A biography of Nat King Cole - By Roy Holmes
In this day and age we accept without question the astronomical salaries,
media coverage and influence of black superstars such as Michael Jackson,
Bill Cosby, Prince, Oprah Winfrey etc. but it is only a few short years
ago that the media coverage they now receive would have been impossible
under the social structure and public acceptance at that time. It was
pioneers such as Nat King Cole who paved the way for the progress of
the black performer.
There were, of course, other artists such as Louis Armstrong, Ella
Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday who helped to bridge the social divide
by appealing to certain sections of the general public, but it was Nat
King Cole who, in the forties, became the first black performer to have
his own regular radio show and in the fifties became the first to have
his own regular TV show. He gained acceptance with all sections of the
community in all countries of the world and did more to further the
progress of the coloured cause than anything achieved by the more violent
Nat, in his own way and with dignity and compassion, won over the world
so that today he still remains among the highest record sellers of all
time with a consistent reissue and re-release of his recordings, together
with a significant number of previously unreleased recordings.
Many people do not realise that as great a singer as Nat Cole was he
was probably an even greater pianist, and had he not taken up singing
he may have been the greatest jazz pianist ever. As it was he won many
awards in 'Downbeat', 'Metronome' and 'Esquire' for his pianistic abilities
but, unfortunately, as his fame as a singer spread, his piano performances
became less frequent. Nat always tried to include some piano playing
in each concert he gave, but the full extent of his pianistic prowess
was never fully expressed during the latter years of his life.
Nathanial Coles (he dropped the 's' when he turned professional) was
born on St.Patrick's Day, 17th March 1919, in the town of Montgomery,
Alabama. His parents, the Reverend Edward Coles and his wife Perlina,
moved the family to Chicago when Nat was about four years old. The rest
of the family at that time were his brother Eddie and his sisters Evelyn
and Edie-Mae. Lionel (Freddie) and Isaac were not yet born.
It was about this time that Nat first showed his ability on the piano
by playing YES, WE HAVE NO BANANAS with both hands, and he was soon
taking piano lessons. By the time he was five years old he had made
his piano debut in public and before another ten years had passed he
had his own High School band.
Although Nat was still at school he was having such success with his
piano playing that his brother Eddie came to join him in Chicago and
they formed a Sextet called the 'Eddie Coles Solid Swingers'. They were
fortunate to gain a stay of six months' duration at a club called the
'Panama' on Fifty Eighth Street. There, Nat would play until early in
the morning and then have to get up for school. It was while he was
at the Panama that two important milestones occurred in Nat's life:
first he made his initial recordings for the Decca label under the
title of 'Eddie Coles Solid Swingers' on 28th July 1936, the tracks
being HONEY HUSH, THUNDER, BEDTIME and STOMPIN' AT THE PANAMA. The other
milestone in Nat's life was the fact that he met Nadine Robinson who
was a dancer at the Panama.
After the group's engagement at the Panama ended, Nat and Nadine joined
a show called 'Shuffle Along' and went on tour with it. It was while
they were on tour in 1938 that Nat and Nadine (who at 29 was 10 years
older than Nat) were married. When the show finished its run in Los
Angeles, Nat spent most of his time playing various Beer joints in poor
circumstances and on broken down pianos. Nevertheless his style shone
through and he gained a following who came to see him at the various
spots he was playing. One of these was Bob Lewis who was the manager
of a night club called 'The Swanee Inn' and he hired Nat to bring a
quartet to the Swanee Inn to play on a regular basis.
Nat put together a group consisting of Oscar Moore on guitar, Wesley
Prince on bass and Lee Young on drums. Unfortunately, Lee Young didn't
turn up on the night and the quartet became a Trio. They called themselves
the 'King Cole Swingsters' and they stayed six months at the Swanee
Nat's next break came when he was used as the instrumental accompaniment
to an Ink Spot style group called 'The Deamers'. He also made recordings
for the Davis & Schwegler label as well as various transcription
recordings for radio use only, mainly as backing for various girl singers
of the time such as Maxine Johnson, Bonnie Lake, Juaneleda Carter, Anita
O'Day, Anita Boyer etc. as well as many vocal and instrumental recordings
in their own right. Between 1938 and 1941 Nat was to record some 200
transcription recordings, the majority of which have never been commercially
issued. One of these was SWEET LORRAINE, a song which was to become
synonymous with Nat King Cole and which he was to record many times.
