Nathanial Coles (he dropped the ‘s’ when he turned professional)
was born on St.Patrick’s Day, 17th March 1919, in the town of
Montgomery, Alabama. His parents, the Reverend Edward Coles
and his wife Perlina, moved the family to Chicago when Nat was
about four years old. By the time he was ﬁve years old he had
made his piano debut in public and before another ten years had
passed he had his own High School band. Although Nat was still
at school he was having such success with his piano playing that
his brother Eddie came to join him in Chicago and they formed a
Sextet called the ‘Eddie Coles Solid Swingers’.
Nat married Nadine Robinson in 1938 and in the same year put together the ‘King Cole Swingsters’ consisting of Oscar Moore on guitar, Wesley Prince on bass and Lee Young on drums. Unfortunately, Lee Young didn’t turn up and the Trio was born.
Between 1938 and 1941 Nat was to record some 200 transcription recorings, one of these was SWEET LORRAINE, a song which was to become
synonymous with Nat King Cole. Nat changed the title
of the trio to ‘King Cole and his Swing Trio’ before in
1939 calling it ‘King Cole Trio’. Carlos Gastel became
Nat’s manager in 1943 and remained so until the end.
Nat’s big break came in 1943 whilst he was playing at
the Radio Room in Los Angeles. He was heard by
Johnny Mercer, one of the executives of the newly
formed record company, Capitol Records. Nat joined Capitol and was to become their most successful artist
and eventually their new premises the Capitol Tower on Hollywood and Vine, would become known as‘The House That Nat Built.
Nat’s ﬁrst record for Capitol was called ALL FOR YOU, and was a fair sized hit for the company. A major hit was STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT this was recorded on 30th November 1943. Over the next few years the hits rolled off the Capitol assembly line: IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, FRIM FRAM SAUCE, ROUTE 66, so that by March 1945 the King Cole Trio was big business for Capitol Records and on 15th March the ﬁrst album chart was printed in ‘Billboard’ and there was the King Cole Trio album in the No.1 spot.
This led to the biggest ever Trio recording of (I LOVE YOU) FOR SENTIMENTAL
REASONS. The turning point from Small Combo to lush dream balladeer occurred in
August 1946 when Nat recorded THE CHRISTMAS SONG. In
1974 it becme one of the ﬁrst Milestone recordings to be
placed in the coveted Hall of Fame at The National Academy
of Recorded Arts and Sciences on natiowide TV.
Nat divorced Nadine in 1947 and married Maria on 28th
March 1948 at one of the most lavish weddings Harlem has
ever seen. Nat’s brother Eddie was Best Man. Nat and Maria moved to a English Tudor style house, in South Murrayﬁeld Road in the Hancock Park section of L.A. Unfortunately, this area was restricted to whites only and Nat had many problems before he was ﬁnally accepted. In fact, the day he moved in one of his neigbours requested police protection and for a time the neighbours
house was protected by guards! While they were living in the
house many unpleasant acts were perpetrated against them:
their dog was poisoned and the word ‘Nigger’ was burned into
the grass outside their home. Shortly after moving into their
house, whether by accident or design, Nat suddenly found he
had problems with the Inland Revenue, which took many years
to over come.
Through the late forties and early ﬁfties it was
Capitol’s policy to combine their artists to record duets.
Because of this we are left with a wealth of recordings that Nat
made with artists such as Nellie Lutcher, Stan Kenton Woody
Herman, Johnny Mecer, Dean Martin, Nat’s wife Maria and even a young Natalie Cole.
1951 Nat was teamed with the up and coming arranger, Nelson Riddle. The ﬁrst song recorded at that Nelson Riddle Nat Cole session in June was UNFORGETTABLE. All through the ﬁfties and sixties Nat continued to have success in all areas of the media. In ﬁlms, apart from singing over many ﬁlm credits and making various guest appearances, he also had starring a role in the W.C. Handy’s
biographical movie ‘St Louis Blues ‘The Nat King Cole Story’
and a non singing role in ‘China Gate’. On TV, in addition to
many guest appearances and, in 1957, being the subject of
‘This Is Your Life’, Nat also had his own TV show, the ﬁrst
black artist to do so. The show ran for 68 weeks and included
as guests the cream of American vocalists and jazzmen.
It was in Chicago in November 1964 that Nat ﬁrst noticed his
loss of weight. He was starring in a touring snow called ‘The
Sights and Sounds 1964’ with artists like the Merry Young
Souls and Barbara McNair, and at the same time ﬁlming
‘Cat Ballou’. It had also been set up for him to record an album
while in Chicago which was built around his current successful
single hit, the Bert Kaempfert song ‘L-O-V-E’. Ralph Carmichael tells how he went into the studio to record the album and found Nat to be in an irritable mood, which was most unusual. Nat was insisting that all the arrangments be rewritten with more brass inﬁlls and to a more modern rhythm. The album was recorded on 1st to 3rd December, 1964 and titled ‘L-O-V-E’.
On 7th December Nat entered St John’s Hospital where lung cancer was diagnosed.
Nat only left hospital on two further occasions, once to spend
Christmaswith his family and once for a last quiet drive to the
seafront with Maria. He died on 15th February 1965.
This biography was written by Roy Holmes who heads the
Nat King Cole International Fan Club. Roy issues the fan club
newsletter “King Cole Comments” three times each year.
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