Nat King Cole (March 17, 1919 - February 15, 1965), born Nathaniel Adams Coles, was a popular American jazz singer-songwriter and pianist. Cole first came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist, then switched his emphasis to singing, becoming one of the most popular and best-known vocalists of all time.

Cole was born in Montgomery, Alabama. He received music lessons from his mother and his family moved to Chicago when he was five, where his father Edward James Coles was a Baptist minister. In 1939, he formed the King Cole Trio in Southern California and became an immensely popular recording artist for Capitol Records, helping to make the company's fortune as well as his own. His deep, smooth voice remains one of the most recognizable on record, while his pop material and sentimental arrangements appealed to mainstream tastes.

In the 1960s, he became the first nationally known black artist to host a television show, but it was canceled after one year because a national sponsor could not be found. Cole struggled against racism throughout his career and on April 10, 1956, at Birmingham, Alabama, he was attacked by three white men from a white-supremacist group during a concert and sustained minor injuries to his back.

Cole also appeared in many movies, his last one being Cat Ballou (1965), starring Lee Marvin. Cole received 28 Gold Record awards for such hits as "Sweet Lorraine" and "Ramblin' Rose" in 1962, "Too Young" in 1951, "Mona Lisa" in 1949, and Mel Tormé's "Christmas Song." Cole performed a posthumous "virtual" duet with his daughter, recording star Natalie Cole, for the title track of the 1991 Grammy Award-winning album Unforgettable… with Love. A heavy smoker, Cole died of lung cancer at age 45.

Childhood and Chicago

Cole was born in Montgomery, Alabama. His birth date was on Saint Patrick's Day in 1919. His father was a preacher in the Baptist church. Cole's family moved to Chicago, Illinois, while he was still a child. There, his father became a minister; Nat's mother, Perlina, was the church organist. Nat learned to play the organ from his mother until the age of 12, when he began formal lessons. He learned not only jazz and gospel music, but European classical music as well.

Nat would sneak out of the house and hang outside the Chicago jazz clubs, listening to artists such as Louis Armstrong, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and Jimmie Noone. Inspired by the playing of Hines, Cole began his performing career in the mid-1930s while he was still a teenager, and adopted the name "Nat Cole." His older brother, Eddie Coles, a bassist, soon joined Nat's band and they first recorded in 1936 under Eddie's name. They were also regular performers at clubs.

Los Angeles and the King Cole Trio

Nat King Cole and daughter Natalie Cole. Photo: Howard Frank Archives

Moving to the west coast, Cole and three other musicians formed the "King Cole Swingers" in Long Beach and played in a number of local bars before getting a job on the Long Beach Pike for $90.00 per week.

Nat soon married a dancer, Megan Robinson, and moved to Los Angeles where he formed the Nat King Cole Trio. The trio consisted of Nat on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Wesley Prince on double bass. The trio played in Los Angeles throughout the late 1930s and recorded many radio transcriptions. Nat was piano player and leader of the combo. Cole frequently sang in between instrumental numbers, and noticing that people started to request more vocal numbers, he obliged.

During World War II, Wesley Prince left the group and Cole replaced him with Johnny Miller. The King Cole Trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records in 1943 and Cole stayed with the recording company for the rest of his career. Revenues from Cole's record sales fueled much of Capitol Records' success during this period, and are believed to have played a significant role in financing the distinctive Capitol Records building on Hollywood and Vine, in Los Angeles. Completed in 1956, it was the world's first circular office building and became known as "the house that Nat built."

Cole was considered a leading jazz pianist, appearing, for example, in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts (credited on the Mercury Record labels as "Shorty Nadine," apparently derived from the name of his wife at the time). His revolutionary lineup of piano, guitar and bass in the time of the big bands became a popular set up for a jazz trio. It was emulated by many musicians, among them Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Tommy Flanagan, and blues pianists Charles Brown and Ray Charles. He also performed as a pianist on sessions with Lester Young, Red Callender, and Lionel Hampton.

Early singing career

Cole's first mainstream vocal hit was his 1943 recording of one of his compositions, "Straighten Up and Fly Right," based on a black folk tale that his father had used as a theme for a sermon. Johnny Mercer invited him to record it for the fledgling Capitol Records label. It sold over 500,000 copies, and proved that folk-based material could appeal to a wide audience. Although Nat would never be considered a rocker, the song can be seen as anticipating the first rock and roll records.

