Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Incomparable Nat "King" Cole


My favourite singer to this day is Nat "King" Cole. I've tried to emulate his phrasing. It is so absolutely beautiful to listen to his lovely voice.

- Johnny Mathis

Nat "King" Cole died 47 years ago on February 15, 1965.  He had a voice as smooth as silk.  It was a beautiful baritone voice and it was as "unforgettable" as the title to one of his most well known songs.  Born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama on March 17, 1919, Nat was the son of a preacher.  When he was four years old, the family moved to Chicago, where his father, Edward Coles, served as a Baptist minister and his mother, Perlina Adams Coles, was the church organist. 

Young Nat was trained in classical piano, but his interest soon turned to jazz.  He listened to jazz musicians in clubs around Chicago and he was influenced by such artists as Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Noone.  At the age of 15, Nat dropped out of school to become a full time jazz pianist.  He billed himself as "Nat Cole," dropping the "s" from the end of his surname.  He later acquired the nickname "King," most likely due to the similarity of his name to the nursery rhyme Old King Cole.

Nat began performing in the mid-1930s and joined forces with his older bother, Eddie Coles, for awhile.  Eddie, a bass player, became a member of Nat's band and they performed regularly at clubs.  In 1936, under Eddie's name, they made their first professional recording.  Nat later joined the national tour of the Broadway musical revue Shuffle Along as a pianist.  When the show failed in Long Beach, California, he remained there for a time, but eventually returned to Chicago.

Back in Chicago, Nat began to achieve success.  In 1937, he started to assemble what would be known as the King Cole Trio.  They toured a great deal and finally made the charts in 1943 with "That Ain't Right," a song written by Nat himself.  In 1944, the group landed another hit with "Straighten Up and Fly Right," based on one of Nat's father's sermons.  Other hits followed such as the classic Yuletide favourite "The Christmas Song," and the romantic ballad "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons."

In the 1950s, Nat "King" Cole emerged as a popular solo performer.  He churned out numerous hits such as "Mona Lisa," "Too Young and "Unforgettable."  In November of 1956, Nat made television history when he hosted his own national variety program, The Nat "King" Cole Show, becoming the first major African-American entertainer to do so.  The show featured guest performances by stars such as Count Basie, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, the Mills Brothers and Ella Fitzgerald.

Nat's show was short-lived  and plagued with problems.  Due to the racial attitudes of the 1950s, it failed to attract a wide audience and it lacked a national sponsor.  American television audiences and advertisers were not yet willing to accept and support black performers.  NBC, to its credit,  did not give up on the series and kept it on the air at a loss for as long as it could, until December of 1957.  After the demise of his variety show, Nat's career took a downturn in the late 1950s.  The singer, however, was back on top in the early 1960s with songs such as "Ramblin' Rose" and the light-hearted "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer." 

At the time of his death in 1965, Nat "King" Cole was still enormously popular.  His final television appearance was on an episode of The Jack Benny Program which aired on January 21, 1964.  In the episode, Jack introduces Nat as "the best friend a song ever had."  Cole banters with the comedian and croons "Day In, Day Out" and "When I Fall in Love."

Nat's private life certainly had its ups and downs.  When he was only 17, Nat married Nadine Robinson, a dancer from St. Louis who had worked with him in Shuffle Along.  The couple were married by a judge in Michigan on January 27, 1937.  They divorced in 1948.

Just six days after his divorce from Nadine became final, Nat remarried.  This time his bride was widowed singer Maria Hawkins Ellington and the wedding took place March 28, 1948 (Easter Sunday) at a Abyssinian Baptist church in Harlem, New York.  It was a lavish affair attended by celebrities such as Sarah Vaughan and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.  Eddie Coles was the best man and the newlyweds honeymooned in Mexico.

Nat and Maria raised five children: daughter Natalie Maria (born 1950); daughter Carole (1944-2009), adopted in 1949 after her mother, Maria's sister, died of tuberculosis; adopted son Nat Kelly Cole (1959-1995), and twin daughters Casey and Timoline (born 1961).  Natalie Cole, of course, is a successful singer.  Carole, an actress, succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 64 and Nat Kelly, an actor, died of complications from AIDS when he was just 36.

Nat "King" Cole was a heavy smoker of menthol cigarettes.  He believed that they enhanced his voice and gave it a rich sound.  In 1964, Nat was diagnosed with lung cancer.  When the cancer was discovered, Nat was having an affair with Swedish-born actress Gunilla Hutton.  Hutton, best known as the second Billie Joe Bradley on Petticoat Junction (1965-66) was also a regular cast member of Hee Haw. 

Daughter Natalie referred to the affair in her autobiography Angel on My Shoulder

. . .  I knew nothing of Gunilla Hutton, the woman Dad had been having an affair with, but my mother certainly did, and it must have made dealing with the aftermath of his death even more difficult for her.

Maria stayed with Nat during his illness and remained with him until his death in Santa Monica, California at the age of 45.  After Nat's passing, she married writer and producer Gary DeVore on October 17, 1969.  They divorced in 1976 and Gary died in 1997.  Maria is now 79 years old.

Click on the link below to watch an excerpt from the 1957 film Istanbul in which Nat "King" Cole sings "When I Fall in Love."

- Joanne

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