Nat King Cole was making and setting records for his celebrated music decades before Elvis Presley and The Beatles arrived on the scene. And yet, many of his
statistics still stand up, even though his singing career came to an abrupt close in 1965, when he died of lung cancer.
From 1942, when he and his Nat King Cole Trio became one of the first artists to sign with the fledgling Capitol Records, (a company in which the late Johnny
Mercer, first president of The Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, was a principal), until his death Cole remained with the label, turning out hit after hit.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama on March 17, 1919. His father, Edward James Coles, was a Baptist minister, while his mother, Perlina Adams, was the soprano soloist and director of the choir in her husband’s church. His family later moved north to Chicago, where he grew up. While on a
visit to New York during his early twenties, he met and ultimately married Maria Hawkins, a singer from Boston. Settling in California, the Coles had five children and made their home in Hancock Park in greater Los Angeles.
When the young singer first achieved some modest success, he made several important changes, dropping the “s” from his last name, and adding the new middle nickname, “King.” When he first began attracting recognition, he was more keyboardist than singer, having developed a strong jazz style in his playing. His keyboarding had actually begun at age four, when he picked out “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” on the family piano. Later he filled in for his mother playing organ in the church. Still later, in high school, he organized a 14-piece band with himself as leader and pianist.
In his spare time, Cole also became a hot sandlot baseball player, and while he never made it to the pros, he became an ardent follower of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In 1937, after finishing high school, he wrote his first song, “Straighten up and Fly Right,” which he eventually sold for $50. Continuing to market himself as an instrumentalist, Cole and his newly formed combo, including guitar, bass and drums, along with his piano, finally won some success on the club circuit, at a time when larger band groups and singers were considerably more popular than trios and quartets.
Cole’s singing career began inadvertently when a tipsy customer at a small Hollywood bistro insisted that he sing, “Sweet Lorraine,” which he did to an enthused response, not only from the drunk, but from the entire audience as well. After signing with Capitol Records in 1942, Cole and his trio recorded “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Sweet Lorraine” and “Embraceable You.” All became major hits, the first of an uninterrupted series of smash recordings to follow for the next 20 years.
Cole become an internationally popular recording star, making such enormous hits as “Mona Lisa,” “Nature Boy,” “Too Young,” “Route 66,” “Non Dimenticar,” “Lazy, Crazy, Hazy Days of Summer,” “The Christmas Song” and “Ramblin’ Rose,” among them. For a number of these recordings, the orchestral accompaniment was directed and arranged by the gifted Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins during the early ‘60s.
In 1956, Nat King Cole became star and host of his own network television variety show on NBC-TV on which such guests as Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Mel Torme were spotlighted. The show ultimately failed due to its inability to attract national sponsors because the program was hosted by a black person. Cole voluntarily gave up the show with a simple commentary: “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
Later, Cole was chosen by Paramount Pictures to play W.C. Handy in the movie about the composer’s life, “St. Louis Blues.” During the early ‘60s, Cole also travelled extensively, doing highly successful concert tours of Latin America, Japan, the European Continent and England. In London, he performed at a
Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth II.
Throughout his career, Cole remained extremely close to his wife, Maria, and to their five children, Carol, Natalie, Kelly, and the twins, Timolin and Casey.
Natalie, of course, has followed in her father’s difficult-to-fill footsteps as a highly successful recording artist in her own right. Perhaps her single most popular work to date, was her number one Elektra recording last year of “Unforgettable,” one of her father’s biggest-selling hits of all. Thanks to electronics, she dusted beautifully on the song with the great Nat King Cole himself.