Beginning in the late 1940s, Cole began recording and performing more pop-oriented material for mainstream audiences, often accompanied by a string orchestra. His stature as a popular icon was cemented during this period by hits such as "The Christmas Song" (Cole recorded the tune four times), "Nature Boy" (1948), "Mona Lisa" (1950), "Too Young" (1951), and his signature tune "Unforgettable" (1951). While this shift to pop music led some jazz critics and fans to accuse Cole of selling out, he never totally abandoned his jazz roots; as late as 1956, he recorded an all-jazz album, After Midnight.

Challenging racial barriers

Cole appeared frequently on popular variety programs hosted by Perry Como, Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and others. A wholly mainstream singer and entertainer, Cole was eventually offered his own TV show, which he very much wanted.

On November 5, 1956, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC-TV. Initially begun as a 15-minute show on Monday night, the show was expanded to a half hour in July 1957. While Cole was not the first African-American to host a network television show-an honor belonging to jazz pianist and singer Hazel Scott in 1950- Cole's stature made the venture more socially significant, which Cole himself recognized.

Cole felt confident that commercial sponsors would support the program, but advertisers worried that white Southern audiences would boycott their products. One cosmetics representative claimed that a "negro" couldn't sell lipstick, to which Cole angrily responded, "What do they think we use? Chalk? Congo paint?"1 The program featured some of the most acclaimed artists,who performed at a fraction of their usual rate to help keep the show on the air. Top performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Pearl Bailey, Mahalia Jackson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, and Harry Belafonte, appeared for the minimum wage allowed by the union.

Despite the efforts of NBC, The Nat King Cole Show ultimately failed due to a lack of national sponsorship. The last episode of The Nat King Cole Show aired December 17, 1957. Cole praised NBC for its support and directly blamed the advertising industry. "Madison Avenue," Cole said, "is afraid of the dark."

Singer and actress Eartha Kitt, one of the program's guest stars, later reflected that Cole's sophisticated image, elegance, and interaction with white performers as equals "was dangerous" in an era when blacks appearing on television regularly were only in comic or subservient roles. "I think it was too early," Kitt said, "to show ourselves off as intelligent people."2

Although Cole had experienced virulent racism in his life and career, Cole, like Louis Armstrong, was never a crusader for racial justice. He was criticized by some for regularly performing in segregated-audience venues in the South, for instance. Then in 1956, he was assaulted on stage while singing the song "Little Girl" in Birmingham, Alabama, by three members of the North Alabama White Citizens' Council, who apparently were attempting to kidnap him.

The attack began at the rear of the auditorium when three men ran down the aisles towards Cole and his band. The invasion of the stage was quickly contained by local law enforcement but in the ensuing melée Cole was toppled from his piano bench and injured his back. Cole did not finish the concert and never again performed in the South. A fourth member of the group who had participated in the plot was later arrested in connection with the act. All were later tried and convicted for the assault.

1950s and beyond

Throughout the 1950s, Cole continued to rack up hit after hit, including "Smile," "Pretend," "A Blossom Fell," "If I May." His pop hits were collaborations with well-known arrangers and conductors of the day, including Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Ralph Carmichael. Riddle arranged several of Cole's 1950s albums, including his first 10-inch long-play album, his 1953 Nat King Cole Sings For Two In Love. Jenkins arranged Love Is the Thing, #1 on the album charts in April 1957.

In 1958, Cole went to Havana, Cuba, to record Cole Español, an album sung entirely in Spanish. The album was so popular in Latin America as well as in the United States that two others in the same vein followed: A Mis Amigos (sung in Spanish and Portuguese) in 1959, and More Cole Español in 1962. A Mis Amigos contains the Venezuelan hit "Ansiedad," whose lyrics Cole had learned while performing in Caracas in 1958. Cole learned songs in languages other than English by rote.

The change in musical tastes during the late 1950s meant that Cole's ballad singing did not sell well with younger listeners, despite a successful stab at rock n' roll with "Send For Me" (peaked at #6 pop). In 1960, Nat's long-time collaborator Nelson Riddle left Capitol Records for Frank Sinatra's newly formed Reprise Records label. Riddle and Cole recorded one final hit album Wild Is Love, based on lyrics by Ray Rasch and Dotty Wayne. Cole later retooled the concept album into an off-Broadway show, I'm With You.