During this period Nat changed the title of the Trio to 'King Cole
and his Swing Trio' before in 1939 calling it 'King Cole Trio'. Nat's
transcription recordings appeared on Keystone, Standard and MacGregor.
In February 1940 Nat was signed to the Ammor label where he made four
tracks: I LIKE TO RIFF, ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, BLACK SPIDER
and BY THE RIVER SAINTE MARIE.
In May 1940 Lionel Hampton asked Nat to make a series of recordings
with him with a view to the Trio joining Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra.
They cut ten sides together in May and July 1940 but Nat did not take
up Lionel's offer and continued on his way. His next stop came in December
1940 when he returned to the Decca label and made a series of recordings
over the next ten months. During this time Nat was also playing many
jazz dates with people like Lester Young, Harry Edison, Dexter Gordon
etc. The first personnel change for the Trio came in 1942 when Wesley
Prince was called up to join the Army and Johnny Miller took over the
In that same year Nat recorded six songs for the Excelsior label (Johnny
Miller's first recordings) before moving on to the Premier (later to
become the Atlas) label where he recorded four tracks on 2nd November
1943. It was at this time that Nat met Carlos Gastel who became Nat's
manager and remained so until the end.
One of the myths surrounding the Nat Cole legend is that he was forced
to sing and was a reluctant vocalist. The facts do not support this
because even when Nat was in his late teens/early twenties and was recording
for various Record Companies he still filled in his quota of vocals
including many ballads.
Nat's big break came in 1943 whilst he was playing at the Radio Room
in Los Angeles. He was heard by Johnny Mercer, one of the executives
of the newly formed record company, Capitol Records. Nat joined Capitol
and was to become their most successful artist and eventually their
new premises - the Capitol Tower on Hollywood and Vine, would become
known as 'The House That Nat Built'.
Ironically, Nat's first record for Capitol was not a song that he had
actually recorded for the label. The Union ban was on at the time and
Dave Dexter, who was then working for Capitol, was looking for a suitable
vehicle to promote the newly signed King Cole Trio. He considered a
song that Nat had recorded for the Excelsior label which was getting
a few air plays but, because of the smallness of the record company's
promotions, would not get the exposure that it deserved. The song was
called ALL FOR YOU, and David Dexter secured this song from Capitol
Records and it was a fair sized hit for the company.
But a major hit was created in Nat's first ever recording session for
Capitol via a song he had written himself called STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY
RIGHT. This was recorded on 30th November 1943.
Over the next few years the hits rolled off the Capitol assembly line:
IT'S ONLY A PAPER MOON, FRIM FRAM SAUCE, ROUTE 66, so that by March
1945 the King Cole Trio was big business for Capitol Records and on
15th March the first album chart was printed in 'Billboard' and there
was the King Cole Trio album in No.1 spot. This led to the biggest ever
Trio recording of (I LOVE YOU) FOR SENTIMENTAL REASONS.
Although Nat had been singing ballads from the very beginning of his
career, the turning point from Small Combo to lush dream balladeer occurred
in August 1946 when Nat recorded THE CHRISTMAS SONG. He first waxed
it just as a Trio recording but the studio executives felt that something
was missing and Nat did it again with strings. Eventually, Nat was to
make four recordings of THE CHRISTMAS SONG. Apart from the original
Trio recording and the 1946 version with strings, Nat also did another
arrangement in 1953 with Nelson Riddle and a further version with Dave
Cavanaugh for 'The Nat King Cole Story' in 1961. In 1974 it became one
of the first Milestone recordings to be placed in the coveted Hall of
Fame at The National Academy of Recorded Arts and Sciences on nationwide
Also in 1946 a major personal decision had to be made by Nat when,
while playing at the Club Zanzibar in New York, he met and fell in love
with a singer also appearing at the club, Maria Ellington. Nat divorced
Nadine in 1947 and married Maria on 28th March 1948 at one of the most
lavish weddings Harlem has ever seen. Nat's brother Eddie was Best Man.
