Nat King Cole died 48 years ago today. We’re commemorating the day with 20 facts about the legendary singer. Originally published March 2011.
1. Born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, he moved with his family to Chicago at the age of four. He was already learning to play the organ at this time, and the first song he learned was, “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”
2. Nat King Cole formally studied both jazz and gospel music and participated in the music program at Chicago’s DuSable High School before dropping out while still a teenager to become a professional musician. Cole’s biggest early influence was Earl Hines.
3. He shortened his stage name to Nat Cole. Nobody knows exactly where the “King” nickname came from, but most think it was a play on Old King Cole. His brother Eddie played bass in Nat King Cole’s first band.
4. Cole left Chicago to tour nationally as a pianist with Broadway musician Eubie Blake. When the tour went bust in California, Cole decided to stay there permanently.
Nat King Cole (Wikimedia Commons/William P. Gottlieb)
5. He settled in Long Beach and formed the King Cole Swingers, who had a steady gig at The Pike playing for $90 a week. In 1937, he got married and moved to Los Angeles.
6. It was in L.A. that Nat King Cole first starting singing regularly as part of his show at the audience’s insistence. But throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, he was chiefly renowned as a jazz pianist, even appearing at the first Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1944 as a pianist (recordings credit him as ‘Shorty Nadine,’ a tribute to his wife.
7. Cole has also been credited with being among the first artists to use a piano, guitar and bass trio at a time when big bands held sway. This combo would also be used by jazz heavyweights like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson as well as blues pianists like Ray Charles.
8. Cole’s first popular hit came in 1943 with “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” a song based on an African-American folktale Cole’s preacher father often referred to in his sermons. The tune is often considered a precursor to rock-n-roll.
9. When he began to emerge as a singer, he dropped the jazz trio format for recording and was often backed by a string orchestra. This is part of the reason why, as he found greater commercial success, jazz purists often accused Nat King Cole of selling out, though he would continue to occasionally perform and record jazz well into the 1960s.
10. Among his early hits was “The Christmas Song,” written by Mel Torme and Bob Wells (oddly enough, the song was written on a hot summer day). Cole picked the song over the objections of Capitol Records. He would record four different versions between 1946 and 1951. It was the second version which became a big hit.
11. In 1946, Cole also landed his own radio program, a 15-minute show called King Cole Trio Time that ran on Saturday afternoons for two years.
12. Ten years later, he became the first African American to host a national TV show with The Nat “King” Cole Show. The show ran for a year but failed to find a sponsor, a development Cole blamed on racism. He was to said to have remarked, “I guess Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
13. Nat King Cole refused to play segregated venues (and in fact refused to play the South at all after he was assaulted onstage by white supremacists in 1956 at a show in Birmingham, Alabama), sued hotels that refused to lodge himself and his band, and insisted on living in a then all-white section of Los Angeles amidst threats from the local Ku Klux Klan. Despite this, he was sometimes criticized for not contributing more to the Civil Rights Movement.
14. Nat King Cole addressed the Republican National Convention in 1956, but then performed at the Democratic National Convention in 1960. He also performed at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
15. Cole was a frequent guest on other shows, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show six times, as well as appearing on The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, Your Show of Shows, and The Jack Benny Program.
16. Nat King Cole also enjoyed a career on the big screen, appearing in 22 feature films – including an uncredited cameo in Citizen Kane (he is shown playing piano, his back to the camera). His last film was 1965’s Cat Ballou, starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin.
17. Nat King Cole was a heavy smoker throughout his life, smoking up to three packs a day in his belief that it helped keep his voice sounding low and smooth.
18. He died of lung cancer on February 15, 1965. He was only 45 years old.
19. His final album, L-O-V-E, with its classic title track, was recorded just a few months before his death and released posthumously.
20. His daughter, singer Natalie Cole, recorded a version of his signature “Unforgettable” as part of a tribute album in 1991. The album won seven Grammy awards.