Cole did manage to record some hit singles during the 1960s, including the country-flavored hit "Ramblin' Rose" and "Dear Lonely Hearts," "Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days Of Summer," "Let Me Tell You, Babe," and "That Sunday, That Summer."

Cole performed in many short films, sitcoms, television shows, and played W. C. Handy in the film St. Louis Blues (1958). He also appeared in The Nat King Cole Story, China Gate, and The Blue Gardenia (1953). Cat Ballou (1965), his final film, was released several months after his death.

Personal life

Cole's first marriage, to Nadine Robinson, ended in 1948. On March 28, 1948 (Easter Sunday), just six days after his divorce became final, Cole married singer Maria Hawkins Ellington-no relation to Duke Ellington although she had sung with Ellington's band. They were married in Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and had five children: daughter Natalie was born in 1950, followed by adoption of Carol (the daughter of Maria's sister, born in 1944) and a son Nat Kelly Cole (born in 1959), who died in 1995 at 36. Twin girls Casey and Timolin were born in 1961.

In 1948, Cole purchased a house in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The property owners association told Cole they did not want any undesirables moving in. Cole retorted "Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I'll be the first to complain."

On August 23, 1956, Cole spoke at the Republican National Convention in the Cow Palace, San Francisco, California. He was also present at the Democratic National Convention in 1960 to throw his support behind President John F. Kennedy. Cole was also among the dozens of entertainers recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the Kennedy Inaugural gala in 1961. Cole frequently consulted with President Kennedy (and later President Johnson) on the issue of civil rights.

Cole reportedly carried on affairs throughout his marriage. By the time he contracted lung cancer, he was estranged from his wife Maria while in a relationship with actress Gunilla Hutton, best known as Nurse Goodbody of Hee Haw fame. However, he was with his wife during his illness and she stayed with him until his death.

Death and legacy

Cole, a heavy smoker who would smoke as much as three packs of cigarettes a day, died of lung cancer while still at the height of his singing career. The day before he died, he did a radio interview, stating: "I am feeling better than ever. I think I've finally got this cancer licked."

He died on February 15, 1965, at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California and his funeral was held in Los Angeles. His remains were interred inside Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

His last album, L-O-V-E, was recorded in early December 1964-just a few days before entering the hospital for treatment-and released just prior to his death; it peaked at number four on the Billboard Albums chart in the spring of 1965. A Best Of album went gold in 1968. His 1957 recording of "When I Fall In Love" reached number four in the United Kingdom charts in 1987.

Cole was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990, and in 1997 was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. In 2007, he was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.

In 1991, Mosaic Records released The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio, an 18 compact disc set, consisting of 349 songs. (This special compilation also was available as a 27 high-quality LP record set.)

Nat's youngest brother Freddy Cole, and his daughter, Natalie Cole are also singers. In the summer of 1991, Natalie and her deceased father had an unexpected hit when Natalie mixed her own voice with her father's 1961 rendition of "Unforgettable," as part of her album paying tribute to her father's music. The song and the album of the same name won seven Grammy awards in 1992.

Discography (albums)

