Nat King Cole: A Man of Many Precedents

In 1956, The Nat King Cole Show became one of the first television shows with an African American star at its center. This landmark variety program, initially 15 minutes long, was increased to half an hour halfway through its one year run and featured guests like Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Eartha Kitt, and Ella Fitzgerald. And though the show only ran a year, its star, Nat King Cole (Nathaniel Coles, 1919-65) could console himself with many other “firsts”, For example, a decade earlier he’d also been the first African American at the center of his own radio program, King Cole Trio Time. 

Cole had the juice for all this because he was a major recording star, racking up scores of hits in the Hot 100 between 1943 and his death just over two decades later. Many of these records were so popular that I knew them well as a kid, simply because older people were still playing them into the 1970s. The best known were probably “Mona Lisa” (1950), “Unforgettable” (1951), “The Christmas Song” (1946), “Frosty the Snowman” (1951), “Pretend” (1953), and “Orange Colored Sky” (1953). His career as a hit-maker is neatly bracketed by the swing era “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (1943) and the nostalgic, corny “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” (1963). His reach even extended posthumously. His beautiful 1948 hit “Nature Boy” was revived in the Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 Moulin Rouge. A decade after Cole passed away his daughter Natalie began having hit records, including a 1991 “duet” with her father on “Unforgivable”

When I was a kid we associated Cole’s records very much with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, the most popular singers among the older generation. And like those crooners, Cole’s appeal was extremely romantic. His hits were torch songs, designed to sweep women off their feet. For a singer of color to cross over into mainstream success by entering this territory must have been extremely threatening to certain white men, and indeed Cole was threatened and harassed on more than occasion by hate groups. In this context it is interesting to observe that though he began the 1950s as a card carrying Republican, by 1960, he had switched to the Democrats.

Cole is an interesting, transitional figure. He had grown up in Chicago’s Bronzeville, the son of a preacher dad and a church organist mother, and started out studying at the feet of jazz’s elder statesmen. His older brother Eddie Cole had toured with Noble Sissle’s Sizzling Syncopators, and both brothers had been in a revival of Shuffle Along. Eddie had also toured with Sidney Bechet. Meanwhile, Nat grew up loving the music of Louis Armstrong. Then Cole, in turn, influenced the younger generation, through the sound of his intimate trio, to the boldly romantic crooning of later rock and roll acts like The Platters and Sam Cooke.

Cole worked right up until the end of his life, recording the album L-O-V-E within six weeks of his death by lung cancer. It went to #4 on the charts, A few months later, he turned up in movie theatres alongside Stubby Kaye as the storytelling songsters in the movie Cat Ballou, Cole, and his appeal, were apparently deathless.

To learn more about vaudeville and the variety arts, including radio and TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,