Nat King Cole
As much a pop artist as a jazz musician, Nat King Cole was one of the most popular jazz musicians of his time. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show multiple times, and was the first black artist to host his own variety show, the Nat King Cole Show. Though mum on the issue of Civil Rights himself, his popularity made him a major factor in the fight for equal rights throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919. When he was four, his family moved to Chicago, where his father became a minister and Nat learned the church organ. He learned classical piano well into his teens, and played for the historic DuSable High School music program. However, his passion was for the jazz he heard throughout his Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville. He counts slide pianist Earl Hines as a particular inspiration. When he was 15, Nat dropped out of high school to start his professional jazz career. It was at this time that the adopted the stage name “Nat Cole” and soon picked up the nickname “King” -- after the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole” -- in a local nightclub.
After gaining notoriety playing clubs around the city, as well as cutting his first record with his brother in 1936, Nat was invited to join as pianist for the national tour of the musical revue Shuffle Along. He fell off the tour in Long Beach, California sometime in the late ‘30s, and formed the King Cole Swingers with Oscar Moore and Wesley Prince. (Charlie Harris would take Prince’s spot in the ‘50s.) Their popularity rose slowly, but steadily, helped by a number of radio gigs on NBC.
The trio signed with Capitol records in 1943, and they would stay with the record company for the rest of their career. Their first hit came with 1944’s “That Ain’t Right,” quickly followed by “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “The Christmas Song.” In 1946, the trio got their own radio show, “King Cole Trio Time,” which was the first radio program with a black host.
The King Cole Trio would dominate the charts well into the ‘50s. “Too Young” and “Unforgettable,” both recorded in 1951, would become his best-selling songs. The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC in 1956, and featured nearly all the famous black artists of the time. However, the show was cancelled in 1957 due to a lack of sponsorship.
The rise of rock and roll led to a brief wane in popularity in the early ‘60s. However, Nat rose to the top again in 1962 with “Ramblin’ Rose.” He struck gold once more in 1963 with "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer, " which would become his last hit. After a short battle with lung cancer, Cole died on February 15, 1965 in Santa Monica, California.
Nat King Cole’s status as a jazz musician differs from the genre’s other greats. Though not particularly inventive in terms of playing style, his contribution to the genre came in his ability to make it popular across the nation. When big bands were dominating the radio and the jazz scene, Cole made trios stylish again. His intimate playing style, combined with his smooth voice, made for soft jazz tunes that anyone could enjoy. Plus, his presence on radio and TV not only helped launch jazz into the mainstream, but also played a huge part in the mix of politics and jazz that would characterize much of the ‘50s and ‘60s.