Nat King Cole

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  • Biography
  • Back Stories
  • First Person
  • The Great Songs
  • Career Highlights

Art imitates life, especially when it comes to the popular singer and the movies. Many an artist has taken a film role that was very close to his or her own life, with only the names changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

From the beginning of his career, Nat sang along with his own piano playing. He would sit on the bench with his torso cocked toward the audience while his hands roamed the keys.

There’s Judy Garland in I Could Go on Singing, Fred Astaire in both Royal Wedding and The Band Wagon—and then there’s Nat King Cole in St. Louis Blues. In this classic biopic Cole stars as the great composer W.C. Handy, author of the title song and other great blues numbers.

As the film unfolds, Handy’s father, a preacher, disapproves of his son’s interest in the devil’s music. He rants and raves about the perils of a life given over to such debauchery. Nat King Cole’s real life followed the same path. His father, Edward Coles, was a Baptist minister cursed with children who tended to show a penchant for music. Nat gravitated toward the piano and by age four he’d begun picking out tunes he heard in church. As he got older, he secretly listened to secular music on the radio, particularly jazz and blues. While playing piano and organ in his father’s church, he would occasionally throw in a hot jazz lick or blues note. He usually got a whipping for his mischief but he didn’t mind, he enjoyed the music too much.

Edward Coles expected his boys to follow in his footsteps and devote their lives to the ministry. They had other ideas. Nat began a small group called the Rogues of Rhythm. He quit school to devote time to the band and played many engagements. Nat’s brother Eddie, a pianist and bass player, played with several groups and toured the country before returning to Chicago to join the Rogues of Rhythm. For his troubles, the group soon became known as Eddie Cole’s Band (much to Nat’s disappointment) and then Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers. Under that name, they recorded for Decca’s Sepia Label, devoted to what were called “race records.”

The band was folded into the orchestra of a revival of Sissle and Blake’s famous musical Shuffle Along, which was making a run for Broadway. It didn’t quite get that far--in fact, the show closed about as far from Broadway as a show can get—Los Angeles. The producers ran out of money and the cast and orchestra found themselves stranded on the west coast.

Nat, by this time married to a woman of whom his father disapproved, decided to play it safe by playing piano in Los Angeles. When Bob Lewis, owner of the Swanee Inn, heard Nat play at the Century Club, he proposed that he put together a small group and make the Swanee Inn their base.

Nat contacted guitarist Oscar Moore, bassist Wesley Prince, and drummer Lee Young to join the new group. Young failed to appear on opening night, experiencing doubt about the new group and Cole’s leadership. At the time, small combos were often used for intimate functions where the size of a big band was inappropriate, but a trio or quartet was considered inadequate for serious jazz. Young just didn’t believe that a small group had suitable instrumentation to make effective music. Nat had no choice: The group went on as a drumless trio—and made history.

It was Nat’s talents as a superior player that made the trio work so well. He could keep the rhythms usually supplied by the drums with his left hand while his right described delicious variations on the melody. Cole combined the stride techniques of Earl Hines, his major influence, with the melodic training he gained working at his father’s church.

The trio became the most influential small group of its day, especially after they started recording for Decca in 1943. Not surprisingly, it was also the most commercially successful. The King Cole Trio started a new trend in jazz and suddenly, the music scene was loaded with trios and quintets. They might not have been imitations, but they certainly owed their existence to the King Cole Trio’s popularity. Among the small groups that followed in King Cole’s footsteps were the Barbara Carroll Trio, the George Shearing Quintet, the Errol Garner Trio, the Page Cavanaugh Trio, and the Art Van Damme Quintet.

From the beginning of his career, Nat sang along with his own piano playing. He would sit on the bench with his torso cocked toward the audience while his hands roamed the keys. Sitting ramrod straight and beaming a wide smile, Cole would serenade his listeners, lending another musical line to the trio’s instrumentation. He didn’t make a big deal of his singing, nor did he do it often at first, but gradually his singing became an integral part of the act.

In the 1946 smash hit, “The Christmas Song,” his vocal was the dominant sound on the recording, proving once and for all that he could carry a song with his voice. By the time he married his second wife, Maria, in 1948, the trio was starting to fall apart. The original members of the trio were gone, replacements were coming and going, strings entered the arrangements, and the writing was on the wall: in 1955 the trio was all but kaput. Nat was already making solo recordings for Capitol and, more and more, was stepping away from the piano to sing standing in front of a mike.

