On this day in Black History we celebrate the life of famed American musician, Nat King Cole. Nat King Cole made a name for himself in the jazz community during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, as a pianist and lead singer.
On March 17, 1919, Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama. When he was four years old, his family relocated to Chicago, Illinois. At a young age, Cole learned to play the organ from his mother who was a church organist. His first performance of “Yes! We Have No Bananas” was at age four. He began his formal training at 12 which included jazz, gospel, and western classical.
Cole began his career in the 1930s as a teenager performing under the name Nat Cole. He, alongside his brother, Eddie, who played bass, recorded their first song in 1936 under Eddie’s name. Cole also performed regularly at jazz clubs in Chicago. It was at a local club that he received his famous nickname “King” in reference to the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole.”
His talent allowed him to be a tour pianist with Eubie Blake on his national Shuffle Along tour. When the tour discontinued in Long Beach, California, Cole decided to not return to Chicago and make a life for himself in California. From here, his career began to take off.
Shortly after his move, Cole and two other musicians formed the King Cole Swingster. The group consisted of Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on the double bass. The King Cole Swingsters played various gigs at local Long Beach clubs before landing a residence at the Long Beach Pike for $90 a week (adjusted for inflation that’s about $1,535). Together the group performed all over southern California and recorded a few radio transcriptions for Capitol Transcriptions.
Cole’s first radio broadcast was on NBC’s Blue Network in 1938. It was followed by appearances on NBC’s Swing Soiree. In the 1940s the King Cole Swingsters appeared on the Old Gold, The Chesterfield Supper Club and Kraft Music Hall radio shows. The band also performed twice on CBS Radio’s The Orson Welles Almanac.
In 1943 the new King Cole Trio signed with Capitol Records. The new band consisted of Cole and Moore with new addition Johnny Miller, replacing Wesley Prince. The revenue that Nat King Cole and his band brought Capitol Records was the bulk of their revenue. It is said that Nat King Cole’s career helped in large part to fund the iconic Capitol Records building near Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. It was the world’s first circular office building and is known as “The House that Nat Built.”
Throughout the 40s and 50s Cole went on to sell millions of albums. In 1946, the Cole trio paid to have their own 15 minute radio program called King Cole Trio Time which was the first radio program sponsored by a black recording artist. On November 5, 1956 The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC. This program was the first of its kind hosted by an African American. The show began as a 15 minute pop up and expanded to 30 minute in July 1957. Despite the efforts of NBC and other artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Frankie Laine, Mel Thorne, Peggy Lee, and Eartha Kitt, the show was unable to usstain its airtime due to lack of corporate sponsorship.
Later in Cole’s career he traveled the world recording and performing music. His travels took him to Havana, Cuba in 1958 to record an album called Cole Espanol. Throughout the 50s and early 60s, Cole continued to record and sell hit records.
On February 15th, 1965, Nat King Cole passed away from lung cancer in his Santa Monica home. During his career Cole released 38 albums and appeared in 28 films. He has been inducted into both the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1990, Cole was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1997 was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. In 2000, Cole was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an influence on early rock and roll and is also featured in the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame as of 2013.