In 1926 Nathaniel Adams Cole was 7 years old and US Route 66 was established as a part of the US Highway System. I don’t have to go into where it started and where it went because that lore is as American as a Moon Pie. The most iconic roadway in our country was completely paved when Cole was 19 and it spawned motels, road side attractions, saloons, diners and complete towns as quick as you can spell entrypenuer..um entrepruner..uh huckster.
The Fed US 40 took over most of it. I used to drive that route as a truck driver and a traveling gnome. There are still portions of the 40 that have signs designated ‘Historic 66’ and there are sections where cities like Albuquerque claim you can take their exit and drive along the old highway and hey, stop for dinner and shopping. Most of these cases have the validity of a politician running for office..or cover. But, you are in the general vicinity. As you drive on the 40 through New Mexico, Arizona, and into California you drive through towns of song like Gallup, Kingman, Needles, Winona, OK City, Barstow and San Berdino (cali pronounciation). So you know you’re close. And if you’re observant you can see not far off the freeway in countless places the remnants of the old girl, abandoned buildings and lives.
In 1946 Nat Cole recorded and made famous a song that everyone covered. You can’t be in a Texas swing band without knowing this song. It’s clichéd but I add it here because Nat was still behind the piano for this recording with the trio and we should talk about that.
Oh man. That’s Irving Ashby on the guitar, Joe Comfort on bass, and Joe Costanza on conga. Nat was known first and foremost as a singer but he always considered himself a piano player who maybe could sing a little. In fact he once said he thought his singing was ‘bogus goods’. “I’m not really a singer; I couldn’t compete with real singers. But I sing because the public buys it”. Wow.
Oscar Peterson, no slouch at the ivories himself, claimed Cole as an early and important influence. If you love the piano, Clint Eastwood (yes, that Clint Eastwood) directed a documentary on the instrument called Piano Blues and it’s a gas to watch. In it he has an interview with Ray Charles who pointed at Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Nat Cole as the three greats, and specifically talked about his early years when he “ate, drank, and slept Nat King Cole”. High praise from a pretty good tinkler.
Here’s a nice example from his TV show The Nat King Cole Show. This is “Tea For Two” from 1957 and by that time he was so famous for his singing few of his fans even knew he could play so this was a novelty for the audience.
If we go back a little this all got started in 1944 when he wrote and recorded “Straighten Up and Fly Right”. Unfortunately he sold the rights to that song for $50 and it became a #1 hit on the Harlem Hit Parade that year. He also first recorded a little Mel Torme number “The Christmas Song” which in a later incarnation is still a holiday classic, second only in sales to Der Bingle’s recording of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”.
1945 was the first year for Billboard rankings and the Nat King Cole Trio had the original #1 spot and stayed there for 12 weeks. That same year they appeared on Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall radio show and did so well he was Crosby’s summer host a year later. The trio then appeared on radio for Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore, Milton Berle and Perry Como. The 26 year old Cole was having quite a year.
In 1946 he met Maria Hawkins Ellington, a strong willed and intelligent woman who became completely dedicated to Cole’s career. The studios had been trying to get Nat from behind the piano and sing more but it was Ellington who was adamant that he stand up and become the singer, despite being hailed as one of the key greats, and it was Maria who had the influence over him to make it happen, and work. As this played out there was an outcry from the diehard jazz community, especially jazz publications like Downbeat and Metronome. Cole, as great as he was as a player showed no nostalgia for the keyboard; he was making money. “For years we did nothing but play for musicians and other hip people, “ he said. “..we practically starved to death.”
See, despite Cole’s disdain for his voice he was a classic crooner, a beautiful master of a phrase with flawless enunciation and perfect pitch. His recordings during the late 40’s and the 50’s are some of the most perfect and iconic love songs ever recorded.
In 1948 he married Maria Ellington. Like successful Americans they moved to a nice place and started having kids. At the time if you were a black jazz piano player who sang a little you were pretty much left alone, even though you still had to play only in certain venues, stay at certain hotels, and eat at certain restaurants. But if you started making real money and bought a house in a well-to-do neighborhood the creeps came out.
The Hancock Park section of Los Angeles was a classic Hollywood haven complete with movie stars, moguls and politicians and was segregated, complete with a legalized document. The good white people of Hancock Park tried suing and actually tried to buy their home. When that didn’t work, they killed the family dog with a piece of poisoned meat and burned the N word into their front lawn. Shots were fired through the front window and a sign painted N Heaven pounded into front lawn. The kids remember all this shit. One of them recalled that a neighborhood bitch invited Nat to one of her parties to perform. She was incensed when this uppity SOB sent her a bill. Good on ya Nat.
Nat and the family were going nowhere and the house wasn’t sold until years later. When Maria sold the Hancock Park home she made certain it was sold to an African American couple. That Maria.
