Nathaniel was the son of a minister and learned to play the piano when he was very young. Nat regularly played in his father's church from the age of 11 and was an accomplished pianist by the age of 12. He became equally conversant with jazz, gospel and the classics. He would often sneak out of the house to listen to jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and Jimmie Noone when they played in the local clubs. Still at school Nat Cole formed a band with his older brother, Eddie Coles, (bass) and they became a popular local attraction as 'Eddie Coles Solid Swingers'. They made their recording debut in 1936.
He earned his nickname “King” from his fans who rated him as the business as a jazz pianist. Nat joined a touring theatre group performing ‘Shuffle Along’ a revival of ragtime. The show folded in Long Beach, California, and Nat King Cole decided to stay there. Initially Nat Cole formed the "King Cole Swingers,” with Oscar Moore (guitar), Wesley Prince (double bass) and Lee Young (drums). When the drummer failed to appear they played as a trio. Later when Nat moved to LA he called the group’s title to 'King Cole and his Swing Trio, then in 1939, the 'King Cole Trio'. Nat would frequently sing in-between the instrumental segments until his singing became more popular. Lionel Hampton was keen the trio should join his band and they recorded a series of recordings. Cole was considered a leading jazz pianist and frequently was asked to perform as a session musician on sessions with Lester Young, Red Callender, and Lionel Hampton. Nat however decided his career lay elsewhere and his big break came in 1943 when Johnny Mercer signed him to Capital Records. Nat stayed with the recording company for the rest of his career. Much of the success of Capitol Records including their round building came from the revenue generated by Nat’s record sales. The circular office was completed in 1956 and became known as "the house that Nat built." His trio format provided a welcome alternative to the big bands for small clubs, especially during the war years and many other musicians started their own trios, these included: including Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Tommy Flanagan and blues pianists Charles Brown and Ray Charles. Nat's first vocal hit for Capital was “Straighten up and fly right” (1943) and sold over 500,000 copies.
A series of hits followed including 'I love you for sentimental reasons' which became a number one hit.
By 1946 Nat changed to become a ballads singer and recorded "The Christmas Song" (1946). He made several versions of this in his career.
By the late 40s the trio had become a backing for Nat smooth vocals and Oscar Moore decided to leave and was replaced by Irving Ashby. In 1948, Johnny Miller left the Trio to be replaced by Joe Comfort, and Jack Costanzo joined on bongo. To accommodate these changes the group's name was adapted from 'King Cole Trio' to 'Nat King Cole and his Trio'. Capital recorded a massive body of work from 1948 to 1949 which included many songs which would become great hits including "Nature Boy" (1948), "Mona Lisa" (1950), "Too Young" (the #1 song in 1951), and his signature tune "Unforgettable" (1951). Nat teamed up with Nelson Riddle and from their first session came Unforgettable which became and international success.
Over the next nine years Nat and Nelson produced many classics including: My first love and last love, Night lights. Somewhere along the way, A blossom fell, and Ballerina among many others.
He also worked with Billy May and came up with Walking my baby back home.
Now backed by heavy orchestration the Trio was officially disbanded in 1953. By this time many jazz fans felt Nat had become too commercialised and he was heavily criticised for selling out. However Nat King Cole never totally abandoned his jazz roots and recorded an all-jazz album, After Midnight in 1956.
Nat continued to produce a steady stream of classic singles and albums such as 'Love is the Thing', 'The Very Thought of You', 'Where did everyone go' and 'Let's face the music and dance'.
In 1956 Nat landed his own TV Show, The Nat King Cole Show on NBC-TV and featured many other popular singers including: Frankie Laine, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, and Eartha Kitt. Despite its historic interest the program had a look warm appeal and only lasted one year.
At a time when America was particularly sensitive to racism the end of the Nat King Cole Show was due in no short part to the lack of sponsors willing to invest in a program showcasing an African American artist. Nat King Cole fought racism all his life and refused to perform in segregated venues. Despite the short lived TV success his hits kept coming with "Smile", "Pretend", and "If I May."
All becoming best sellers. Nat’s appeal extended beyond English speaking fans and he recorded in Spanish, travelling to Cuba in 1958 to record an album (the first of three).
In 1962 Nat hit the top of the charts with a Country & Western song 'Ramblin' Rose,' and now at the height of his career he recorded many successful albums and singles including LOVE.
He was working a punishing schedule when his health began to deteriorate and he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Nat King Cole died quietly on 15th February 1965 leaving behind an extraordinary body of work but also (not a lot of people know this) a treasure trove of as yet unreleased recordings held in the archives of Capital Records. During his long career he appeared in many short films, and played W. C. Handy in the film St. Louis Blues (1958).
He also appeared in The Nat King Cole Story, China Gate, The Blue Gardenia (1953) and Cat Ballou (1965), which was his final film.
Something which Nat loved to do was appear on other artists recording, sometimes uncredited and others under various aliases. Some of the names like 'Nature Boy' and 'The King' were so transparent but others such as 'Sam Schmaltz', 'Shorty Nadine', 'Lord Calvert', 'Eddie Laguna', 'Aye Guy' etc. were clearly a private joke.
Worth a listen:
Nat King Cole
Nature boy (1948)
Mona Lisa (1950)
Too Young (1951)
Sweet Lorraine (1955)
Routge 66 (1955)
When I fall in love (1957)
Stay as sweet as you are (1957)
Love letters (1957)
The very thought of you (1958)
Ramblin Rose (1962)
Lazy crazy days of summer (1962)
That Sunday, that Summer (1962)
St Louis Blues (1929)
Ain’t misbehaving (1929)
Lazy River (1931)
All of me (1932)
Mack the knife (1955)
A tisket, A tasket ( 1938)
Oh lady be good (1947)
57 varieties (1928)
I ain’t got no body (1929)
I want ot be evil (1953)
C'est Si Bon (1953)
Just an old fashioned girl (1956)
Sixteen tone (1955)
Wheel of fortune (1961)
Riders in the sky (1962)