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Nat King Cole
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Nathaniel Adams Coles (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965), known professionally as Nat King Cole, was an American jazz pianist and vocalist. He recorded over one hundred songs that became hits on the pop charts. His trio was the model for small jazz ensembles that followed. Cole also acted in films and on television and performed on Broadway. He was the first black man to host an American television series.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919.He had three brothers: Eddie (1910–1970), Ike (1927–2001), and Freddy (b. 1931),and a half-sister, Joyce Coles. Each of the Cole brothers pursued careers in music. When Nat King Cole was four years old, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where his father, Edward Coles, became a Baptist minister. Unforgettable karaoke instrumental key D
Cole learned to play the organ from his mother, Perlina Coles, the church organist. His first performance was “Yes! We Have No Bananas” at the age of four. He began formal lessons at 12, learning jazz, gospel, and classical music on piano “from Johann Sebastian Bach to Sergei Rachmaninoff.”
The Cole family moved to the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, where he attended Wendell Phillips Academy High School the school Sam Cooke attended a few years later. He participated in Walter Dyett’s music program at DuSable High School. He would sneak out of the house to visit clubs, sitting outside to hear Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone. Unforgettable karaoke instrumental key D
Portrait of Nat King Cole, Paramount Theater, New York City, November 1946
When he was fifteen, Cole dropped out of high school to pursue a music career. After his brother Eddie, a bassist, came home from touring with Noble Sissle, they formed a sextet and recorded two singles for Decca in 1936 as Eddie Cole’s Swingsters. They performed in a revival of the musical Shuffle Along. Nat Cole went on tour with the musical. In 1937, he married Nadine Robinson, who was a member of the cast. After the show ended in Los Angeles, Cole and Nadine settled there while he looked for work. He led his own big band, then found work playing piano in nightclubs. When a club owner asked him to form a band, he hired bassist Wesley Prince and guitarist Oscar Moore. They called themselves the King Cole Swingsters after the nursery rhyme in which “Old King Cole was a merry old soul.” They changed their name to the King Cole Trio before making radio transcriptions and recording for small labels. Unforgettable karaoke instrumental key D
Cole recorded “Sweet Lorraine” in 1940, and it became his first hit. According to legend, his career as a vocalist started when a drunken bar patron demanded that he sing the song. Cole said that this fabricated story sounded good, so he didn’t argue with it. In fact there was a customer one night who demanded that he sing, but because it was a song Cole didn’t know, he sang “Sweet Lorraine” instead. As people heard Cole’s vocal talent, they requested more vocal songs, and he obliged.
Popularity as a vocalist
In 1941 the trio recorded “That Ain’t Right” for Decca, followed the next year by “All for You” for Excelsior Records.They also recorded “I’m Lost”, a song written by Otis René, the owner of Excelsior.
I started out to become a jazz pianist; in the meantime I started singing and I sang the way I felt and that’s just the way it came out. Unforgettable karaoke instrumental key D
During the late 1930s the trio recorded radio transcriptions for Capitol. They performed on the radio programs Swing Soiree, Old Gold, The Chesterfield Supper Club, Kraft Music Hall, and The Orson Welles Almanac.
Cole appeared in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in 1944. He was credited on Mercury Records as “Shorty Nadine”, a derivative of his wife’s name, because he had been exclusive contract with Capitol Records since signing with the label the year before. He recorded with Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young.
