|He was born Nathaniel Adams Coles on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1919? (There was no birth certificate, so this is the estimated year of birth) in segregated Montgomery, Alabama. A child prodigy, he could play piano effortlessly by the age of four. He became famous first as a jazz pianist. But soon his silky smooth baritone vocals, wrapped mostly around standards, which Nat loved singing, eclipsed his popularity as a musician. Many of his new fans were completely unaware that he played piano and that he had made a living as the leader of the jazz and swing ensemble, The King Cole Trio. Nat later made history as the very first African-American to host his own weekly radio and television program. Nat was reluctantly pushed into the Civil Rights struggle and was vilified by many people because of how he stood on issues concerning race. Even so, many opportunities that are commonplace in the music industry today came about because of Nat "King" Cole. This site takes a look at Nat's life and career, and why he will always be UNFORGETTABLE.
THE BOY THAT WOULD BE "KING"
Nathaniel was born in Alabama, but raised in the ghettos of the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, where his family moved in 1923, like most Southern families who had left their home states for the hope of a more prosperous life. Edward James Coles, Nat's father, was a preacher in his own church called the True Light Baptist Church, and his mother, Perlina Adams Coles, was the church organist and choir director. IThe Coles were a poor family from a economic standpoint, but rich in love and faith. They were also a very musical clan. They could all play instruments or sing. At that time, Nat was the youngest of four kids in the Coles family: older siblings Eddie Mae (who died at age 15 from pneumonia), Eddie and Evelyn, until later, when more kids came along (younger brothers Isaac and Lionel, aka Freddy). He had a broad smile, mischevious almond-shaped twinkling eyes that looked almost Asiatic, and skin the rich color of coffee beans. He was a happy-go-lucky child with an acute sense of humor and who also had the tendency to stammer and spoke with a slight lisp. As he got older, he overcame it. From the very start, little Nat had an ear for music and between getting piano lessons from his mother (and later, from a professional instructor) and secretly listening to jazz and blues on the radio, his abilities as a pianist grew. In fact, he had heard the song "Yes, We Have No Bananas" on the radio before he even began kindergarten, picked out the notes and taught himself to play it by ear. However, the Reverend Coles didn't like "the devil's music" being played in his household. The Coles were a strict, deeply religious family, and many times Nat and his older brother Eddie felt the sting of the strap because of their love of things in the secular world. But it did not matter to the two of them; music was all they lived for. They were growing up in a known mecca for jazz and the blues ~ Chicago ~ and all they wished to become were musicians.
As a boy growing up during the Great Depression, Nat had a deep love for sports, especially baseball, which stayed with him for the rest of his life. He had played the game as a youngster and was good enough to draw interest from scouts from the Negro Leagues, but it was never as important to him as music was. He idolized Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Noone, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller, but mostly adapted his style from legendary jazz pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines, and strived to be like him ~ or at least as good as Hines was. (Hines himself started out as a child prodigy, playing classical music while he was still a pre-teen, and winning contests.) Nat first began playing piano and organ in his dad's church. The youngster would raise the eyebrows of both his father and some in the congregation by adding some hot jazz and bluesy embellishments to the gospel hymns. That usually warranted a scolding or a whooping, until Nathaniel got too old and tall for the good Reverend to pull the strap out on him.
By the time Nathaniel was 16, he had his own high school band, the Royal Dukes, and later the Rogues of Rhythm, and was competing against Earl Hines in the "Battle of Rhythm" at Chicago's Savoy Ballroom ~ and he had dropped the "s" from his name. The word around town was that young Nat (Schoolboy) Cole, tall and skinny, had IT.
He had already built up a reputation around town as someone whose talents should not go unnoticed, because he would indeed become the heir to Earl Hines' throne. He was already being tagged "Chicago's Young Maestro" and "The Prince of The Ivories". The boy was able to learn Hines' techniques by ear, and teach them to his band. And yet another thing he adopted from Hines ~ his cigarette habit.
Much to the disappointment of his parents, Nat decided to quit high school at 16 to pursue a musical career full time. Plus it was a way to bring extra money into the household. It was the Reverend's hope that Nat and his brothers would follow him into the church, but it was not to be. Other than him playing hymns on the organ at church services since he was a preschooler, Nat wasn't interested in a career in the clergy, and neither were his brothers. But their religious upbringing would always be a part of who they were. Over the years, though, the Reverend Coles would make Nat and his brothers feel guilty for not doing what he would have preferred his sons to do. Back in those days, anyone who chose being a musician as a profession was considered to be either trifling, lazy, sinful or a bum. But Nat and his brother didn't see it that way. Nathaniel's older brother Eddie could not only play piano, but he was also a bass player. His talents didn't go unnoticed, and he soon began touring worldwide as a member of several popular jazz and blues bands of the day. The Reverend didn't approve of that, but Eddie didn't care. Besides, it was a way for him to get out of the strict rules that went with living in his father's house. In the meanwhile, Nat was watching his brother's moves closely. He idolized Eddie, who was nine years older, and he wanted to be like him.
