Nat King Cole at 100

Nat King Cole, from Capitol Records’ Archive. 1959.

This year makes 100 years since the birth of the legendary Nat King Cole. Although he has been gone for even longer than he was here, his influence is felt in every corner of the music world. Cole was a world class pianist in his own right, but found greater fame as a vocalist. Many standards were first sung by Nat King Cole; even more were better sung by him.

Nathaniel Adams Coles was born to a working class family in Montgomery, Alabama. Nat, the second of three sons, and his family moved to Chicago when he was four years old, his father becoming a Baptist minister. Each of the Cole sons pursued music, but Nat was the star. He dropped out of high school at fifteen to dedicate himself to his craft.

After a brief time recording with his older brother’s Eddie Cole’s Swingsters and performing in musical theater, Nat started his own group. The King Cole Trio, also featuring guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince, recorded for smaller labels briefly before their first in 1940, “Sweet Lorraine.” The song was the first of many to feature Nat King Cole’s beautiful voice, and began a steady stream of hits for both Cole as a solo performer and the King Cole Trio as a group. Cole was only 21 years old.

Touring through the 1940s and on as a black man was often a struggle; even when playing high-end venues in Las Vegas with other artists, Cole was forced to stay in segregated hotels nearby. In some cases, he wasn’t even allowed to walk in the front door of casinos where he was performing; the venues would make him enter through the kitchen. In spite of this, Nat King Cole was known for being a consistent man of class. Contemporaries like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett always spoke of Cole as a man of immense character, despite enduring terrible racism throughout his career.

Perhaps his greatest legacy, Nat King Cole was the first black man to host a network television show. The Nat King Cole Show only ran for one year, struggling to stay on air because of problems keeping sponsorship in the overtly racist American south, but the musical variety show made a permanent impact on pop culture. A musical variety show, the program featured Cole alongside artists like The Mills Brothers, Betty Hutton, and Ella Fitzgerald, both separately and in duets. At the time, it was rare for white and black performers to sing together, but on Nat’s show, it happened almost every week.

By the end of his career, Nat King Cole became one of the first artists to perform to desegregated audiences, a major transformation happening in the early 1960s because of artists like Cole and Sam Cooke. Even in the South, under the constant threat of violence by hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Nat King Cole finally sang to mixed audiences.

By the time of his death from lung cancer at 45, Nat King Cole had charted with over 100 singles. More than fifty years since his passing, he is still a household name. Songs like “Unforgettable” and “Nature Boy” have become timeless classics, and Nat’s Christmas music routinely returns to the charts whenever winter rolls around. Few artists have changed the landscape of the country in the way that Nat King Cole did, and fewer still did it with his level of kindness and dignity. There is no doubt in my mind that if humanity still thrives, we will still be celebrating Nat King Cole in another 100 years.

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