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YearAlbum Title
1944The King Cole Trio - Capitol Records (10 inch LP)
1946The King Cole Trio Volume 2 (10 inch LP)
1948The King Cole Trio Volume 3 (10 inch LP)
1950Nat King Cole At The Piano (10 inch LP)
1952Penthouse Serenade (10 inch LP)
1952Top Pops (10 inch LP version)
1952Harvest Of Hits (10 inch LP)
1953Sings For Two In Love (10 inch LP)
1954Unforgettable (10 inch originally, 12 inch following year)
1955Penthouse Serenade (12 inch LP version)
1955Nat King Cole Sings For Two In Love (12 inch LP version)
195510th Anniversary Album (12 inch LP version)
1955Top Pops (12 inch LP version)
1955The Piano Style of Nat King Cole
1956Ballads of the Day
1957This Is Nat King Cole
1957After Midnight
1957Just One Of Those Things
1957Love Is the Thing
1958Cole Español
1958St. Louis Blues
1958The Very Thought Of You
1958To Whom It May Concern
1959Welcome To The Club
1959A Mis Amigos
1960Tell Me All About Yourself
1960Everytime I Feel The Spirit
1960Wild Is Love
1960The Magic of Christmas
1961The Nat King Cole Story
1961The Touch of Your Lips
1962Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays (Bonus LP added to later pressings)
1962Ramblin' Rose
1962Dear Lonely Hearts
1962Chartbusters: Volume 2 (Capitol Compilation LP, features "Ramblin' Rose")
1962More Cole Español
1962Swingin' Side Of Nat King Cole (Reissue Of "Welcome To the Club")
1963Nat King Cole Sings the Blues (Reissue Of St. Louis Blues)
1963Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer
1963Chartbusters: Volume 3 (Capitol Compilation LP, features "That Sunday, That Summer" & "Mr. Wishing Well")
1963Top Pops (Reissue of 1955 album)
1963Where Did Everyone Go?
1963The Christmas Song (Reissue Of Magic Of Christmas plus title song, minus "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen")
1964Chartbusters: Volume 4 (Capitol Compilation LP, features "My True Carrie, Love")
1964Nat King Cole Sings My Fair Lady
1964Let's Face The Music!
1964I Don't Want To Be Hurt Anymore
1965L-O-V-E (Released weeks before Cole Died)
Compilations & Re-Releases (Released Posthumously)
1965Sings Songs From Cat Ballou & Other Motion Pictures
1965Looking Back
1965Unforgettable (1965 reissue of 1954 album)
1965Sings Hymns & Spirituals (Reissue Of Every Time I Feel the Spirit)
1965Nat King Cole Trio: The Vintage Years
1965Nature Boy
1966Nat King Cole At the Sands (Recorded Live on January 14, 1960)
1966Sincerely, Nat King Cole
1966Nat Cole Sings the Great Songs!
1966Longines Symphonette Society Presents the Unforgettable Nat King Cole (Box Set)
1967The Beautiful Ballads
1967Thank You, Pretty Baby
1968Best Of Nat King Cole
1970The Magic Of Christmas With Children (Safeway Supermarket Promo LP)
1973Nature Boy
1974Our Love Is Here To Stay
1974Love is a Many Splendored Thing
1979Reader's Digest Presents: The Great Nat King Cole (4LP Box Set)
1982Greatest Love Songs
1983Unforgettable (Australia)
1986The Christmas Song (1st CD Reissue of 1963 album)
1987Unforgettable (1st CD Reissue Of 1954 album)
1987Sings For Two In Love(and more) (1st CD Reissue Of 1955 album, plus 3 bonus tracks from "To Whom It May Concern")
1987The Complete After Midnight Sessions (1st CD Reissue Of 1956 album, plus unreleased session tracks)
1987Love Is the Thing(and more) (1st CD Reissue Of 1957 Album, plus 3 tracks from "Where Did Everyone Go")
1987Just One Of Those Things(and more) (1st CD Reissue Of 1957 album, plus 3 tracks from "Let's Face the Music")
1987Cole Espanol Vol 1 (CD reissue combines 10 tracks from "Cole Espanol," plus 5 tracks from "A Mis Amigos")
1987Cole Espanol Vol 2 (CD reissue combines 10 tracks from "More Cole Espanol," plus 5 tracks from "A Mis Amigos")
1987Ramblin' Rose(and more) (1st CD Reissue Of 1962 album, plus 3 tracks from "Dear Lonely Hearts")
1987Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays (1st CD Reissue Of 1962 album, plus unreleased tracks)
1987The Very Thought Of You (1st CD Reissue Of 1958 album, plus unreleased tracks)
1987Every Time I Feel the Spirit (1st CD Reissue Of 1960 album)
1990Hit That Jive, Jack
1990Jumpin' at Capitol
1990Capitol Collectors' Series
1990Cole, Christmas and Kids
1991Big Band Cole (Repackaging of Welcome To the Club with bonus tracks)
1991The Complete Capitol Recordings Of the Nat King Cole Trio (Mammoth Box set from Mosaic Records of CT containing every recording Cole made in a trio context from 1942-1961. Came on 18CD's or 27 LP's)
1991The Unforgettable Nat King Cole
1991The Nat King Cole Story (1991 2-CD reissue of 1961 Double LP)
1992LOVE (1st CD Reissue Of 1965 album, plus bonus single tracks)
1992Ballads Of the Day (1st CD Reissue Of 1956 album, plus unreleased tracks) Above 2 titles were a limited time released to commemorate Capitol Records 50th anniversary.
1992Nat King Cole At the Movies
1992Christmas Favorites
1992Selections From The Nat King Cole 4-CD Box Set (Promo)
1992The Best Of The Nat King Cole Trio: The Instrumental Classics
1993The Billy May Sessions (2Cd Set)Includes all tracks from "Just One Of Those Things" and "Let's Face the Music," plus various unreleased single records.
1993Mis Mejores Canciones - 19 Super Exitos
1994Greatest Hits (DCC Gold Disc version released 1995)
1994Let's Face the Music & Dance (Not the 1964 album)
1995Wild Is Love (1st CD Reissue Of 1960 album)
1995To Whom It May Concern (1st CD Reissue Of 1958 album)
1995St. Louis Blues (1st CD Reissue Of 1958 album)
1996Chestnuts Roastin' (CEMA bargain CD release, contains 10 of the 14 tracks from "The Christmas Song" CD)
1996Sincerely/The Beautiful Ballads (UK two-fer)
1998The Frim Fram Sauce
1998Dear Lonely Hearts/I Don't Want To Be Hurt Anymore (UK two-fer)
1999Looking Back/Where Did Everyone Go? (UK two-fer)
1999Live At The Circle Room (Radio Transcriptions From a 1944 Performance)
1999The Christmas Song (1999 CD reissue restores all tracks from "The Magic Of Christmas," plus 3 versions of "The Christmas Song")
2000Coast To Coast Live (1963 Concert At the Riverside Inn, Fresno, CA/1962 WNEW Radio Show)
2000Route 66
2000Christmas & Kids: From One To Ninety Two (Reissue Of Cole, Christmas & Kids)
2001The King Swings
2001Try Not To Cry
2001Night Lights (album recorded in 1956, but never released)
2003Stepping Out of a Dream
2003The Classic Singles (4 CD Book)
200320 Golden Greats
2003The Best Of…
2003Love Songs
2003The Nat King Cole Trio (With Famous Guests)
2003The One And Only Nat King Cole
2004Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days Of Summer/My Fair Lady (UK two-fer)
2004The Christmas Song (An Update on the 1999 CD reissue)
2005The World Of Nat King Cole (Bonus DVD added 2006)
2006The Very Best of Nat King Cole
2006Stardust: The Complete Capitol Recordings, 1955-59
2006L-O-V-E: The Complete Capitol Recordings, 1960-64