After Eddie came home from touring with bandleader Noble Sissle, he was treated like a star. He joined his little brother's band. When he joined the group, though, the focus was taken off Nat, and the group was now being referred to as "Eddie Cole's Band", even though they still consisted of Nat's original Rogues of Rhythm. Nat didn't like that. This was his band, and his brother just came in and took things over! But things were about to change for the youngster when he turned 16. Sometime around his birthday, the group was playing at a club at home in Chicago when Nat noticed that his group was on the same bill as a beautiful showgirl named Nadine Robinson. Nadine was sort of a local celebrity around Chicago's South Side, known for her gorgeous features and her dancing.
Many men, including the Cole brothers, found her to be very desirable, and they would do anything to get next to her. She had fabulous legs, something the teenaged Nat noticed right off. He did nothing but daydream about her. Soon he was in love. The fact that she was several years older than Nat ~ about 10 ~ didn't discourage him. However, he was painfully shy around women and didn't know how to express his feelings to her. He then wrote a song for her called "Honey Hush". He was thrilled to discover that Nadine was attracted to him, too, but she was unaware of exactly how old he was. In the end it didn't matter...in January, 1937, the two eloped to Kalamazoo, Michigan and got married in a civil ceremony. Nadine was 27...Nathaniel Cole was only 17. He had lied about his age on the marriage certificate and said he was 21. Because Nat was so tall (he was 6'2") and looked older than his seventeen years, no one questioned it.
Shortly before this happened, the name of the group was renamed Eddie Cole's Solid Swingers, and were able to cut a few songs on the Decca label, such as "Honey Hush", "Stompin' at the Panama", "Thunder" and "Bedtime (Sleep, Baby, Sleep)", all original compositions. Nat did not sing on any of these songs. Except for "Honey Hush", on which Eddie sang lead, these songs were all jazz or blues instrumentals. Eventually Eddie, Nat and the Solid Swingers joined the orchestra of a revival of Shuffle Along, the first all-black musical to be a hit on Broadway back in the 1920's. They were hoping that they could bring the show back to Broadway. With time, the gifted young pianist became the bandleader for the show. Nadine also joined the cast, so she and Nat were together a lot. It was during the tour that they married. Eventually they ended up in Los Angeles in May, 1937, where Shuffle Along ended up closing due to mismanagement of funds. Most of the cast went back to New York. Eddie had left the show before it closed. The rest of the Solid Swingers headed back to Chicago. A few of the others, including Nat Cole, stayed on in California, performing in clubs around L.A. He and Nadine had decided to settle there, mainly because Nat had run out of money and had no way to get back home. But another reason why Nat stayed in California after Shuffle Along closed was that he was afraid to go home to Chicago and face the wrath of his father. Even though the Coles liked Nadine and didn't mind that she was so much older than Nathaniel, they didn't like that he had gotten married without their consent.
Life was rough for the couple. Nat basically took work wherever he could, playing in countless jukejoints, speakeasys and bars all over Southern California, but he made little or no money. Many times the pianos he played in these places were either out of tune, or had keys missing altogether, so Nat had to improvise. It's been said that was how he developed his own style apart from that of Hines' and Tatum's. Nadine found employment working as a dancer or a nightclub hostess, but it was never permanent. It was hard to keep food on the table. But the newlyweds were so in love they didn't seem to mind the struggles, as long as they were together. Nadine, whom Nat nicknamed "Shorty" (he liked giving people nicknames), never lost faith in her young husband. She was smart, aggressive, and supportive of Nat no matter what, qualities that he admired in the women he would encounter during his lifetime. Nadine knew that things would come together for them eventually. And she was right.
That summer, Nat was playing at the Century Club, a small nightclub in Los Angeles, and a man approached him and told him how much he loved his style. The man, who was named Bob Lewis, then explained to Nat that he owned a nightclub in Hollywood called the Swanee Inn, and if Nat could form a small ensemble, Lewis would hire them to play jazz and blues in his club for at least $75 a week. Nat agreed to Lewis' offer, and began to search for the right musicians to build his group. The teenager settled upon Wesley Prince, a bass player who once played in Lionel Hampton's band; Oscar Moore, an innovative young guitarist with smolderingly good movie-star looks who was originally from Austin, Texas, but raised in Phoenix, Arizona; and Lee Young, a drummer and the younger brother of legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young. He had worked with bandleaders Buck Clayton and Eddie Barefield. But Young changed his mind when he saw the tiny stage at the Swanee Inn. There would be no room for a drummer, he said, and turned Nat's offer down. So the quartet became a trio. (In the 1950s, Young would rejoin Nat's band and would stay with him until 1962, when he went to work for Berry Gordy, Jr. at Motown Records.)
They auditioned for Bob Lewis, who loved them, and initially he hired them to play in the club for two weeks...but they were so popular, they ended up staying six months! Now the Prince of the Ivories was to become a King. Wesley began calling Nat "King Cole", coming from the Mother Goose nursery rhyme, "Old King Cole". Nat was far from being old, but the name stuck. From there the name of the group would undergo many changes: first "King Cole and His Sepia Swingsters", then "King Cole's Swing Trio", then simply the "King Cole Trio". Along with their popularity at Bob Lewis' Swanee Inn, the Trio also made their first records for Standard Transcriptions, well over 100 tunes. And after their gig was over at the nightclub, they had built up a following in Hollywood, so everywhere they went, they were a hit. But the best was yet to come.
|Biography of a legend....|