Nat "King" Cole Biography

Nathaniel Adams Coles, 17 March 1919 (although 1916 and 1917 have also been cited), Montgomery, Alabama, USA, d. 15 February 1965, Santa Monica, California, USA. Cole was born into a family that was both deeply religious and intensely musical. He learned to play piano at home when only four years old through his mother, Perlina Adams Coles, and, later, played organ at the church of which his father, Edward James Coles, was pastor. By then, the family was living in Chicago where they had moved in the early 20s. He took lessons in the classics but this was Chicago and jazz was the exciting popular music of the younger generation. At school, he led a dance band and also played piano in a group led by his bass-playing older brother, Eddie. Like Eddie, he dropped the last letter of the family name for professional purposes. It was with Eddie, who had played with Noble Sissle’s band, that he made his first recordings, in 1936, by which time he had decided firmly upon a career as a professional musician. He and Eddie joined the pit band for a touring revival of Shuffle Along, a show in which one of the chorus line, Nadine Robinson, attracted Cole’s eye and they were married.

Stranded in Los Angeles when the show folded, Cole looked for club work and found it along Central Avenue, a kind of west coast equivalent of New York’s 52nd Street, and most successfully at the Century Club in Santa Monica. It was a hangout for musicians and the young pianist made a splash. In particular, he was heard by Bob Lewis of the Swannee Inn who hired him but also, and portentously, suggested he add a guitar and bass to form a trio. The new additions were guitarist Oscar Moore and bass player Wesley Prince. This was late in 1937 and for the next seven years the group rose in popular but still largely local acclaim despite having a weekly NBC radio show for a time in 1938. Almost from the start of the trio’s existence, Cole’s sparkling piano playing and his near-telepathic interplay with Moore and the lithe ensembles had been interspersed with songs from Cole. These were sometimes popular novelties, sometimes ballads. Reports of the time suggest he sang more in the recording studios than at live engagements, but, as Cole later observed, ‘The vocals caught on’, an understatement indeed.

Late in 1943, the group, which had been dubbed ‘The King Cole Trio’ by either Lewis or Prince, was signed by the fledgling Capitol Records. Before then, Cole had recorded for Decca Records as well as various indies, notably Excelsior, but was not heavily promoted. His career at Capitol Records was very different; he became the company’s flagship recording star and his first title on his first session, ‘Straighten Up And Fly Right’, became a hit. He continued to make hit records for Capitol Records - their famous landmark studios becoming known as ‘the tower that Nat built’ - but, gradually at first and then with increasing momentum, there was a shift away from his jazz-orientated work towards a superior form of popular ballad singing as he became one of the most acclaimed international superstars of his generation.

In some critical writings, Cole’s success as a pop singer has been declared a loss to jazz, and in particular bop piano playing. The implication of ‘selling out’ in such statements is a too narrow view and largely unjustified. Without question, Cole was a major figure in the development of jazz piano. Stylistically indebted to Earl Hines in early years, he developed a fluid approach to emergent bop which miraculously blended the swing of Hines, the intricacies of Art Tatum, the elegance of Teddy Wilson, and the contemporaneous advances of Bud Powell. Cole did it all - once he had outgrown his early idolisation of Hines - without being a copyist. His was a distinctive piano style, breathtaking in its dexterity, ingenuity and inventiveness, yet always melodic and subtle. His singing, first an adjunct to his piano playing, had many instrumental qualities. He swung, he was comfortably relaxed, managing the difficult task of singing fractionally behind the beat of his own accompaniment, and he was always melodic and tuneful - even when singing novelties. With up-tempo songs, for Cole there was never any hint of rushing. Like a good jazz instrumentalist, even the flag-wavers were delivered with controlled elegance. As for ballads, over the years he became incomparable among male vocalists. His years at Capitol Records, which fully document his shift from jazz star to pop superstardom, included hits such as Mel Tormé’s ‘The Christmas Song’, ‘Sweet Lorraine’ (his theme, which he had also recorded pre-Capitol), ‘Nature Boy’, ‘Baby, Won’t You Say You Love Me’ and ‘Mona Lisa’.

In areas outside music, Cole was a discreet propagandist for racial equality - so discreet that he was sometimes slighted by more outwardly radical black groups who objected to what he saw as necessary compromises. He bought a house in Los Angeles’ fashionable Hancock Park, overcoming objections from entrenched white neighbours who sought to buy him off; was dignified in his response to being physically assaulted on stage in Birmingham during a concert tour with the best swing band in the UK, led by Ted Heath; and he hosted a weekly television show with enormous charm despite the fact that there was a long-running and eventually fruitless struggle to secure a sponsor as no national company wanted its products associated with a black man.

Before his death from lung cancer, in 1965 Cole was planning a production of James Baldwin’s play, Amen Corner, showing an interest in radical black literature at odds with his image as a popular singer of often sentimental songs. In his earliest vocal recordings his pronunciation of certain words, vowel sounds and the dropping of final consonants particularly, show his southern roots. Although he changed this over the years, according to some observers at the behest of his second wife, Marie Ellington, some of the original sound was still there at the end thus helping give him a delightfully melismatic way with certain words that helped enhance his vocal style. This, his innate good taste, dignity, and sheer musicality contributed to his undying appeal. After his death, biographies, television documentaries and tributes, and albums galore appeared - not all showing the gentlemanly dignity with which he had conducted himself throughout his life. In the end, his greatest legacy - the only one that matters - is that he remains to this day an immensely popular artist. His jazz records remain highlights in any collection, especially for those interested in the development of jazz piano. His vocal records display a hugely talented, pleasant-voiced, intensely musical singer, blessed with almost flawless good taste, who has, by some magical process, proved capable of appealing to audiences which cross class, race, nationality, and age. Such is the quality of the records of this modest man that they have found popularity with people not born at the time of his tragically early death. Nat ‘King’ Cole’s life and career shine like beacons from a dark period of American history and have continued ever since to illuminate popular music.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.