King Cole Trio Time on NBC with Cole on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Johnny Miller on double bass, 1947
In 1946 the trio paid to broadcast King Cole Trio Time, a fifteen-minute radio program. This was the first radio program to be sponsored by a black musician. Cole began recording and performing pop-oriented material in which he was often accompanied by a string orchestra. His stature as a popular star was cemented during this period by hits such as “All For You” (1943), “The Christmas Song” (1947), “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66″,”(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” (1946), “There! I’ve Said It Again” (1947), “Nature Boy” (1948), “Frosty The Snowman”, “Mona Lisa” (No. 1 song of 1950), “Orange Colored Sky” (1950), “Too Young” (No. 1 song of 1951)
On November 5, 1956, The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show debuted on NBC. The variety program was one of the first hosted by an African American, which created controversy at the time. Beginning as a 15-minute pops show on Monday night, the program was expanded to a half-hour in July 1957. Despite the efforts of NBC, as well as many of Cole’s industry colleagues—many of whom, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Frankie Laine, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, Tony Bennett and the backing vocal group the Cheerleaders, worked for industry scale (or even for no pay) in order to help the show save money—The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show failed due to lack of a national sponsor.Companies such as Rheingold Beer assumed regional sponsorship of the show, but a national sponsor never appeared. The last episode of The Nat King Cole Show aired December 17, 1957. Cole had survived for over a year, and it was he, not NBC, who ultimately decided to end the program. Commenting on the lack of sponsorship his show received, Cole quipped shortly after its demise, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.””Pretend”, “A Blossom Fell”, and “If I May”. His pop hits were collaborations with well-known arrangers and conductors of the day, including Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Ralph Carmichael. Riddle arranged several of Cole’s 1950s albums, including his first 10-inch long-play album, Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love (1953). In 1955, his single “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” reached number 7 on the Billboard chart. Jenkins arranged, the album, Love Is the Thing, hitting number 1 on the charts in April 1957 and remaining for eight weeks, his only number 1 album. In 1959, he was awarded a Grammy at the 2nd Annual Grammy Awards, the category Best Performance By a “Top 40” Artist, for his recording of “Midnight Flyer”. Unforgettable karaoke instrumental key D
Capitol Records Building, known as “The House That Nat Built”
In 1958 Cole went to Havana, Cuba, to record Cole Español, an album sung entirely in Spanish. The album was so popular in Latin America, and also in the United States, that two others of the same variety followed: A Mis Amigos (sung in Spanish and Portuguese) in 1959 and More Cole Español in 1962. A Mis Amigos contains the Venezuelan hit “Ansiedad”, whose lyrics Cole learned while performing in Caracas in 1958. He learned songs in languages other than English by rote. After the change in musical tastes during the late 1950s, Cole’s ballad singing did not sell well with younger listeners, despite a successful stab at rock and roll with “Send for Me”, which peaked at number 6 on the Pop chart. Along with his contemporaries Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Cole found that the pop singles chart had been almost entirely taken over by youth-oriented acts. In 1960, Cole’s longtime collaborator Nelson Riddle left Capitol Records for Frank Sinatra’s newly formed Reprise Records. Riddle and Cole recorded one final hit album, Wild Is Love, with lyrics by Ray Rasch and Dotty Wayne. Cole later retooled the concept album into an Off-Broadway show, I’m with You. Unforgettable karaoke instrumental key D
Cole recorded some hit singles during the 1960s, including “Let There Be Love” with George Shearing in 1961, the country-flavored hit “Ramblin’ Rose” in August 1962, “Dear Lonely Hearts”, “That Sunday, That Summer” and “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” (his final top-ten hit, reaching number 6 on the Pop chart). He performed in many short films, sitcoms, and television shows and played W. C. Handy in the film St. Louis Blues (1958). He also appeared in The Nat King Cole Story, China Gate, and The Blue Gardenia (1953). In January 1964, Cole made one of his final television appearances, on The Jack Benny Program. He was introduced as “the best friend a song ever had” and sang “When I Fall in Love”. Cat Ballou (1965), his final film, was released several months after his death.
Cole’s shift to traditional pop led some jazz critics and fans to accuse him of selling out, but he never abandoned his jazz roots; as late as 1956 he recorded an all-jazz album, After Midnight, and many of his albums after this are fundamentally jazz-based, being scored for big band without strings, although the arrangements focus primarily on the vocal rather than instrumental leads. Cole had one of his last major hits in 1963, two years before his death, with “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer”, which reached number 6 on the Pop chart. “Unforgettable” was made famous again in 1991 by Cole’s daughter Natalie when modern recording technology was used to reunite father and daughter in a duet. The duet version rose to the top of the pop charts, almost forty years after its original popularity. Unforgettable karaoke instrumental key D
Around the time Cole launched his singing career, he entered into Freemasonry. He was raised in January 1944 in the Thomas Waller Lodge No. 49 in California. The lodge was named after fellow Prince Hall mason and jazz musician Fats Waller. Cole was “an avid baseball fan”, particularly of Hank Aaron. In 1968, Nelson Riddle related an incident from some years earlier and told of music studio engineers, searching for a source of noise, finding Cole listening to a game on a transistor radio.
