"The Magic Window" (03:09)
Nat King Cole was among the greatest performers of jazz, which peer Tony Bennett calls “America’s classical music.” He was the first black person to have his own television show, and part of his legacy was showing that the country was ready to change.
The Great Migration (02:53)
Cole was born Nathaniel Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, but his family moved to Chicago when he was 4 years old. Millions of black people could move around the nation for the first time following the Civil War, and many felt there was better opportunity in the North.
Piano Prodigy (04:21)
Cole is rumored to have had only two singing lessons. His talent often overshadowed that he was also one of the greatest jazz pianists of his time. He grew up during an era when he would have been influenced by the likes of Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Earl “Fatha” Hines.
Cole's Early Career (04:05)
Cole formed a band, His Royal Dukes, when he was 16 years old. He married Nadine Robinson, but they divorced, and he moved to Los Angeles at 19. He landed his first singing gig when the scheduled singer did not show up. He drew large crowds, and his afterhours jazz performances were a hot ticket.
Cole and Sinatra (02:05)
Cole formed a friendship with peer Frank Sinatra, another of the most popular crooners of the time. They had a lot of respect for one another and shared many of the same qualities.
Capitol Records (02:55)
Cole recorded dozens of singles that reached the top of the pop charts. The singer was managed by Carlos Gastel who, as record executive George Schlatter recalled, would have “a little taste” before negotiating Cole’s contracts.
Cole and the Color Barrier (03:58)
Fellow jazz singer Buddy Greco first met Cole when he was working at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Cole could not stay at the hotel because of his race, and he had to enter through the kitchen despite being the headliner, a pattern that would be repeated in other parts of the country.
Crossing Over (05:25)
Cole was accepted and broke down racial barriers at a time of great racial strife. He was well liked by just about everyone who met him, and he defied white notions of what a black man could be. He was also able to cross over musically with his 1944 hit, “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”
Cole's Second Marriage (07:19)
Maria Ellington sang with big band leader Duke Ellington (no relation) around the time she met Cole at New York’s Café Zanzibar. She was initially resistant to his charms, but the two fell in love and were married. The newlyweds received a telegram while on honeymoon in Mexico alerting them that “Nature Boy” was a smash hit.
De Facto Segregation in Los Angeles (04:20)
Cole bought a home in the all-white neighborhood of Hancock Park in 1948. Segregation was not encoded into law in Los Angeles as it was in the South, but Cole’s neighbors went out of their way to make him uncomfortable; one or more of them burned a racial slur into his lawn and poisoned the family dog.
Cole always wanted children, and he and Maria had Natalie in 1950. Natalie Cole recalled visiting Capitol Records with her father as a child and recording a novelty record with her adopted big sister, Carole, aka “Cookie.” She had a hit with her remake of her father’s “Unforgettable” in 1991.
Cole and JFK (03:17)
The Coles adopted a son, Kelly Cole, who died in 1995. As a favor to Cole, President John F. Kennedy made an appearance at Carole Cole’s debutante ball, which was held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Royal Variety Show (03:08)
Cole performed for Queen Elizabeth II at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre in 1960. He and British entertainer Bruce Forsyth came up with their arrangement of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” for that show in just 10 minutes.
Updated Sound (07:55)
Cole made appearances in Japan, Australia, and elsewhere. Following a visit to Cuba, he was inspired to expand his sound and added bongo player Jack Costanzo to his band. Maria Cole advised him to stop playing piano; it was a move that many fans resented, but it also served to further highlight his pitch-perfect vocals.
"Nat King Cole Show" (04:23)
In 1956, Cole became the first black person to star in a nationally televised series. The program represented a sea of change in popular culture as it brought Sammy Davis, Jr., Eartha Kitt, Tony Bennett, and other big stars of the time into living rooms across America.
Renowned Arranger, Composer, and Bandleader (06:36)
Cole discovered Nelson Riddle who he worked with in the studio and on his show. Jazz musician Eddie Wakes called Riddle “one of the fathers of pop music” based on the compositions and arrangements he wrote for Cole, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and others.
Whitening Cole (03:09)
A bootleg recording of the Ralph Carmichael Orchestra’s “Rhapsody in Sacred Music” was given to the head of A&R at Capitol which led to Carmichael working on Cole’s 1960 Christmas album. There was an infamous incident during which clownish foundation was applied to the singer’s face in an attempt to make him less threatening to white TV viewers.
TV Backlash and Movie Appearances (06:14)
Protest from Southern viewers caused “The Nat King Cole Show” to lose its only sponsor, Rheingold Beer. The program attracted no other advertisers, and racist station managers refused to carry it despite its high ratings. Cole also appeared in “China Gate,” “Cat Balou” and other motion pictures despite being uncomfortable in front of the camera.
Attacked in Alabama (04:16)
Cole became ill and collapsed before a performance. He then canceled a tour of the South at the advice of his doctor, fearing he would not be admitted to a hospital there if necessary. He was also notably assaulted onstage in Birmingham in 1956 and then criticized for his tepid reaction.
Death and Legacy (10:45)
Cole was a heavy smoker, and friends begged him to quit. The singer fell gravely ill during a Bay Area performance and later learned he had lung cancer. He died in Santa Monica, California, two months after his diagnosis, on Feb. 15, 1965.
Credits: Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark (01:53)
Credits: Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark
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