  • Citizen Kane (1941) (off-screen)
  • Here Comes Elmer (1943)
  • Pistol Packin' Mama (1943)
  • Pin Up Girl (1944)
  • Stars on Parade (1944)
  • Swing in the Saddle (1944)
  • See My Lawyer (1945)
  • Breakfast in Hollywood (1946)
  • Killer Diller (1948)
  • Make Believe Ballroom (1949)
  • The Blue Gardenia (1953)
  • Small Town Girl (1953)
  • Rock 'n' Roll Revue (1955)
  • Rhythm and Blues Revue (1955)
  • Basin Street Revue (1956)
  • The Scarlet Hour (1956)
  • Istanbul (1957)
  • China Gate (1957)
  • St. Louis Blues (1958)
  • Night of the Quarter Moon (1959)
  • Schlager-Raketen (1960)
  • Cat Ballou (1965)

Short subjects

  • King Cole Trio & Benny Carter Orchestra (1950)
  • Nat King Cole and Joe Adams Orchestra (1952)
  • Nat King Cole and Russ Morgan and His Orchestra (1953)
  • The Nat King Cole Musical Story (1955)


  1. ↑ "The Nat "King" Cole Show," Museum of Broadcast Communications1Retrieved June 10, 2008
  2. ↑ Museum of Broadcast Communications2Retrieved June 10, 2008


  • Epstein, Daniel M. Nat King Cole. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1999. ISBN 9780374219123
  • Gourse, Leslie. Unforgettable: the life and mystique of Nat King Cole. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. ISBN 9780312059828
  • Haskins, James. Nat King Cole. New York: Stein and Day, 1984. ISBN 9780812829747
  • Ruuth, Marianne. Nat King Cole. Los Angeles: Melrose Square Pub. Co., 1992. ISBN 9780870675935

External links

All links retrieved November 7, 2018.

  • Nat King Cole (Popular Singer and Pianist) - Facts, Life and Songs
  • The Unforgettable Nat King Cole
  • NPR Jazz Profiles - The Pianist and The Singer