May 17th, 2006
Nat King Cole
About Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole crowns a very short list of the most identifiable and memorable voices in American music. This ground breaking American icon’s impact continues to cross the world’s cultural and political boundaries. The story of his life is a study in success in the face of adversity and the triumph of talent over the ignorance of prejudice.

Born Nathaniel Adams Coles on March 17, 1919 (although 1916 and 1917 have also been cited), in Montgomery, Alabama, Cole was born into a family with a pivotal position in the black community; his father was pastor of the First Baptist Church. In 1921, the family migrated to Chicago, part of the mass exodus seeking a better life in the prospering industrial towns of the north. At four years old, he was learning the piano by ear from his mother, a choir director in the church. At 12 years old he took lessons in classical piano, but was soon to be bitten by the Jazz bug — inescapable in Chicago. He left school at 15 to pursue a career as a jazz pianist. Cole’s first professional break came touring in the revival of the show “Shuffle Along.” When the show folded he was stranded in Los Angeles. Cole looked for club work and found it at the Century Club on Santa Monica Boulevard, where he made quite an impression with the “in” crowd.

In 1939, Cole formed a trio with Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass, notably they had no drummer. Gradually Cole would emerge as a singer. The group displayed a finesse and sophistication which expressed the new aspirations of the black community. In 1943, he recorded “Straighten Up And Fly Right,” for Capitol Records, inspired by one of his father’s sermons. It was an instant hit, assuring Cole’s future as a pop sensation. With the addition of strings in 1946 “The Christmas Song” began Cole’s evolution into a sentimental singer. In the 1940s he made several memorable sides with the Trio, including “It’s Only A Paper Moon” and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.” But by 1948, and “Nature Boy,” the move away from small-group jazz, towards his eventual position as one of the most popular vocalists of the day, was underway.

During the 1950s, he was urged to make films, but his appearances were few and far between, including character parts in BLUE GARDENIA, CHINA GATE, and ST. LOUIS BLUES. However, Cole was not a natural actor — his enormous appeal lay in concerts and records.

During the years of Cole’s enormous popularity in the “easy listening” field he said he felt that he was “just adjusting to the market: as soon as you start to make money in the popular field, they scream about how good you were in the old days, and what a bum you are now.” At this time jazz fans had to turn out to see him in the clubs to hear his phenomenal piano — an extension of the Earl Hines style that had many features of the new, hip sounds of bebop. If Cole had not had such an effecting singing voice he might well have been one of bebop’s leaders. Bebop was an expression of black pride, but, it should be noted, so was Cole’s career, proving that whites did not possess the monopoly on sophistication.

Cole took racism on the chin, once attacked on stage in Birmingham, Alabama (after which he stuck to the promise that he would never return to the South) and refusing to move when he met objections from white neighbours having bought a house in fashionable Beverly Hills. Significantly, Cole became the first black television presenter but was forced to abandon the role in 1957, when the show could not find him a national sponsor.

Nat Cole’s “unforgettable” voice, with its honeyed velvet tones in a rich, easy drawl, is one of the great moments in music, and saw him accepted in a “white” world. With high profile friends, such as Frank Sinatra, his position entailed compromises that gained him the hostility of civil rights activists in the early 1960s. But Cole was a brave figure in a period when racial prejudice was at its most demeaning, Cole suffered the indignity of being “whited up” for some of his TV performances, to make him more “accessible” to a white audience. Before his death from lung cancer in 1965, Cole was planning a production of James Baldwin’s play, “Amen Corner,” displaying an interest in radical black literature at odds with his image as a sugary balladeer.

  • Martin Guare

    You did a great job on Nat “King” Cole, Thanks for the Memories.

  • Shirley Osborne

    He had a voice had the richness of black velvet. It was soothing to the soul. Spans all bounderies.

  • Mar

    Cole had a home, not in Beverly Hills, but Hancock Park. His Requiem Mass was celebrated at Saint James’s on Wilshire Boulevard. His home still stands.

  • Laura Caligiuri

    Whoopi Goldberg’s comment about whites being surprised at blacks using soap was gratuitous and disgusting. Nat Cole was infinitely classier than Ms. Goldberg and he lived through much more racism than she ever has.

  • Linda Blackwell

    As children, we used to go over to our girl friend’s house; thier mother had a Nat King Cole album with the best of his songs. His music was heavenly. I especially liked “That Summer” on their hi-fi(short for high fidelity)box. Later as I grew older I bought his Christmas songs.

  • Gloria A. Rogers

    Your presentation on Nat “King cole” was as outstanding as your many other projects. thank you for another job VERY WELL DONE. I enjoy many of your presentations in many areas, this was no exception! My congratulations to the staff for all their hard works.

