If you’re a big fan of Christmas Music or songs from the pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll American Songbook, you’re familiar with the voice of Nat King Cole. It’s through these songs such as “The Christmas Song” and “Unforgettable” that he has remained one of the most popular singers of his era. As beautiful as his voice was singing ballads such as the above examples though, he accomplished much more. Besides being a singer, he was a pianist who formed an innovative trio, a radio star, and a groundbreaker of television. His fame allowed doors to open for other black singers and musicians of his time and to influence others in later eras, not only in Jazz music, but in Rock ‘n’ Roll and soul music as well. A preacher’s son, Nat King Cole was born to a family which also included other musicians, such as his brothers Eddie and Freddie, and his mother who was the church organist. He was raised in Chicago, and the influences both of church and the music in the Chicago night clubs contributed to his musical style; according to Freddie Cole, their dad believed enunciation was paramount to singing. This would account for Cole singing the way he did. Even though he is best known as a singer, he got his start playing piano in the Nat King Cole Trio. Formed in the late-1930’s, the Nat King Cole Trio included Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass—this set-up was out of necessity when the drummer Cole had hired did not show up for the gig. What this meant was, that Nat King Cole’s piano was the instrument which provided the rhythmic element in the trio’s songs. As a result, this musicianship on the piano provided his singing with the rhythmic quality which was distinctive. The trio provided a contrast to the big bands of the 1930’s by being more stripped down. Other pianists who were influence by Cole’s success to form their own trios include jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, and blues pianists Charles Brown and Ray Charles—yes Charles was a pianist as well as a singer. If you’ve heard songs such as “Route 66” and “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” the latter of which was one of Cole’s first hits, then you’ve heard the trio play . Also, if it hadn’t been for radio, the trio which was formed in Longbeach, California, would’ve had local popularity at best and not the national popularity which resulted. As part of their radio appearances, the Nat King Cole trio made many transcription discs for programs such as NBC’s Blue Network, Swing Soiree, and Craft Music Hall. In 1946, the Nat King Cole trio became the first black artist to sponsor a radio program, with the introduction of King Cole Trio Time, a 15-minute program which they hosted. With the signing of the trio to the newly formed Capital Records in 1943, the trio began to include string backing on their recordings. While other Jazz artists didn’t enjoy doing this both Cole and the label agreed to use these believing it was right for the music. During this time Cole’s voice was becoming more integral to the trio’s success; he would later become popular as a solo star and the trio would disband in the early 1950’s.
As a singer, Nat king Cole is known primarily for singing romantic ballads. While this might not seem particularly groundbreaking nowadays, the fact that he was a black man singing these ballads is the key here. Blacks during his era weren’t encouraged to sing such songs and cultivate a romantic, debonair, and sexy image. He was a crossover artist, and in a big way—he had more sellers than his contemporary Frank Sinatra. This successful image was probably an inspiration to singers such as Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Arron Neville, and the aforementioned Ray Charles who all spoke either of being inspired by Cole or recorded his songs; one of Cole’s songs “I Love you For Sentimental Reasons”* was one I first heard as done by Cooke.
All of this success, makes it surprising, in one sense, that he wasn’t successful in television. While His TV show, which was broadcast on NBC from November 1956 to December 1957 was critically successful and successful with viewers, Cole and NBC couldn’t get a national sponsor to sign on. This is where Cole came up with the quip: “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” He was the first black entertainer to have his own TV show, and this is what made advertising agencies afraid that they would lose viewers, especially in the Southern United States. Cole had to endure racism in other ways, and while he wasn’t an activist in the traditional sense—he couldn’t have been and maintained his success–, he did take legal action against places which barred him from performing or staying in their hotels. Simply put, Nat King Cole accomplished a lot in his short life of 45 years, before dying in 1965 of lung cancer. I wish he had been in this world longer, but it is wonderful to see his influence continue. When putting together this article I found most of my information from several links on the npr website including two great documentaries in the Jazz Profiles Series which you can listen to here and here. A third npr profile, which was part of the 50 great voices series, was also helpful. Lastly, the Wikipedia page of Cole provides many references. It and the 50 great voices profile are where I got information on Cole’s legacy. I would like to thank Jessica of Comet Over Hollywood for hosting the Gone too Soon Blogathon, of which this post is a part, and giving me the opportunity to participate. You can see who the other contributors are, here.
*After publishing this post I found out that this song was one Cole didn’t record originally or write. The song was credited to Ivory “Deek” Watson and William “Pat” Best; whether Watson actually participated in writing this song is contested. (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” was originally recorded by a group called the Brown Dots which included Watson and Best as members. Cole’s version which was recorded for Capital Records, went to #1 on the pop charts. As such, it is possible that Sam Cooke was familiar with Cole’s version.