Unforgettable: The Career of Trailblazing Entertainer Nat King Cole
By John C. Alsedek:
One of the small joys of getting older is being able to rediscover entertainers from my childhood and see them in an entirely different light. Take Sammy Davis, Jr., for example. When I was 10, all I knew was he was that African-American guy who sang "The Candy Man Can." But as the decades passed and the Internet became prevalent, I discovered that he was soooooo much more than that: actor, dancer, comedian, even drummer. The guy could do everything. And that is the sort of revelation that came in adulthood regarding Nat King Cole, who died the same year I was born.
As a kid, I’d go through my grandparents’ record albums and listen to Cole do songs such as "Chances Are," "Mona Lisa," and of course "The Christmas Song" . . . you know, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. . . .” It would be another quarter-century before I found out that, long before he was on top of the charts with orchestral ballads, Nat King Cole was one of the nation’s finest jazz pianists, and that his struggles to get to the top of the charts were far more related to race than talent.
Nat King Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Cole on March 17, 1919. Though he spent the first four years of his life in Montgomery, Alabama, most of his childhood and young adult life would be spent in Chicago, where his father was a minister. Cole’s mother, Perlina, taught him to play the organ, and he gave his first performance at the tender age of four. Cole started formal lessons on piano, played in the "Bud Billiken Club" youth band, then later went to Walter Dyett’s famed music program at DuSable High School, all the while sneaking out to listen to jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines at every opportunity.
At fifteen years of age, he left high school to chase his musical dreams. Forming Eddie Cole’s Swingsters with his brother Eddie, he recorded his first songs for Decca in 1936. A year later, he got married, settled in Los Angeles, and formed the King Cole Swingsters (later named the King Cole Trio) with bassist Wesley Prince and guitarist Oscar Moore. Drawing its name from the "Old King Cole" nursery rhyme, the King Cole Trio recorded for several small labels and also for radio. In 1940, they had their first hit, "Sweet Lorraine"; it was also notable for the fact that Cole added singing to his repertoire. Cole quickly followed up with two more hits ("That Ain’t Right" in 1941 and "All for You" in 1942), confirming his status as one of jazz’s up-and-coming stars.
This led to Cole to getting his own radio show, King Cole Trio Time, in 1946. With his regular exposure there and on programs such as Kraft Music Hall, The Orson Welles Almanac, and The Chesterfield Supper Club, the hits just kept coming—and not just in jazz, but in popular music as well. Often backed by full orchestral arrangements, Cole’s mellifluous vocals immortalized songs such as 1947’s "The Christmas Song," 1948’s "Nature Boy," and of course 1950’s "Mona Lisa" (the year’s #1 song).
With his rise to stardom coinciding with the birth of a brand-new medium (television), it seemed inevitable that Nat King Cole would end up on TV. And eventually he did, as The Nat King Cole Show premiered on NBC on November 5th, 1956. Starting as a 15-minute program and later expanding to a half-hour, the show was popular but only lasted just over a year before Cole himself pulled the plug. Why? A lack of sponsorship. Rheingold Beer sponsored the show regionally, but not one company would step up to do so at the national level. As Cole himself noted at the time, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
This was just one example of the racism Nat King Cole dealt with throughout his career. In 1948, Cole bought a home in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles; the Ku Klux Klan put a burning cross in front of his house, and the local homeowners’ association did its best to make him feel unwelcome. When filming his songs for Shader Telescriptions in the late Forties and early Fifties, Cole was "whitefaced" by the application of powder and makeup so that he would appear less "Black." In 1956, he was assaulted on stage in Birmingham, Alabama, by three assailants from the "North Alabama Citizens Council," who were incensed by photos of Cole with white female fans. They’d planned to kidnap and possibly murder Cole; six men in total were eventually charged and convicted, though the charges against four of them were reduced to conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor.
The attack shocked Cole, who’d been performing in front of whites-only audiences in the South for the better part of twenty years. He 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?” Cole was doing his best to stay out of the Civil Rights movement—he saw himself as a performer, just wanting to entertain people. But the African-Americans on the civil rights frontline had had enough of Cole turning the other cheek. Prominent Black-owned newspapers such as The Chicago Defender and The New York Amsterdam News slammed Cole for continuing to play Jim Crow (segregated) shows, a sentiment shared by Thurgood Marshall, then the chief legal counsel of the NAACP, who called Cole an "Uncle Tom" and stated that he should perform with a banjo. Longtime civil rights leader Roy Wilkins struck a more conciliatory (but no less blunt) stance, accusing Cole of letting others do the work when he, as a national celebrity, could have an enormous impact. Wilkins wrote: “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.”
And Cole did. He joined the NAACP, began boycotting Jim Crow venues, and became increasingly visible in the cause, particularly in helping organize the seminal March on Washington that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unfortunately, his life was cut all too short in 1965, as Nat King Cole succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 45. His funeral was attended by thousands, both in the church and gathered outside; the honorary pallbearers included Count Basie, Sammy Davis, Jr., Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Frank Sinatra; long-time friend Jack Benny gave a poignant eulogy: “Nat Cole was a man who gave so much and still had so much to give. He gave it in song, in friendship to his fellow man, devotion to his family. He was a star, a tremendous success as an entertainer, an institution. But he was an even greater success as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a friend.”
While Nat King Cole was the first African-American man to host a nationally broadcast variety TV series, do you know who the first African-American woman to have her own show was? The incomparable Della Reese! Della is the subject of our next column. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Suspense writer, producer and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.