American jazz pianist and vocalist Nat King Cole (Nathaniel Adams Coles) was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919. He had three brothers: Eddie, Ike and Freddy and a half-sister, Joyce Coles. Each of the Cole brothers pursued careers in music. When Nat King Cole was four years old, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where his father, Edward Coles, became a Baptist minister. Cole learned to play the organ from his mother, Perlina Coles, the church organist. His first performance was “Yes! We Have No Bananas” at the age of four. He began formal lessons at 12, learning jazz, gospel, and classical music on piano “from Johann Sebastian Bach to Sergei Rachmaninoff.”
The Cole family moved to the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, where he attended Wendell Phillips Academy High School, the school Sam Cooke attended a few years later. He participated in Walter Dyett’s music program at DuSable High School. He would sneak out of the house to visit clubs, sitting outside to hear Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Jimmie Noone.
When he was fifteen, Cole dropped out of high school to pursue a music career. After his brother Eddie, a bassist, came home from touring with Noble Sissle, they formed a sextet and recorded two singles for Decca in 1936 as Eddie Cole’s Swingsters. They performed in a revival of the musical Shuffle Along. Nat Cole went on tour with the musical. In 1937, he married Nadine Robinson, who was a member of the cast. After the show ended in Los Angeles, Cole and Nadine settled there while he looked for work. He led a big band, then found work playing piano in nightclubs. When a club owner asked him to form a band, he hired bassist Wesley Prince and guitarist Oscar Moore. They called themselves the King Cole Swingsters after the nursery rhyme in which “Old King Cole was a merry old soul.” They changed their name to the King Cole Trio before making radio transcriptions and recording for small labels.
In 1940 Cole recorded “Sweet Lorraine” and it became his first hit. His career allegedly started when a drunken bar patron demanded that he sing the song. Cole said that this fabricated story sounded good, so he didn’t argue with it. In fact there was a customer one night who demanded that he sing, but because it was a song Cole didn’t know, he sang “Sweet Lorraine” instead As people heard Cole’s vocal talent, they requested more vocal songs, and he obliged. In 1941 the trio recorded “That Ain’t Right” and in 1942 they recorded “All for You” and “I’m Lost”. During the late 1930s the trio recorded radio transcriptions for Capitol. They performed on the radio programs Swing Soiree, Old Gold, The Chesterfield Supper Club, Kraft Music Hall, and The Orson Welles Almanac. Cole appeared in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in 1944. He was credited on Mercury as “Shorty Nadine”
In 1946 the trio broadcast King Cole Trio Time, a fifteen-minute radio program which featured Cole on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Johnny Miller on double bass and was often accompanied by a string orchestra. Cole began recording and performing pop-oriented material such as “Route 66”, “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” (1946), “There! I’ve Said It Again” (1947), “Nature Boy” (1948), “Frosty The Snowman”, “Mona Lisa” (No. 1 song of 1950), “Orange Colored Sky” and “Too Young”. In 1956 King hosted The Nat ‘King’ Cole Sow. Sadly despite efforts by NBC, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Frankie Laine, Peggy Lee, and Mel Tormé the show ended on December 17, 1957 due to financial difficulties.
Throughout the 1950s, Cole recorded hits such as “Smile”, “Pretend”, “A Blossom Fell”, and “If I May” in collaboration with Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Ralph Carmichael. Riddle arranged several of Cole’s 1950s albums, including Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” and Love Is the Thing. In 1958 Cole went to Havana, Cuba, to record Cole Español, an album sung entirely in Spanish followed by A Mis Amigos (1959) and More Cole Español (1962). In 1959 he also received a Grammy Award for Best Performance By a “Top 40” Artist for “Midnight Flyer”. Musical tastes changed so Cole’s next song was the Rock’n’Roll inspired “Send for Me”. In 1960, Cole’s longtime collaborator Nelson Riddle left Capitol to join Reprise Records, which was started by Frank Sinatra. Riddle and Cole recorded one final hit album, Wild Is Love, which was later adapted into an Off-Broadway show, I’m with Yo Cole’s hits during the 1960s, including “Let There Be Love” “Ramblin’ Rose”,”Dear Lonely Hearts”, “That Sunday, That Summer” and “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer”. He 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 1964, Cole made one of his final television appearances, on The Jack Benny Program and sang “When I Fall in Love”.
Sadly on September 1964, Cole began to lose weight and he experienced back pain and even collapsed with pain after performing at the Sands in Las Vegas. After seeking medical help. A malignant tumor in an advanced state of growth on his left lung was observed on a chest X-ray. Cole, who had been a heavy cigarette smoker, had lung cancer and was expected to have only months to live. Against medical advice carried on working and made his final recordings with an orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael on the album L-O-V-E shortly before his death. Cole entered St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica on December 7,
Cole’s condition gradually worsened, but he was released from the hospital over the New Year’s period. At home Cole was able to see the hundreds of thousands of cards and letters that had been sent after news of his illness was made public. Cole returned to the hospital in early January. He also sent $5,000 to chorus girl Gunilla Hutton, with whom he had been romantically involved since early 1964. Hutton later telephoned Maria and implored her to divorce him. Maria confronted her husband, and Cole finally broke off the relationship with Hutton. Cole’s illness reconciled him with his wife, and he vowed that if he recovered he would go on television to urge people to stop smoking. On January 25, Cole’s entire left lung was surgically removed. His father died of heart problems on February 1. On Valentine’s Day, Cole and his wife briefly left St. John’s to drive by the sea. He died at the hospital early in the morning of February 15, 1965, aged 45.
Cole’s funeral was held on February 18 at St. James Episcopal Church on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles; 400 people were present, and thousands gathered outside the church. Hundreds of members of the public had filed past the coffin the day before. Honorary pallbearers included Robert F. Kennedy, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis, George Burns, Danny Thomas, Jimmy Durante, Alan Livingston, Frankie Laine, Steve Allen, and Pat Brown (the governor of California). Cole’s remains were interred in Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California
HIS final film Cat Ballou (1965) was released several months after his death. Over his career He recorded over one hundred songs, His trio was the model for small jazz ensembles that followed. Cole also acted in films and on television and performed on Broadway. His song “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.