Nat King Cole, 1919-1965: One of America's Most Popular Singers

Nat King Cole, 1919-1965: One of America's Most Popular Singers
Photo: AP
Nat "King" Cole (center) with baseball player Roy Campanella and his wife Ruthe at New York City's Copacabana night club

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: I'm Shirley Griffith.

STEVE EMBER: And I'm Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Every week, we tell the story of someone important in the history of the United States. Today we will tell about Nat King Cole, one of America's most popular singers.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Nat King Cole was born in the southern city of Montgomery, Alabama, in Nineteen-Nineteen. His parents named him Nathaniel Adams Coles. His father was a Christian minister.

When Nathaniel was four years old, his parents moved the family north to Chicago, Illinois. Nat learned to play the piano when he was very young. His mother was the only piano teacher he ever had. He gave his first public performance when he was four. By the time he was twelve, Nat was playing piano at his father's church.

Nat "King" Cole, and his wife Maria, arrive at London airport May 12, 1960

STEVE EMBER: Nat played piano in New York City and in Los Angeles, California when he was a young man. In Nineteen Thirty-Seven, he formed a group that played jazz music. Oscar Moore played the guitar and Wesley Prince played the bass. The trio reportedly did not need a drummer because Nat's piano playing kept the beat so well. They named the group, The King Cole Trio. At the same time, Nat also changed his name to Nat King Cole. The trio soon became very popular. Nat sang some songs, but mostly played the piano.

By the middle Nineteen-Forties, Nat King Cole was beginning to be known as a popular singer as well as a jazz piano player. He was one of the first musicians to record with the new Capitol Records.

The first song he recorded for Capitol was "Straighten Up and Fly Right." He wrote the song. The words were based on his father's teachings. The song became one of the biggest hits of Nineteen-Forty-Three. It sold more than five-hundred-thousand copies.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Nat recorded hundreds of songs. Some of the most popular include "Sweet Lorraine," "Nature Boy," "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer," "When I Fall in Love," and "Mona Lisa." In Nineteen-Fifty, the American film industry gave him an award for his recording of "Mona Lisa." That song made him famous as a singer.


STEVE EMBER: By Nineteen-Fifty Six, Nat King Cole was known internationally. He signed an agreement to appear for a lot of money at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Singer Natalie Cole looks at a mock stamp and plaque following the renaming of a post office for her father

Nat often performed in places that only admitted white people. Black leaders criticized him. Nat said he attempted to take legal action against those places but often failed.

Nat earned more money and moved to California. He bought a house in an area where white people lived. At that time, many white Americans did not want to live near blacks. White home owners nearby protested the purchase of a house by a black family. Nat and his family refused to leave and lived in the house without problems.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Nat was the first black man to have his own television show. His show began on NBC Television in Nineteen-Fifty-Six. NBC agreed to support The Nat King Cole Show for a while. It hoped American companies would pay to sell their products on the show. However, major companies were not willing to advertise on a show that had a black performer. They were concerned that white people in the southern part of the United States would not buy their products. Many Americans watched the show, but NBC halted production after a year.

Nat King Cole also acted in movies. The best known one is Saint Louis Blues. He acted the part of the jazz composer W.C. Handy. He also appeared in a film about himself called The Nat King Cole Story.

In the Nineteen-Fifties, he sang with some of the best known orchestras of the time. Here Nat King Cole sings "When I Fall in Love" with the Gordon Jenkins orchestra:


STEVE EMBER: Nat King Cole was married two times. In Nineteen-Thirty-Six, he married a dancer, Nadine Robinson. Their marriage failed. In Nineteen-Forty-Eight, he married Maria Ellington. They had three children. They also adopted and raised two other children.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Nat King Cole always smoked a lot of cigarettes. He died of cancer of the lung in February, Nineteen Sixty-Five. He was only forty-five years old.

He received many awards during his life. He also received many more after his death. One was a Nineteen-Ninety Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.

Nat's daughter, Natalie followed her father as a singer. She recorded many songs after her father died.

Eartha Kitt hugs Nat King Cole, playing the piano in the role of W.C. Handy, in a scene from the 1958 movie "St. Louis Blues."

In Nineteen-Ninety-One, Natalie Cole recorded an album called Unforgettable. It contains twenty-two of Nat King Cole's songs, including the song "Unforgettable." Modern technology made it possible to mix her voice with a recording of her father singing the same song.


STEVE EMBER: Millions of Nat King Cole's recordings were sold while he was alive. And today, people around the world still enjoy listening to the music of one of America's greatest performers of popular and jazz music.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: This Special English Program was written by Yenni Djahidin Grow and produced by Caty Weaver. Our studio engineer was David Bodington. I'm Shirley Griffith.

STEVE EMBER: And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week at this time for another People in America program on the Voice of America.