In 1950 Cole recorded “Mona Lisa” which he didn’t like. Written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston for a movie, it was a B side but once shown in the movie and it hit the airwaves it went to #1 on Billboard and stayed there for 8 weeks. It won an Academy Award for Best Original Song and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1992. Cole decided it was one of his favorite recordings.
Also in 1950 Nat King Cole went on his first international tour, a monumental success which he enjoyed thoroughly. Cole was described by everyone as a genuinely nice human being and he loved the travel and meeting people from different parts of the world.
In 1951 the trio was disbanded although Cole would use the fellas in the studio and on his TV show. He recorded “Too Young” and “Unforgettable”, probably his most well-known song. “Too Young” went to #1 but “Unforgettable” never went above #12. !!
In 1953 Nat suffered his first serious illness. He had to undergo stomach ulcer surgery and was forced to cancel a national tour. But he recovered thanks to the doctors and rest, and still charted 7 songs that year including “Pretend” which went to #2.
1954 he charted five singles and “Answer Me Love” went gold. By now he had Nelson Riddle doing his arrangements and together they recorded Nat King Cole Sings for Two which became a model for Frank Sinatra’s classic and haunting In the Wee Small Hours theme album .
In 1955 Nat King Cole had 8 songs that charted in the top ten. But as much as America loved his music they weren’t really ready for him.
In November 1956 he was given a TV show by NBC titled The Nat King Cole Show. NBC, to their credit, gave the show every chance for success. They had an international recording star and Nelson Riddle did the arrangements. The production values of everyone involved, especially Cole, were top notch. The best talent of the day worked for small change to help Cole, a list that included Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett and Eartha Kitt. The show’s regular vocalists were The Mills Brothers. Cole worked his ass off, but the show only lasted for 64 episodes, ending finally in December 1957.
They never found a national sponsor. They would have local sponsors like Rheingold Beer in Hartford CT and Colgate toothpaste in LA, but no national sponsor would take the risk of having a black man associated nationally, especially in the South, with their product. Viewers in the South would call local stations and complain because the stations would have “blackouts” during his show. Unbelievable. Nat was aghast and bitterly disappointed. I’m with ya brother. Cole himself pulled the plug on the show stating “I guess Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” Just too damned early.
In 1956 at concert at the Birmingham Municipal Auditorium in Alabama, during the third song of the evening “Little Girl”, a group of white knuckleheads stormed the stage attempting to kidnap Cole. Bedlam ensued, including a fight between uniformed cops and non-uniformed security who didn’t know who was who, and Cole was grabbed and thrown to the floor. He hurt his back and had to stop the show and find a doctor. Before he left he spoke to the audience, in obvious shock. As much of racism that he had suffered in his life, career and home, he was such a nice guy he was shocked that this could happen to him when he thought he was performing for his loving fans. He never returned to the South to perform, not even his hometown. Cole addressed the Republican National Convention that year and the Democratic version in 1960 decrying the deplorable state of this kind of behavior.
By the late 50’s his career as a major star was in a decline, as was a number of the crooners’, but he still had an audience. In 1958 he played the role of W.C. Handy, the father of the blues, in Looking Back, a movie on which Handy was a consultant. By the way, Handy was born in Florence Alabama in the Muscle Shoals area. In 1960 Nat performed for the Kennedy inauguration and produced a Broadway revue which resulted in an album titled Wild Rose which was his first top ten album in three years.
His 1962 recording “Ramblin Rose”, reached the top ten, #1 Adult Contemporary and #2 R&B.
In 1963 he made “Those Lazy Hazy Days of Summer” which became his final charting single.
Plans were made for a 1964 retrospective jazz album but it was never made. In December 1964 Nat Cole was admitted to St John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. It was lung cancer. Nat smoked three packs of Kool menthols a day, rarely seen without a smoke in his hand. He never had real faith in his talent or his voice, and believed until the end that the smoking gave him that rich tone.
Cole started an intensive regimen of cobalt and radiation treatments and he recovered enough to do the movie Cat Ballou and record the album L-O-V-E. He said he felt great, and even days before his death he made public appearances. In January 1965 he had an operation to remove a lung but the cancer had spread too far. On February 15 1965 Nat passed away at the tender age of 45.
Nat ‘King’ Cole was buried in the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn in Glendale. The funeral was attended by about an eclectic group as can be imagined, including Robert Kennedy, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny, Governor Pat Brown, Count Basie, Steve Allen, Jimmy Durante and Leonard Feather.
Nat Cole’s career barely lasted 20 short years, but in that time he collected 28 Gold Record awards and was inducted into every Hall of Fame imaginable including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence. Cole was an inspiration as a man and a performer. One of the few my Dad and I could agree on. That’s saying something, trust me well.
Research for this column included two wonderful documentaries, Nat King Cole- Afraid of the Dark and Clint Eastwood’s Piano Blues, and a biography titled Nat King Cole by Charles River Editors.