JOHN BUCHANAN CELEBRATES NAT KING COLE
Born Nathaniel Adams Cole on 17 March 1919, Nat was only four-years-old in 1921 when his father moved
his family from Montgomery, Alabama to take up a position as a Baptist minister. While Nat was growing up
in Chicago, surrounded by the music of his father’s church and the popular music on the radio, the young man found himself more attracted to the jazz music coming from the many bars, clubs, theatres and dance halls on the South Side of the city. At night he would sneak out of their home to sit outside the venues listening to the music being played by some of the great New Orleans musicians who had travelled north in the 1920s looking for work.
Nat dropped out of high school when he was 15 to become a musician, with his first important job touring and playing piano in a revival of the popular 1921 stage show Shuffle Along. When it closed prematurely in Los Angeles, he married Nadine Robinson, a dancer from the show, and then began to earn his living playing piano in almost every club up and down the West Coast, from Bakersfield to San Diego.
According to legend, Nat’s career as a vocalist started when a drunken bar patron demanded that he sing a particular song. Not knowing that song, Nat chose to sing one that he did know, Sweet Lorraine which, when recorded in 1940, became one the Trio’s first hits. Most of the King Cole Trio’s early recordings featured Nat on vocals, sometimes assisted by the other two. During the late 1930s the Trio recorded radio transcriptions and performed on radio programs helping them to reach a wider public.
The formation of Capitol Records in 1942 led to Nat King Cole following an entirely new career path. At the time the King Cole Trio was on the high road to success with tunes such as Straighten up and fly right, a composition Nat based on a parable his father had invented for one of his sermons. Soon afterwards came other hits such as It’s only a paper moon and Route 66. At the same time as he was enjoying his success with Capitol Records, Nat and his piano made a number of recordings and concert appearances with some of the great jazz musicians of the 1940s, recording four masterpieces in Los Angeles in 1942 with Lester Young and Red Callender. Between 1944 and 1946 he also gave concerts and recorded with Jazz at The Philharmonic.
The most important career change in the musical life of Nat King Cole occurred in 1946. Having divorced Nadine after nine years of marriage, he almost immediately married Maria Ellington (no relation to the Duke), a product of the elite black professional class of Boston. She encouraged Nat to try singing some slow romantic ballads with a full orchestra instead of with his piano, the bass and the guitar. Nat agreed to give it a go and in 1947 he went into the studio with an orchestra conducted by Frank De Vol, the in-house arranger of Capitol Records, and recorded a song called Nature boy using the instrumentation of flute and strings. Released as a single the following year it became a great hit, reaching the top of the Billboard music charts and selling over a million copies, and helping to introduce Nat to a wider audience, especially to the white music market. Nat King Cole’s future as a popular singer was assured.
Over the course of the next few years the jazz pianist, turned pop singer, recorded more than 100 songs that topped the hit parades, songs such as Mona Lisa, For sentimental reasons, Unforgettable, When I fall in love and Ramblin’ Rose. His success in these years led to him being the first black person to have his own radio and television show with his popularity soaring to greater heights during the 1950s and early 1960s.
In 1991, almost 40 years after Unforgettable became a hit, Cole’s daughter Natalie, with the help of modern technology, was reunited with her father in a duet and, 28 years after his death, Nat King Cole topped the charts again.
The centenary of the incomparable Nat King Cole will be celebrated in Swing Sessions at 12 noon on the 18th of March.