Nat King Cole : part one (to 1948)©2006JCMarion


The entertainer known throughout the world as Nat "King" Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles on St. Patrick's Day in 1917 in Montgomery, Alabama. He and his family moved to the city of Chicago in 1921 where his father was called as pastor of the True Light Baptist Church. His mother, a choir director at the church had a great influence on young Nat in the introduction of music into his life. With three brothers who were all professional musicians ( Fred, Eddie, and Isaac), it wasn't long before Nat was in the business of making music. He learned the rudiments of the keyboard on church organ soon followed by the piano. At Wendell Phillips High School Cole developed an affinity for jazz music. Every chance he got, he would listen to the music coming out of the clubs of the Black community in the South side of the city. His early favorite was Earl Hines whose piano style shaped Cole's musical outlook. While in his teens he formed his own band called the Rogues of Rhythm, and also a small combo called the Royal Dukes.

In 1933 he became the pianist for a combo formed by his brother Eddie. This five man group was known as the Solid Swingers. Within three years Nat had dropped out of school and had recorded a number of sides for the Decca label. These recordings remained obscure and did not sell prompting Nat and his brother Eddie to join a touring road company of the musical revue "Shuffle Along", a long time hit show written by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, and included the American standard tune "I'm Just Wild About Harry". While on the road with the show, Cole married a dancer in the troupe named Nadine Robinson who was ten years older than the teenaged Cole. In Long Beach, California the show abruptly ended its run, and so Nat Cole with his new bride decided to stay in California. To make ends meet, Cole took any number of paying jobs that were available, playing in a less than glamorous succession of beer joints up and down the West coast.

In 1938 Cole was asked to form a small group to play an engagement at a Los Angeles night spot called the Swannee Inn. Guitarist Oscar Moore and bass player Wesley Prince joined Cole. He was nicknamed King Cole (dropping the 's' from his last name for good) and originally wore a gold cardboard crown. Soon the King Cole Trio was an area top attraction in the middle of the dance band era. The drummer-less trio now added vocal numbers to their playlist. The vocals by a less than confident Cole were an additional favorite of listeners, especially on the song "Sweet Lorraine". The trio recorded the tune in 1940 for Decca on # 8520 with good sales in the "race" category which was the forerunner of Rhythm & Blues. They continued in this vein with "Call The Police" / "Are You Fer It?" on # 8604, and "Hit That Jive Jack" / "That Ain't Right" on # 8630. Surviving today as a bit of show biz trivia, Nat Cole has a small bit part in "Citizen Kane", often called the greatest motion picture ever made. He is the vocalist at the "El Rancho" singing a version of "This Can't Be Love". In 1942 Wesley Prince was drafted into the army and his place on bass was taken over by Johnny Miller. Soon the word about town on the King Cole Trio reached the heads of a brand new record label headquartered in Hollywood called Capitol Records. After Decca, the trio had recorded for a number of small labels such as Varsity, Excelsior (signed by Otis Rene, locally known Black composer and owner of the label-good tune recorded called "I'm Lost"), and Premier, but now they were on the verge of a breakthrough. Record store owner Glen Wallichs and two well known song writers - Johnny Mercer and Buddy DeSylva formed the new enterprise and soon eagerly signed the trio with a new manager Carlos Gastel, to a recording contract with the label. At the time the trio had a year long engagement at the 331 Club in Los Angeles. The trio was set for their first session with Capitol Records in late 1943. "All For You" on Capitol # 139 was the first by the trio, and it charted briefly for one week.

Then in early 1944 Capitol # 154 contained a song written by Cole adapted from a sermon given by his father. The tune "Straighten Up And Fly Right" (backed with "I Can't See For Looking") was a hit record for Cole and Capitol. The snappy vocal tune was a top ten seller and stayed on the hit charts for two months. The flip side even charted for a week. The record sold extremely well in Black communities becoming a crossover hit in the jazz and R & B fields much as many of Louis Jordan's records had done. At about this time Nat Cole made some appearances with the Norman Granz "Jazz At The Philharmonic" concerts in Los Angeles. His jazz piano prowess was on full display, and to this day the recording of his "chase" choruses with guitarist Les Paul are a classic bit of American music. Later in 1944 the King Cole Trio had another good seller for Capitol with "Gee Baby Ain't I Good To You" on Capitol # 169 (with "I Realize Now" on the other side). Now the trio was recognized for its variety of vocal and instrumental stylings. During the early forties the King Cole Trio has parts in a number of musical shorts and films including "Pistol Packin' Mama", "Stars On Parade", and "See My Lawyer".