  • Renee Spaziante

    Nat was one of the Greatest singers of our time. His singing was so smooth and relaxing. I’m so happy to have his tapes so I can listen to him over and over.

  • Gail Erdman

    I very much enjoyed the program on Nat King Cole. He has always been my favorite artist.

  • Brenda

    The Nat King Cole programs evoked some wonderful memories. He was one of my mother’s favorite artist and I still remembered watching his short-lived TV show. I appreciated the balance and the context – we can not shy away from our collective history. My parents used to talk about the NKC’s show inability to garner a sponsor and why. Mr Cole’s story recognizes the triumph of art (and artists) elevating us past our differences.



  • chris Crist

    When will this show repeats… Nat King Cole ……..I missed it!

  • Elyse Hernandez

    As a middle-aged Afro-American I truly enjoyed your coverage of the life & times of Nat “King” Cole. I never knew much about his career or his private life so I found this to be a wonderful piece.I always enjoyed his smooth style of singing and the way he always looked as if he stepped off a fashion runway.By the way, for the woman who thought Whoopie Goldberg was not telling the truth about how some white people envisioned blacks not bathing I must say it is very true!They thought we were dirty & ignorant until Individuals like Mr. Cole proved otherwise.Thanks for enlightenment all the way around!!

  • Anit Pacheco

    As you may know Nat is considered one of the greatest male vocalist in the
    World and his music is still on top of the Billboard Charts, over 44 years
    after his death.
    Caesar has an incredible voice close to Nat King Cole, currently in the studio finishing up his
    debut album produced by and featuring Guitarist Peter White. Caesar will
    sing in 4 languages on this album and it’s sure to attract a World audience.

    *This guy is a class act. Very talented. His band is top notch. His friend and guitar player (Peter White) is a world renown Jazz artist. Having sang back up for Julio Iglesias is certainly to his advantage and notoriety.

    Caesar sings Mona Lisa Live:

    *Caesar Sings “I Wish You Love”: **

    If you want to get in touch with Caesar, call me 424-320-2943

  • Barbara Barber

    My father was in the music word sang backup and played steel guitar and my grandfather worked on some of his cars. He came to pick up a car and he sang Happy Birthday, and a couple of my requests, he was a wonderful and kind man. From my father I learned the love of music and from my grandfather jazz and machanics and Mr. Nat King Cole the love of music and with work I could do anything. There will never be another Nat King Cole.

  • Big Willie

    Today’s “artists” would do well to look back at what Nat Cole accomplished in his much-too-short life. A fantastic jazz pianist, impeccable singer and true gentleman, he didn’t have to resort to electronics and crudity to sell records. It’s not for nothing that the distinctive Capitol Records building in LA was called “the house that Nat built.”

    BTW, my earliest childhood memories were of hearing Nat Cole singing “Nature Boy” on 78 RPM records — I would have been either three or four years old at the time. My mother was a huge fan of his (she was a life-long follower of jazz) and later on, had the pleasure of meeting him at the Pump Room in Chicago’s Ambassador East hotel — this was before he became internationally famous. She related as to how he was a perfect gentleman and asked her if there was anything in particular she wanted to hear. She chose his signature tune, “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” He got a standing ovation for it.

  • Neal Hammon

    Nat King Cole was one of America’s greatest jazz musicians, but few have ever heard him play jazz.
    If you have a few extra bucks, buy a copy of Jazz at the Philharmonic, the first concert, (Verve) to hear a little sample of what he could do.

  • patricia l. baker

    One of my all time favorites. Mr. Cole was a superb musician, singer,and outstanding pianist. I loved all of his songs and that wonderful smooth voice of his. ‘Straighten up and Fly Right, Route 66, The Christmas Song–he didn’t write this, but he sang the heck out of it–Mona Lisa…” Nat King Cole was/is just great. I have his music on CD as well as on LP.

    I am so sorry he had to endure racism: may God handle those that hurt him or caused him and others pain.
    Rest assured, Nat is up in heaven now playing beautiful music for the Lord and many of his friends. When ever it is my time, I hope to have the opportunity to sit in his presence and listen to him play some of his tasty tunes!!!

  • Christopher Nolan

    I have been doing a tribute to this great artist for over 15 years now. Doing my best through song to keep his musically contribution alive in the hearts of people. I have traveled the globe sharing my talent with all that will hear it. He was such a awesome pioneer in music and human relations as well. I am honored to be able to continue sharing his music with the masses. Please take a listen to me, Christopher Nolan on youtube. hope you enjoy the music.

  • Louis Moss

    Please show this episode about NAT KING COLE on AMERICAN MASTERS soon. I Would really
    appreciate it. Thank You so much!

Inside This Episode


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