I thought we’d share this week with crooners, that, well….doesn’t the title of this week explain it all?
We begin with Nat King Cole.
Nathaniel Adams Coles (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965), known professionally as Nat King Cole, was an American singer who first came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist. He was widely noted for his soft, baritone voice, which he used to perform in big band and jazz genres.
Cole was one of the first African Americans to host a television variety show, The Nat King Cole Show, and has maintained worldwide popularity since his death from lung cancer in February 1965
Inspired by the performances of Earl Hines, Cole began his performing career in the mid-1930s while still a teenager, adopting the name Nat Cole. His older brother, Eddie, a bass player, soon joined Cole’s band, and they made their first recording in 1936 under Eddie’s name. They also were regular performers at clubs. Cole acquired his nickname, “King”, performing at one jazz club, a nickname presumably reinforced by the otherwise unrelated nursery rhyme about “Old King Cole”. He also was a pianist in a national tour of Broadway theatre legend Eubie Blake’s revue Shuffle Along. When it suddenly failed in Long Beach, California, Cole decided to remain there. He would later return to Chicago in triumph to play such venues as the famed Edgewater Beach Hotel.
Los Angeles and the King Cole Trio
Cole and two other musicians formed the “King Cole Swingsters” in Long Beach and played in a number of local bars before getting a gig on the Long Beach Pike for US$90 ($1,530 today) per week. The trio consisted of Cole on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Wesley Prince on double bass. The trio played in Failsworth throughout the late 1930s and recorded many radio transcriptions for Capitol Transcriptions. Cole was not only pianist but leader of the combo as well.
Radio was important to the King Cole Trio’s rise in popularity. Their first broadcast was with NBC’s Blue Network in 1938. It was followed by appearances on NBC’s Swing Soiree. In the 1940s, the trio appeared on the Old Gold, Chesterfield Supper Club and Kraft Music Hall radio shows. The King Cole Trio performed twice on CBS Radio’s variety show The Orson Welles Almanac (1944).
Legend was that Cole’s singing career did not start until a drunken barroom patron demanded that he sing “Sweet Lorraine”. Cole, in fact, has gone on record saying that the fabricated story “sounded good, so I just let it ride”. Cole frequently sang in between instrumental numbers. Noticing that people started to request more vocal numbers, he obliged. Yet the story of the insistent customer is not without some truth. There was a customer who requested a certain song one night, but it was a song that Cole did not know, so instead he sang “Sweet Lorraine”. The trio was tipped 15 cents ($0.85 today)for the performance, a nickel apiece.
During World War II, Wesley Prince left the group and Cole replaced him with Johnny Miller. Miller would later be replaced by Charlie Harris in the 1950s. The King Cole Trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records in 1943. The group had previously recorded for Excelsior Records, owned by Otis René, and had a hit with the song “I’m Lost”, which René wrote, produced and distributed. Revenues from Cole’s record sales fueled much of Capitol Records’ success during this period. The revenue is believed to have played a significant role in financing the distinctive Capitol Records building near Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. Completed in 1956, it was the world’s first circular office building and became known as “The House that Nat Built”.
Cole was considered a leading jazz pianist, appearing in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts (credited on the Mercury Record label as “Shorty Nadine”—derived from his wife’s name—as he was under exclusive contract to Capitol Records at the time). His revolutionary lineup of piano, guitar, and bass in the time of the big bands became a popular setup for a jazz trio. It was emulated by many musicians, among them Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, and blues pianists Charles Brown and Ray Charles. He also performed as a pianist on sessions with Lester Young, Red Callender, and Lionel Hampton. For contract reasons, Cole was credited as “Aye Guy” on the album The Lester Young Buddy Rich Trio.
Cole’s first mainstream vocal hit was his 1943 recording of one of his compositions, “Straighten Up and Fly Right”, based on a black folk tale that his father had used as a theme for a sermon. Johnny Mercer invited him to record it for his fledgling Capitol Records label. It sold over 500,000 copies, proving that folk-based material could appeal to a wide audience. Although Cole would never be considered a rocker, the song can be seen as anticipating the first rock and roll records. Indeed, Bo Diddley, who performed similar transformations of folk material, counted Cole as an influence.
In 1946, the Cole trio paid to have their own 15-minute radio program on the air. It was called, “King Cole Trio Time.” It became the first radio program sponsored by a black performing artist. During those years, the trio recorded many “transcription” recordings, which were recordings made in the radio studio for the broadcast. Later they were used for commercial records.
