Celebrating Nat King Cole
by Natalie Thornton
With February being Black History Month, it’s a great time to remember Nat King Cole (born Nathaniel Adams Coles) who first came to prominence as a jazz artist and later became a singer and actor. Nat King Cole was born in Montgomery Alabama in 1919, and moved to Chicago, where he got his start in music after receiving lessons from his mother and playing at the True Light Baptist Church where his father was a pastor.
As a teen, Nat King Cole was inspired by Earl Hines, a leader of modern jazz. He dropped out of school to become a full time jazz pianist, and joined forces with his brother Eddie for a time, which led to his first professional recordings in 1936. Cole eventually started to put together what would become the King Cole Trio. They toured extensively and finally landed on the charts in 1943 with “That Ain’t Right,” written by Cole. “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” inspired by one of his father’s sermons, became another hit for the group in 1944. Their single “The Christmas Song,” is arguably his most famous track to this day, but he is so much more than just a Christmas artist.
He became the first African-American performer to host a variety TV series in 1956. For many white families, he was the first African-American man that they welcomed into their living rooms each night. Even though Cole had encountered racism firsthand, especially while touring in the South—most notably in 1956, when Cole had been attacked by white supremacists during a mixed race performance in Alabama— he struggled to find his place in the Civil Rights movement, and basically took the stance that he was an entertainer, not an activist.
His soft Baritone voice crowns a short list of the most identifiable and memorable voices in American music. By the 1950s, Nat King Cole emerged as a popular solo performer. He scored numerous hits, with such songs as “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young, ” and “Unforgettable.” In the studio, he befriended other stars of the era, including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nelson Riddle, and Frank Sinatra.
By the time he died of lung cancer in 1965 at age 45, he had recorded more than 150 singles for Capitol records. Since his death, he has maintained worldwide popularity. His final film, the Oscar-winning Western Cat Ballou (1965), was released some months after his death, and he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 1990. He was inducted into Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1985, the Alabama Jazz hall of Fame in 1994, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. In 1991, Nat King Cole’s daughter, Natalie Cole, recorded his hit “Unforgettable,” and put their voices together as a duet. A number of his songs and their renditions have been featured on a number of film soundtracks.
I’ve put together a dozen songs I think are good if you feel like exploring!