band was Count Basie's, with Gerald Wiggins on piano. The Nat 'King' Cole Story was a three-LP set, later in USA on separate LPs (re-created some trio selections in stereo '61). The Unforgettable Nat King Cole '88 was an Arena special on UK TV made by Jo Lustig, the first film to be made with Maria Cole's permission; Lustig was Cole's press agent during a European tour '60, and says he was just as nice and unflappable a man as he seemed to be on stage. There have been countless compilations of one of the century's most popular singers; some of his best-known songs may have been drippy, but as he put it, 'You never lose that jazz feeling.'

Maria Cole (b 1 August 1922, Boston; d 10 July 2012, Boca Raton FL) had sung with Benny Carter, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington; she and Nat were married in 1948. Their daughter Natalie Cole was a successful recording artist and actress who recorded duets with her late father using studio wizardry ('Unforgettable', '91). By 1994 Natalie had had 16 chart albums in Billboard. Nat's brother Freddy Cole (b 15 October 1931, Chicago; d 27 June 2020, Atlanta) also had a successful career as a pianist and singer.