Nat and his second wife, Maria, 1951 Unforgettable karaoke instrumental key D
Cole met his first wife, Nadine Robinson, while they were on tour for the all-black Broadway musical Shuffle Along. He was only 17 when they married. She was the reason he landed in Los Angeles and formed the Nat King Cole trio. This marriage ended in divorce in 1948. On March 28, 1948 (Easter Sunday), just six days after his divorce became final, Cole married the singer Maria Hawkins Ellington (she had sung with the Duke Ellington band but was not related to Duke Ellington). The Coles were married in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. They had five children: Natalie (1950–2015), who had a successful career as a singer; an adopted daughter, Carole (1944–2009, the daughter of Maria’s sister), who died of lung cancer at the age of 64; an adopted son, Nat Kelly Cole (1959–1995), who died of AIDS at the age of 36 and twin daughters, Casey and Timolin (born September 26, 1961), whose birth was announced in the “Milestones” column of Time magazine on October 6, 1961 (along with the birth of Melissa Newman). Maria supported him during his final illness and stayed with him until his death. In an interview, she emphasized his musical legacy and the class he exhibited despite his imperfections.
Experiences with racism
In August 1948, Cole purchased a house from Col. Harry Gantz, the former husband of the silent film actress Lois Weber, in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Ku Klux Klan, which was active in Los Angeles in the 1950s, responded by placing a burning cross on his front lawn. Members of the property-owners association told Cole they did not want any “undesirables” moving into the neighborhood. Cole responded, “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”
Bust of Nat King Cole in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba Unforgettable karaoke instrumental key D
In 1956 Cole was contracted to perform in Cuba. He wanted to stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana but was refused because it operated a color bar. Cole honored his contract, and the concert at the Tropicana was a huge success. During the following year, he returned to Cuba for another concert, singing many songs in Spanish.
In 1956 Cole was assaulted on stage during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, with the Ted Heath Band while singing the song “Little Girl”. Having circulated photographs of Cole with white female fans bearing incendiary boldface captions reading “Cole and His White Women” and “Cole and Your Daughter” three men belonging to the North Alabama Citizens Council assaulted Cole, apparently attempting to kidnap him. The three assailants ran down the aisles of the auditorium towards Cole. Local law enforcement quickly ended the invasion of the stage, but in the ensuing melée Cole was toppled from his piano bench and injured his back. He did not finish the concert and never again performed in the southern United States. A fourth member of the group was later arrested. All were tried and convicted. Unforgettable karaoke instrumental key D
After being attacked in Birmingham, Cole said, “I can’t understand it … I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?” A native of Alabama, he seemed eager to assure southern whites that he accepted the customs and traditions of the region. Cole said he wanted to forget the incident and continued to play for segregated audiences in the south. He said he couldn’t change the situation in a day. He contributed money to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and had sued northern hotels that had hired him but refused to serve him. Thurgood Marshall, the chief legal counsel of the NAACP, called him an Uncle Tom and said he should perform with a banjo. Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, wrote him a telegram that said, “You have not been a crusader or engaged in an effort to change the customs or laws of the South. That responsibility, newspapers quote you as saying, you leave to the other guys. That attack upon you clearly indicates that organized bigotry makes no distinction between those who do not actively challenge racial discrimination and those who do. This is a fight which none of us can escape. We invite you to join us in a crusade against racism.” Unforgettable karaoke instrumental key D
The Chicago Defender said that Cole’s performances for all-white audiences were an insult to his race. The New York Amsterdam News said that “thousands of Harlem blacks who have worshiped at the shrine of singer Nat King Cole turned their backs on him this week as the noted crooner turned his back on the NAACP and said that he will continue to play to Jim Crow audiences.” To play “Uncle Nat’s” discs, wrote a commentator in The American Negro, “would be supporting his ‘traitor’ ideas and narrow way of thinking”. Deeply hurt by the criticism in the black press, Cole was chastened. Emphasizing his opposition to racial segregation “in any form”, he agreed to join other entertainers in boycotting segregated venues. He paid $500 to become a lifetime member of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. Until his death in 1965, Cole was an active and visible participant in the civil rights movement, playing an important role in planning the March on Washington in 1963.