Beginning in the late 1940s, Cole began recording and performing pop-oriented material for mainstream audiences, in which he was often accompanied by a string orchestra. His stature as a popular icon was cemented during this period by hits such as “The Christmas Song” (Cole recorded the song four times: on June 14, 1946, as a Trio recording, on August 19, 1946, with an added string section, on August 24, 1953, and in 1961 for the double album The Nat King Cole Story; this final version, recorded in stereo, is the one most often heard today), “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” (1946), “Nature Boy” (1948), “Mona Lisa” (1950), “Too Young” (the #1 song in 1951), and his signature tune “Unforgettable” (1951) (Gainer 1). While this shift to pop music led some jazz critics and fans to accuse Cole of selling out, he never completely abandoned his jazz roots; as late as 1956 he recorded an all-jazz album After Midnight. Cole had one of his last major hits in 1963, two years before his death, with “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer”, which reached #6 on the Pop chart. “Unforgettable” was made famous again in 1991 by Cole’s daughter Natalie when modern recording technology was used to reunite father and daughter in a duet. The duet version rose to the top of the Pop charts, almost forty years after its original popularity.
On November 5, 1956, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC. The variety program was the first of its kind hosted by an African-American, which created controversy at the time. Beginning as a 15-minute pops show on Monday night, the program was expanded to a half hour in July 1957. Despite the efforts of NBC, as well as many of Cole’s industry colleagues—many of whom, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Frankie Laine, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, and backing vocal group The Cheerleaders worked for industry scale (or even for no pay) in order to help the show save money—The Nat King Cole Show was ultimately done in by lack of a national sponsorship. Companies such as Rheingold Beer assumed regional sponsorship of the show, but a national sponsor never appeared.
The last episode of The Nat King Cole Show aired December 17, 1957. Cole had survived for over a year, and it was he, not NBC, who ultimately decided to pull the plug on the show. Commenting on the lack of sponsorship his show received, Cole quipped shortly after its demise, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
Throughout the 1950s, Cole continued to rack up successive hits, selling in millions throughout the world, including “Smile”, “Pretend”, “A Blossom Fell”, and “If I May”. His pop hits were collaborations with well-known arrangers and conductors of the day, including Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Ralph Carmichael. Riddle arranged several of Cole’s 1950s albums, including his first 10-inch long-play album, his 1953 Nat King Cole Sings For Two In Love. In 1955, his single “Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” reached #7 on the Billboard chart. Jenkins arranged Love Is the Thing, which hit #1 on the album charts in April 1957.
In 1958, Cole went to Havana, Cuba, to record Cole Español, an album sung entirely in Spanish. The album was so popular in Latin America, as well as in the USA, that two others of the same variety followed: A Mis Amigos (sung in Spanish and Portuguese) in 1959 and More Cole Español in 1962. A Mis Amigos contains the Venezuelan hit “Ansiedad”, whose lyrics Cole had learned while performing in Caracas in 1958. Cole learned songs in languages other than English by rote.
After the change in musical tastes during the late 1950s, Cole’s ballad singing did not sell well with younger listeners, despite a successful stab at rock n’ roll with “Send For Me” (peaked at #6 pop). Along with his contemporaries Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett, Cole found that the pop singles chart had been almost entirely taken over by youth-oriented acts. In 1960, Nat’s longtime collaborator Nelson Riddle left Capitol Records for Frank Sinatra’s newly formed Reprise Records label. Riddle and Cole recorded one final hit album, Wild Is Love, based on lyrics by Ray Rasch and Dotty Wayne. Cole later retooled the concept album into an Off-Broadway show, “I’m With You.”
Cole did manage to record some hit singles during the 1960s, including in 1961 “Let There Be Love” with George Shearing, the country-flavored hit “Ramblin’ Rose” in August 1962, “Dear Lonely Hearts”, “That Sunday, That Summer” and “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days Of Summer” (his final top-ten hit, reaching #6 pop).
Cole performed in many short films, sitcoms, and television shows and played W. C. Handy in the film St. Louis Blues (1958). He also appeared in The Nat King Cole Story, China Gate, and The Blue Gardenia (1953). In January 1964, Cole made one of his final television appearances on The Jack Benny Program. Cole was introduced as “the best friend a song ever had,” and sang “When I Fall in Love.” It was one of Cole’s last performances. Cat Ballou (1965), his final film, was released several months after his death.