Nat King Cole was a legendary American jazz pianist and vocalist who helped define an era. Born in 1919, Cole’s distinctive baritone voice and stylish, melodic jazz piano brought him widespread fame and success. His hits like “Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa,” and “The Christmas Song” have become timeless classics. However, Cole’s musical accomplishments were achieved despite facing immense racial barriers and discrimination throughout his career due to the color of his skin. Yet through talent, perseverance, and an unflappable charm, Cole broke through and earned the respect of audiences and fellow musicians alike. Though his life was cut tragically short by lung cancer in 1965 at the age of 45, Cole’s musical legacy lives on. His unparalleled style and soulful interpretations of jazz, pop, and ballads made him an unforgettable icon of American music.
Nat King Cole: An Unforgettable Life
Nat King Cole was an American jazz pianist and vocalist known for his distinctive baritone voice and piano playing. Cole’s soft, warm voice made him one of the most popular artists of the 1940s and 1950s.
Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama in 1919. He formed the King Cole Trio in the late 1930s, with which he had his first hits “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You.” The trio’s piano-driven sound and Cole’s vocals were influential on later jazz vocalists.
In the mid-1940s, Cole began a solo career, expanding into pop music and film. His hits include “The Christmas Song,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Unforgettable.” Cole was the first African American man to host a variety TV series, The Nat King Cole Show, which aired on NBC from 1956 to 1957.
Sadly, Cole’s life and career were cut short when he passed away from lung cancer in 1965 at the age of 45. However, Cole’s musical legacy lives on through his iconic baritone voice and timeless standards. He helped pave the way for African American artists and through his charm, talent, and charisma, connected with and inspired people of all backgrounds. Truly, Nat King Cole was an unforgettable artist who left an enduring imprint on American music.
The Early Years: Growing Up in Music
Nat King Cole was born in 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, but grew up in Chicago where his family moved when he was only 4 years old. Cole’s father was a Baptist minister and his mother was a church organist, so music was deeply ingrained in Cole from an early age.
- Cole began studying piano at the age of 4 and organ at the age of 12. His mother was his first teacher, giving him a foundation in classical music and technique.
- In his teens, Cole joined a jazz trio with his brother Eddie on bass and Oscar Moore on guitar. They began playing at clubs around Chicago and built up a following.
- Cole’s smooth baritone voice and masterful piano skills caught the attention of many in the music industry. In 1943, Cole’s trio signed with Capitol Records launching his career.
Over the next two decades, Cole recorded hit after hit, becoming one of the first African American entertainers to host his own radio and television shows. Some of his most well-known and beloved songs include “Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa,” “Route 66” and “The Christmas Song.” Cole’s musical stylings and vocal interpretations influenced countless other artists.
Sadly, Cole passed away from lung cancer in 1965 at the young age of 45. However, his rich musical legacy lives on. Nat King Cole was a pioneering artist who helped break down racial barriers and brought jazz and swing into mainstream American culture. His story is a reminder of how much talent, hard work, and perseverance in the face of adversity can achieve. Cole’s unforgettable music will continue to inspire new generations of fans for years to come.
Breaking Barriers: Nat King Cole Trio and Transition to Solo Career
Early Success and Barriers
In the early 1940s, Nat King Cole formed the Nat King Cole Trio, enjoying great success and popularity. However, as an African American artist during this time period, Cole faced significant barriers due to racial discrimination. Many hotels and clubs refused to book the trio due to Cole’s race.
Transition to Solo Career
Cole began transitioning to a solo career in the mid-1940s, though he still faced barriers. His 1946 single “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” and 1948 single “Nature Boy” were hits, demonstrating his vocal talent. However, some radio stations refused to play his music. Capitol Records, Cole’s label, even had a policy of not promoting black artists to white audiences.
Despite facing discrimination, Cole’s talent and music gained him more mainstream success and popularity over time. His 1950 single “Mona Lisa” was a number one hit, and his albums topped the charts. Cole became the first African American male singer to host a variety TV show, “The Nat King Cole Show,” which aired from 1956 to 1957.