By now the Trio had moved from its original concept of a Jazz Trio
to being just a backing band for Nat's vocals and so, in October 1947,
Oscar Moore decided to leave the Trio and join his brother John who
was fronting an outfit very similar to the King Cole Trio called Johnny
Moore and his Three Blazers.
Irving Ashby took over from Oscar Moore although he actually joined
the Trio on 27th September 1947 so that he could learn the procedures
before Oscar departed.
In 1947 the record companies, realising that there was going to be
another ban by the Musicians Union on all recordings, rushed their artists
into the studios to record as much as possible before the ban started
on lst January 1948.
During the last six months of 1947 Nat Cole recorded 80 songs (more
than many pop stars record in their lifetime), but because of the wealth
of material that this gave them, many of the songs that Nat recorded
have still to see the light of day. There were almost thirty of these
and many more that were released have only been out in the 78 rpm format
Some of Nat's hits recorded in this short space of time were IF I HAD
YOU, LITTLE GIRL, LOST APRIL, NATURE BOY, WHEN I TAKE MY SUGAR TO TEA,
THERE, I'VE SAID IT AGAIN, I'LL STRING ALONG WITH YOU, NO MOON AT ALL
and A BOY FROM TEXAS.
NATURE BOY. was brought to Nat by Eden Ahbez who was a Yogi (and normally
signed his name without the capital initials). He supposedly slept under
the letter 'L' in the Hollywood sign that is situated in the Hollywood
Hills. In an interview Nat says this song was brought to him in June
1947, together with two other songs, I'M A REAL GONE YOGI and POGO STICK
BOUNCE, but Nat recorded the latter song many years earlier so possibly
NATURE BOY was also waiting around for many years before it was recorded.
Capitol, realising the potential of NATURE BOY, decided not to release
it until after the Petrillo ban cane into effect on 1st January 1948,
because by then other artists would not be in a position to be able
to record the song with an instrumental background. The song was formally
released on 29th March 1948 and reached No.1 while Nat and Maria were
on their honeymoon in Mexico and it stayed at No.1 for seven weeks.
Many other artists recorded it without instrumental backing - Frank
Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Dick Haymes - but they were unable to dent the
lead that Nat's rendition of the song had established and the song became
a million seller. In Britain the song entered our sheet music charts
in June 1948, and the Vaughan and Haymes singles were released during
the song's ten week chart life in the Top Ten.
Capitol records remained unavailable here until December of the same
year and it wasn't until then that we had the benefit of the Nat Cole
version - this some three months after the song had left the charts.
When Nat and Maria first married they lived in an hotel for the first
few months and began to look for a house. They found the house they
wanted, an English Tudor style house, in South Murrayfield Road in the
Hancock Park section of L.A. Unfortunately, this area was restricted
to whites only and Nat had many problems before he was finally accepted.
In fact, the day he moved in one of his neighbours requested police
protection and for a time the neighbour's house was protected by guards!
While they were living in the house many unpleasant acts were perpetrated
against them: their dog was poisoned and the word 'Nigger' was burned
into the grass outside their home. Shortly after moving into their house,
whether by accident or design, Nat suddenly found he had problem with
the Inland Revenue, which took many years to overcome.
In 1948 Johnny Miller left the Trio to be replaced by Joe Comfort,
and Jack Costanzo joined on bongo. To accommodate these changes the
group's name was adapted from 'King Cole Trio' to 'Nat King Cole and
The recording ban ended in 1949 and Nat was teamed more and more with
orchestral backings and vocal groups. PORTRAIT OF JENNIE was a notable
recording made with Carlisle Hall, but the main orchestral accompaniment
at this time was provided by Pete Rugolo. Pete, fresh from his success
with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, was soon to be involved with Nat's recordings
of LUSH LIFE, LAND OF LOVE, IT WAS GOOD WHILE IT LASTED, TUNNEL OF LOVE,
MAKE BELIEVE LAND, THAT'S MY GIRL and FUNNY as well as many others.
