Nat "King" Cole

Dublin Core


Nat "King" Cole


Montgomery, Montgomery County, Jazz, Blues, Swing Music, Radio, WWII, Television Shows, Alabama Music Hall of Fame


Nat "King" Cole (March 17. 1919 - February 15, 1965)

Born Nathaniel Adams Coles, on March 17, 1919, in Montgomery, Alabama, crooner Nat Cole was known for his smooth, soft baritone and easygoing nature. When Nat was four years old, his father, Edward Coles, a Baptist minister, moved the family north to Chicago, Illinois. His mother, Perlina, who played the organ in her husband’s church, was one of his musical influences. As Chicago was a magnet for jazz musicians, Nat was also influenced by such artists as Louis Armstrong, and Earl “Fatha” Hines, who he would sneak out of his house to go listen to at the various clubs around the city. Dropping out of high school before graduation, Nat first played piano for his brother’s group, Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers. Settling in Los Angeles after a national tour that he was part off failed, Nat joined with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Price in the late 1930s to form the King Cole trio, as Nat had acquired the moniker “King,” due in part to the Mother Goose nursery rhyme, ‘Old King Cole,” as well as a nod to his musical prowess. Originally, the group focused on instrumental tunes, with Nat offering vocals on occasion. Legend has it that Nat’s singing career took off when a drunken patron insisted that he sing “Sweet Lorraine.” While this story has been discounted, mainly by Cole himself, he nevertheless didn’t discourage it. Nat’s explanation of his transformation in simpler terms, stating, “I started out to become a jazz pianist; in the meantime I started singing and I sang the way I felt and that's just the way it came out.” By 1943, with the help of appearances on such radio shows as Swing Soiree, the Chesterfield Supper Club, and Kraft Music Hall, The King Cole Trio had scored their first major hit with Nat’s own composition, Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Later hits like “The Christmas Song” (1946), “Route 66” (1946), “Nature Boy” (1948, and “Mona Lisa” (1950), solidified Nat’s place as a solo act and moved him away from his jazz roots with The King Cole Trio. In 1956, Nat made history by becoming the first African American to host a show on American television, The Nat “King” Cole Show on NBC. The show lasted for just over a year, ending when the show’s producers were unable to find a national sponsor, due in part to reluctance to advance a show hosted by, and featuring, African American entertainers. Although not overtly vocal regarding the civil rights battle going on in America in the 1950s and 1960s, Nat was an advocate for equality, contributing money to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and bringing lawsuits against hotels that hired him to entertain, but refused to serve him. Nat’s career kept moving forward, as he combined his singing with a fledgling acting career, the highlight being the role of W.C. Handy in 1958’s “St. Louis Blues”, based on the life of Handy. It was around this time that Nat ventured into another new genre, Latin music, recording three albums exclusively in Spanish and Portuguese from 1958 to 1962. In December of 1964, after having experienced back pain and weight loss over the previous few months, Nat was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. A heavy smoker for most of his life, Nat continued to work in spite of the diagnosis and pain, releasing his final album L-O-V-E, as well as filming his last movie, “Cat Ballou,” starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin. Nat succumbed to lung cancer on February 15, 1965. Nat’s popularity has remained strong long after his death, aided in part by his daughter Natalie’s recording of her father’s 1951 hit, “Unforgettable,” which combined new vocal from Natalie with those of her father’s. Posthumously, Nat has been enshrined in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (1985), the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame (1993), the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame (1997), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2000), and the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame (2013), as well as being featured on a United States postage stamp in 1994. Long after his passing, Nat’s sound is still influencing new generations of singers and finding new listeners.

Watch & Listen:
"Nat King Cole - Unforgettable"
"Nat King Cole - When I Fall In Love (From Movie - Istanbul 1957)"
"Memphis Blues Scene from 'St. Louis Blues' (1958)"
"Nat Cole and early family interview"
"Nat 'King' Cole Interview"


John Griffin, University of North Alabama


Epstein, Daniel Mark. Nat King Cole. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999

Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia. New York: Penguin Books, 1993

“Nat ‘King’ Cole.” Accessed November 29, 2016.

Gilliland, John. Show 22 - Smack Dab in the Middle on Route 66: A skinny dip in the easy listening mainstream. [Part 1]. UNT Digital Library. Accessed November 29, 2016.

All images courtesy of Mr. George Lair and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, unless otherwise noted.


Alabama Cultural Resource Survey




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