Though the show struggled with lack of sponsorship due to racism and was ultimately canceled, it demonstrated Cole’s talent and helped advance racial integration in media. Cole’s widespread popularity and vocal advocacy for racial equality helped chip away at barriers, paving the way for later black artists. Known for his warm baritone voice and jazz-infused pop sound, Cole produced enduring hits like “Unforgettable,” “Smile,” and “L-O-V-E.” By the time of his death from lung cancer in 1965 at age 45, Cole had overcome immense obstacles and sold over 50 million records, cementing his status as an unforgettable American icon.
Musical Legacy: Memorable Melodies and Timeless Standards
Nat King Cole’s vocal performances were enhanced by memorable melodies and timeless standards that resonated with listeners. Cole’s rich baritone voice and jazz-infused style brought new life to well-known songs like “Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Route 66.” His interpretations of these jazz and pop standards are considered definitive versions that endure today.
Some of Cole’s most recognizable and enduring hits include:
- “Unforgettable” (1951) – This jazz standard topped the charts and earned Cole a Grammy Hall of Fame induction. Its lush orchestration and sentimental lyrics about lost love have allowed it to transcend generations.
- “Mona Lisa” (1950) – Cole’s signature song spent 8 weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts. Its dramatic melody and Cole’s heartfelt delivery helped launch it into the public consciousness. It remains a classic pop standard.
- “Nature Boy” (1948) – This haunting ballad about a “strange enchanted boy” showcased Cole’s rich vocal tone and interpretive skills. Its timeless message of wisdom and individuality has given it lasting power.
- “Route 66” (1946) – Cole’s jazzy, upbeat version of this popular standard helped establish it as an American road trip anthem. His playful, scat-filled performance brought the song international fame and recognition.
Through memorable melodies, stylistic mastery, and a crooning baritone voice for the ages, Nat King Cole crafted a musical legacy spanning jazz, traditional pop, and standards that lives on today. His interpretations of timeless classics like “Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Route 66” ensure his enduring influence and renown. Cole’s memorable songs and vocal artistry have stood the test of time, cementing his status as an unforgettable artist.
FAQ: Interesting Facts About Nat King Cole
Nathaniel Adams Coles, known professionally as Nat King Cole, was born on March 17, 1919, in Montgomery, Alabama. Cole began studying music at a young age, learning to play the piano from his mother. He formed his first jazz trio while in high school. Cole attended Alabama State Teachers College where he continued to study music.
Move to Los Angeles
Cole moved to Los Angeles, California in 1937 to pursue a career as a jazz pianist. He formed the King Cole Trio, achieving success with their instrumental “Sweet Lorraine.” Cole began singing with the trio, becoming known for his smooth baritone voice and jazz vocal interpretations.
The King Cole Trio signed with Capitol Records, releasing hit songs like “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.” Cole launched a successful solo career, releasing his first album, “The King Cole Trio,” in 1943. He earned the nickname “King of Jazz” for songs like “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Unforgettable.”
In 1956, Cole became the first African American performer to host his own television series, “The Nat King Cole Show.” He recorded Spanish and Portuguese versions of his hits for Latin American audiences. Cole’s last album, “Unforgettable,” was released in 1961 and included the hit title track “Unforgettable,” earning him a Grammy Award for Best Vocal Performance.
Cole passed away from lung cancer in 1965 at the age of 45. He was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990 for his significant contributions to the music industry. Cole’s buttery baritone voice and jazz stylings left an unforgettable mark on American music. His timeless songs of love and heartbreak continue to captivate new generations of fans.
Nat King Cole’s remarkable life and musical legacy live on through his timeless songs and recordings. Despite facing discrimination and barriers due to the color of his skin, Cole persevered with dignity and helped pave the way for African American artists. His velvet baritone voice and jazz-infused melodies broke through racial boundaries to reach listeners of all backgrounds. Though his life was tragically cut short, the unforgettable music of Nat King Cole endures and continues to bring people together. His story serves as an inspiration and reminder of how much talent, hard work, and perseverance in the face of adversity can achieve. The world is richer for having had Nat King Cole in it, even if only for a short while. His memory lives on through the gift of song.