Les Baxter was also assisting in the making of some classic Cole hit
recordings at this time such as MONA LISA, THE MAGIC TREE, ALWAYS YOU,
TOO YOUNG, EARLY AMERICAN and BECAUSE OF RAIN, as was Stan Kenton with
the song ORANGE COLOURED SKY.
Another of the myths about Nat is that by making one of his many hits,
THE CHRISTMAS SONG, TOO YOUNG, MONA LISA or whatever, he was suddenly
transformed from rags to riches. Certainly he was elevated to millionaire
status but not from poverty, for even in the early forties Nat was earning
around 50,000 dollars per year which, fifty years later, is still not
an unreasonable income.
Through the late forties and early fifties it was Capitol's policy
to combine their artists to record duets. Because of this we are left
with a wealth of recordings that Nat made with artists such as Nellie
Lutcher, Stan Kenton Woody Herman, Johnny Mercer, Dean Martin, Nat's
wife Maria and even a young Natalie Cole.
In 1951 Nat was teamed with the up and coming arranger, Nelson Riddle.
Reports had it that Nelson had scored some of Nat's earlier hits under
the baton of Les Baxter. The first song recorded at that Nelson Riddle
Nat Cole session in June was UNFORGETTABLE. Following that song's worldwide
success Nat and Nelson were to record together regularly over the next
nine years, producing such songs as NIGHT LIGHTS, SOMEWHERE ALONG THE
WAY, YOU OUT THERE, FAITH CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS, STRANGE, PRETEND, BLUE
GARDENIA, SMILE, A BLOSSOM FELL, DAME CRAZY, BALLERINA and such noteworthy
albums as 'Two in Love', 'St Louis Blues', 'To Whom it may Concern'
and 'Wild is Love'.
One of the best songs recorded by Nat and Nelson was in fact their
second recording after UNFORGETTABLE at their original session and was
called MY FIRST LOVE AND LAST LOVE (not to be confused with YOU ARE
MY FIRST LOVE). It has yet to be released in the UK and has never appeared
in album form anywhere in the world, having been issued only as a single
in the USA. Also in 1951 Nat began a long and fruitful association with
Billy May, commencing with WALKING MY BABY BACK HOME and including I'M
HURTIN', CAN'T I?' LOVER COME BACK TO ME etc.
Although the Trio was officially disbanded in 1953 it was reconstituted
for two important albums - the 'After Midnight' album in 1956 and the
Trio tracks re-recorded for 'The Nat King Cole Story' albums in 1961.
All through the fifties and sixties Nat continued to have success in
all areas of the media. In films, apart from singing over many film
credits and making various guest appearances, he also had starring role
in the W.C. Handy biographical movie 'St Louis Blues 'The Nat King Cole
Story' and a non singing role in 'China Gate'.
On TV, in addition to many guest appearances and, in 1957, being the
subject of 'This Is Your Life', Nat also had his own TV show, the first
black artist to do so. The show ran for 68 weeks and included as guests
the cream of American vocalists and jazzmen.
And of course in the recording studio Nat continue to produce a steady
stream of classic singles and albums such as 'Love is the Thing', 'The
Very Thought of You', 'Where did Everyone go' and 'Let's face the music
Nat also made a big impact outside of America, particularly in Latin
America, where he made albums in Spanish and Portuguese, but probably
the highlight for Nat at this time was appearing at The Royal Command
Performance in 1960.
One of the most interesting facets of Nat King Cole's recording career,
which is unique amongst major artists, is the 'moonlighting' he did
with his piano. All through the forties and fifties he continued to
make jazz appearances in public and on record with jazz greats of the
day such as Lester Young, Buddy Rich and Willie Smith etc. whilst being
under exclusive contract to Capitol Records.
He appeared in these circumstances under various aliases such as 'Sam
Schmaltz', 'Shorty Nadine', 'Lord Calvert', 'Eddie Laguna', 'Aye Guy'
etc. Some of the names used like 'Nature Boy' and 'The King' were so
transparent that it is probable that Capitol knew of Nat's undercover
activities but didn't want to bring them into the open for fear of losing
their main earner.
Nat's family consisted of five children - Carol (Cookie) who was Maria's
sister's child and who Nat and Maria adopted in 1949 when she was 3
1/2 years old, Natalie (Sweetie) born in 1950, Kelly adopted in 1959
and twins Casey and Tamolin born in 1961.
The sixties opened with Nat celebrating reaching his 50 million record
sales by recording some outstanding albums: 'Wild is Love', 'The Touch
of your lips', 'The Nat King Cole Story' (a three album boxed set of
re-recordings of Nat'. bits) and the George Shearing album which produced
LET THERE BE LOVE.
In 1962 Nat departed from his normal style by recording two Country
& Western albums, 'Ramblin' Rose' and 'Dear Lonely Heart', the title
track of the former reaching No.1 in the U.S. Charts when released as
More albums followed - 'Those Lazy Hazy Days of Summer', 'Where Did
Everyone Go', 'My Fair Lady' and 'Let's Face the Music and Dance'. All
were best sellers but Nat's career was coming to a close.
It was in Chicago in November 1964 that Nat first noticed his loss
of weight. He was starring in a touring snow called 'The Sights and
Sounds 1964' with artists like the Merry Young Souls and Barbara McNair,
and at the same time filming 'Cat Ballou'. It had also been set up for
him to record an album while in Chicago which was built around his current
successful single hit, the Bert Kaempfert song 'L-O-V-E'. Ralph Carmichael
tells how he went into the studio to record the album and found Nat
to be in an irritable mood, which was most unusual. Nat was insisting
that all the arrangements be rewritten with more brass infills and to
a more modern rhythm.
The album was recorded on 1st to 3rd December, 1964 and titled 'L-O-V-E'.
On 7th December Nat entered St John's Hospital. where lung cancer was
diagnosed. Nat only left hospital on two further occasions, once to
spend Christmas with his family and once for a last quiet drive to the
seafront with Maria.
He died on 15th February 1965.
One of the most amazing facts in relation to the recording career of
Nat King Cole is the fact that to this day there are still literally
hundreds of unreleased tracks which have never appeared anywhere in
the world. They lie in the vaults at Capitol. It is difficult to think
of any artist of comparable standard, rated as one of the top selling
artists of all time, having this number of unreleased tracks at the
record company's disposal for 25 years without being used. These are
by no means substandard recordings as the 'Unreleased Nat King Cole'
album demonstrates. They include such diverse items as the track omitted
from the 'Dear Lonely Hearts' album, MISERY LOVES COMPANY and the original
follow up to NATURE BOY, HONEY LOVES MONEY which was never released
due to the continued and sustained success of NATURE BOY in the American
Even without these recordings, Chart success has continued for Nat
in the intervening quarter of a century. Many of Nat's albums have sold
continually through the years with 'Ramblin' Rose' remaining in the
American Top 100 for over three years.
In the UK also, Nat's albums have been good sellers including in 1978
'20 Golden Greats' occupying the No.1 spot and his single of WHEN I
FALL IN LOVE reaching the UK Top Singles Chart on Christmas 1988.
Finally, what would have happened had Nat survived? The indications
are that he would have become more of an all round entertainer with
regular TV and film appearances, less touring and probably his own TV
series. In the recording studio he was spending much more time recording
foreign language songs in German, Italian, French and Japanese, in addition
to his regular Spanish output. Some of these songs, such as YOU ARE
SO AMIABLE were not even recorded in English, so it is probable that
he would have continued in that direction. Certainly he would have encountered
the problem all the great singers now face in where to find the songs
But, even without additional releases, the magic of Nat King Cole will
go on through future generations - a testimony to his supreme artistry.