And for his newfound solo career, Nat veered away from jazz and into pop. The talent was all still there but he found himself caught up in the schlock of the sixties, as did many of his contemporaries. If he hadn’t died in 1965, would he have suffered the fate of so many other greats? We’ll never know—but the mark he made on jazz in the forties is enough to ensure his legacy in the history of jazz vocals. (KB)

The start

During an engagement at the Swanee Inn nightclub in Los Angeles, a drunk in the audience insisted that Cole sing “Sweet Lorraine.” Cole had never sung in public before but, to keep the guy quiet, acquiesced and thus started his singing career.Sweet Lorraine

A sermon he never forgot

As a child, Nat King Cole heard a sermon and never forgot it. He wrote the song (and there’s the king of the cut-in, Irving Mills, credited as lyricist) but was so desperate for money, he sold the rights for $50.Straighten Up and Fly Right

Away from the lights

“The Man I Love” is that rare Gershwin brothers song that achieved fame away from the lights of Broadway. Not that there wasn’t a concerted effort to use the song in a show. It was written for the Fred and Adele Astaire vehicle Lady, Be Good! but cut in Philadelphia. In 1927, it was inserted into the score of Strike Up the Band (as “The Girl I Love”) but that show closed out of town. Its final stage appearance was in Rosalie (1928), where it was sung by Marilyn Miller, but again it was cut before the show reached Broadway. Lady Mountbatten introduced the song, by then published, to the haut monde in England and it soon conquered the continent, too. Finally, America woke up to the song and it became a hit in the States in the thirties.The Man I Love

A most odd song

This most odd popular song with its homoerotic subtext was written by eden ahbez (he didn’t believe humans were deserving of capital letters). The writer gave the manuscript of the song to the stage doorman at a theatre in which Cole was performing. Taken with the odd melody and lyrics, Cole recorded the song and its release squeaked by just before the infamous recording ban.Nature Boy

What kind of a song is that?

Veteran songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote a song titled “Prima Donna” and sent the music to Cole. He rejected the song, as had Frank Sinatra before him. The songwriters asked if they could come to his house and perform the song for him and he agreed out of respect for the writers’ reputation. They arrived to sing the song, now titled “Mona Lisa,” with a few changes in the music and lyrics. Cole asked, “What kind of a song is that?” but when he heard it he changed his mind. Cole’s wife was convinced the song was all wrong for him and asked, “Why are you doing an Italian song?” “Mona Lisa” ended up winning an Academy Award and became the best-selling song of Cole’s career.Mona Lisa

Nothing to be proud of

"My voice is nothing to be proud of. It runs maybe two octaves in range. I guess it's the hoarse, breathy noise that some like."Nat King Cole to the Saturday Evening Post

A casual approach

"Mine is a casual approach to a song; I lean heavily on the lyrics. By that I mean I try to tell a story with the melody as background."Nat King Cole to Down Beat

Born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama. May have been born in 1917.
Cole learns to play piano; Family moves to Chicago.
Begins formal piano lessons.
Makes first records for Decca’s Sepia Series as a member of The Solid Swingers, led by brother Eddie Cole.
Joins road company of Shuffle Along; Marries Nadine Robinson; Settles in Los Angeles.
Bob Lewis, owner of Swanee Inn in Los Angeles, suggests Cole put together small group for the inn; Nat King Cole trio formed; Bassist Wesley Prince dubs him Nat “King” Cole.
Trio signs with Decca Records; Bases itself in New York City.
First session with Capitol Records.
Records “The Christmas Song,” first time his vocal is dominant; Begins radio show.
Marries Marie Ellington on March 28 (Calls her Maria).
Adopts Carol.
Natalie Cole born on February 6.
King Cole Trio disbanded.
His 15-minute television show premieres on NBC but no sponsor can be found; attacked on stage in Birmingham, Alabama. by racists, vows never to play the south again
Appears in film St. Louis Blues as W.C. Handy.
Adopts son Kelly.
Twins, Casey and Timolin, born.
Appears in Cat Ballou.
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Hip Hip Hooray
The Nat King Cole Trio
It's Only A Paper Moon
Nat King Cole Trio
Music by Gershwin, 2/19/1934 (15 minutes, courtesy J. Fred MacDonald)
George Gershwin, Louis Katzman and orchestra
Swanee River
Nat King Cole Trio
Sweet Lorraine
The Nat King Cole Trio
The Sheik Of Araby
Nat King Cole Trio
The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD