Image Courtesy of the
African American Museum of Philadelphia
Jazz pianist and popular singer Nathaniel Adams Coles was born into a musical family in Montgomery, Alabama in 1919. His mother was a choir director in his father’s Baptist church and his three brothers became professional musicians. Cole started playing the piano at age four and organized his first jazz group, The Musical Dukes, in his teens.
Cole’s unique style of singing has aptly been described as velvet and silk. Cole applied it successfully to a variety of musical material and thus influenced other performers of the era. An arranger-musical director, he formed his instrumental group, The King Cole Trio, in 1939 in Los Angeles. They attracted wide attention in 1943 with their recording, “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Cole began to concentrate more on singing backed by a larger orchestra, and in 1948-49, had his own radio show. By 1952, he was singing more than playing jazz, and recorded such favorites as “Stardust” and “Ain’t Misbehavin.” He also had hits with “When I Fall in Love,” “Where Can I Go,” “Love Letters,” and “Mona Lisa.” The most popular of Cole’s songs of the era was “Unforgettable”
In 1956 Nat King Cole became the first African American entertainer to have his own nationally syndicated television show. Ratings were poor and bigotry kept sponsors away. He was also a victim of a vicious racist attack by six white men in his native state of Alabama that same year while performing on stage in Birmingham.
Cole appeared in popular films, among them China Gate and Cat Ballou. He received numerous awards and traveled internationally. Nat King Cole died in Santa Monica, California in 1965. His two daughters, Carole and Natalie, became professional singers.
Eileen Southern, Biographical Dictionary of Afro American and African
Musicians (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982) ; Nicolas Slonimsky,
Bokers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (London: Schirmer Books,
1984); Jim Irwin & Colin McLear, The Mojo Collection (NY:
University of Washington