1945 was a sparse year on the recording front for the King Cole Trio, and in early 1946 a forgettable record called "The Frim Fram Sauce" on # 224 barely charted. But later in the year big things were about to happen to the fortunes of the trio. In the summer the King Cole Trio recorded "(Get Your Kicks On) Route Sixty Six" the great song of the open road. The record was another top ten seller for Cole and the trio and has remained a standard for many years. It was followed by a brief top ten hit called "You Call It Madness" on # 274. In November of the year the King Cole Trio had their first number one hit nationally. "For Sentimental Reasons" written by former Inkspot member Ivory "Deek" Watson, was released on Capitol # 304, and "The Best Man" on the flip side was also a top fifteen seller. "Reasons" was a monster hit that was in the top spot for six weeks and stayed on the best seller charts for over six months. But - Cole and his group had one more blast for the year. Capitol # 311 contained Cole's rendition of Mel Torme's "Christmas Song", perhaps the most enduring audio memory of the season this side of Bing Crosby. Initially the record was a number three national hit but of course remains an annual rite of passage for the holiday. Nat Cole also made history with his radio show called "King Cole Trio Time" for the NBC network on Saturday night, the first Black performer to have their own program. It ran for a year and a half for the network.

After the huge year of 1946, the following year produced a number of minor record sellers for Cole. "You Don't Learn That In School" on # 393, a two sided seller with Johnny Mercer on vocals with "Save The Bones For Henry Jones" and "Harmony" on # 15000 (as Capitol reverted to a new numbering system for its single records), "Those Things Money Can't Buy" on # 15011, and a reissue of "The Christmas Song". An old Broadway show tune from the twenties provided Nat Cole with his first hit (another minor one) in 1948 with "What'll I Do?" on # 15019. It was in the spring of that year that Nat Cole's career made a momentous change of direction. Most of the recordings for Capitol had been by the King Cole Trio in a crossover combination of pop, jazz, and a light variation of R & B. Now, Mercer and others at Capitol had heard great promise in the vocal delivery of Cole on ballads and saw a side of the musician away from the rhythm numbers that had been his major selling point. Using the full orchestra conducted by Frank DeVol, Capitol presented Nat Cole away from the trio with a strange and haunting ballad called "Nature Boy". The song was written by an eccentric individual who used the name eden ahbez (sometimes called ahbe, and always in lower case letters)) and supposedly lived in the woods under the famous Hollywood sign. The haunting tune captured the imagination of the listening public back in 1948 and became a huge hit for Nat and Capitol. The record on # 15054 was a number one seller in the country for two months and stayed on the pop charts for four and a half months. It was Cole's first million selling record. The flip side, a tune called "Lost April" also did fairly well on its own as a month long chart tune and sold in the top twenty. Because of the immense success of "Nature Boy", the way was open for Nat Cole to become one of the premier ballad singers of his time. The rest of the year saw Cole have a string of minor hits again - "A Boy From Texas" on # 15085, a song from the hit film "Romance On The High Seas" called "Put 'Em In A Box, Tie It With A Ribbon" (also a hit for the film's star Doris Day) on # 15060, "Don't Blame Me" on # 15110, "Little Girl" on # 15165 (which surprisingly had huge sales in Europe enabling this lesser known recording to become a global million seller), and the annual re-issue of "The Christmas Song" on # 15201. 1948 was also the year that Cole and his wife Nadine were divorced, and the new woman in his life Maria Ellington was thought by many to be a major influence in the musical direction that Nat began to follow, and also led to the breakup of the original King Cole Trio.

to next page . . . . . . . .

back to title page . . . . .