Nat King Cole : part two (1949-1956)©2006JCMarion


In 1949 Cole was absent from the top sellers list after his big previous year. That year was also the time when racial bigotry hit Cole head on. He had bought a house in the Hancock Park section of Los Angeles, and immediately his prospective neighbors upon finding out the identity of the new arrival began a petition drive to prevent the Coles from moving in. That would not be the first time that racial prejudice would cross the career and life of Nat Cole. 1950 began with a well received stay at Los Angeles Million Dollar Theater. After a successful engagement at L.A.'s Club Oasis with Nellie Lutcher, they joined together in a recording session for Capitol. The result is "For You My Love" and "Can I Come In?" on # 847. The King Cole Trio is also slated to star in a musical short film along with the Benny Carter band for Universal-International. He had a decent seller with Ivory Joe Hunter's great tune "I Almost Lost My Mind" on # 889 (Capitol again revising its numbering system) in the spring. In May the King Cole Trio is featured at New York's Bop City on a super bill that also includes the Count Basie band and Dinah Washington. A recording of "Calypso Blues" on # 915 does well in New York and the Northeast. In June Cole plays the Regal Theater in Chicago with his newest version of the trio with Irving Ashby on guitar and Joe Comfort on bass. Also that month his newest ballad offering began to really percolate across the country. It was an intriguing ballad song (much as was "Nature Boy") from the motion picture "Captain Carey, U.S.A." and it was called "Mona Lisa" ( on # 1010). The lyrics (by Jay Evans) wove the historic mystery of the famous painting into a wistful question that Cole's vocal style fit perfectly. Accompanied by the orchestra of Les Baxter, it became a smash hit and one of the biggest selling records in the history of Capitol Records. Its staying power was proven out by a run of seven months on the best seller charts, eight weeks as the top seller in the country, and a total of close to four million in sales. Cole's third huge number one record in four years made Nat Cole on a par with the top romantic ballad singers of the era along with Sinatra and Perry Como. This was a somewhat surprising development from his early days as a jazz pianist and rhythm singer. In August Cole traveled to Europe and was a huge draw in London appearing with Nellie Lutcher. The year continued with "Home", a brief hit on # 1133, and was followed by another unique musical collaboration. This time the song was "Orange Colored Sky", and on it Cole was back with the King Cole Trio augmented by the progressive jazz big band of Stan Kenton. Pop music listeners and many jazz devotees made the record a big hit for Capitol ( # 1184). It was a three and a half month favorite on the best seller charts and sold as high as the number five position nationally. The year closed out with a seasonal tune (along with "The Christmas Song"), Cole's version of "Frosty The Snowman" recorded with The Pussy Cats on # 1203 a top ten seller.

In early 1951 Cole started out the year with a nice top twenty seller with the song "Jet" on Capitol # 1365 recorded with the Ray Charles Singers (no connection with Atlantic's super R & B star) and the orchestra of Joe Lipman. This was followed up in April with a song adapted from the works of Tchaikovsky called "Always You" with Les Baxter's orchestra on # 1401. Late in that month Capitol released another Cole recording that would become another of his landmark records. It was "Too Young", a lovely song about the problems of young love. With Les Baxter again providing excellent accompaniment, Cole's recording on # 1449 stayed on the best sellers list across the country for an amazing seven and a half months and was the top seller nationally for five weeks easily topping the two million mark in sales. While "Too Young" was well along on its enduring run, Nat's version of the old standard "Red Sails In The Sunset" recorded with Pete Rugolo's band on # 1468 had a short run on the charts. That June in the studio once again with the orchestra of Les Baxter, "Because Of Rain" was released on Capitol # 1501. This was a more substantial seller and had a decent run on the charts peaking at number seventeen . Cole had one last hit record that year with "Unforgettable" on # 1808. It was a top ten seller and was on the charts well into 1952. Cole closes out the year with an appearance at Philadelphia's Club Harlem, and then to the coast for a spot on the annual L.A. Sentinel's Christmas Benefit show.

In the spring of 1952 Cole hits the best seller lists with a terrific version of the tune "Somewhere Along The Way" on # 2069. As on "Unforgettable", he is accompanied by the orchestra of Nelson Riddle. Again his record has incredible staying power, spending more than six months on the charts. Cole appears with the Joe Adams band in a musical In June Cole appears for a week of shows at Philadelphia's Earle Theater with the band of Sy Oliver. In July he follows that up with another top ten smash, this time with Billy May's band on "Walking My Baby Back Home", which is also a hot seller for Johnny Ray. For the rest of the year Cole has a number of minor hits for Capitol - "Funny (Not Much)" on # 2130, "Because You're Mine" and "I'm Never Satisfied" on # 2212, a split session produced "The Ruby And The Pearl" from the movie "Thunder In The East" with Les Baxter and "Faith Can Move Mountains" with Nelson Riddle on # 2230, and once again "The Christmas Song". In October Cole fractures his foot while playing in a celebrity softball game for charity. In November Cole prepares for a sixty city tour in "The Biggest Show Of 52" which also features Sarah Vaughn and the Stan Kenton band.

1953 begins with a top twenty seller called "Strange" on # 2309, followed by another of Cole's monster hits for Capitol. "Pretend" on # 2346 was a number one best seller and a five month chart hit. The flip side also did well - "Don't Let Your Eyes Go Shopping" was a top twenty five seller. In April Nat Cole has to leave a package attraction called "The Record Show" because he is hospitalized for a period of time with bleeding ulcers. The show decides to cancel its run as Nat has surgery and recovers at home. In May the Pittsburgh Courier's annual music poll gives the trio nod to the King Cole Trio and Nat comes in second (to Arthur Prysock) as top male singer. Nat had finally settled his debts to the IRS (a bane of many an entertainer) by this time. Cole appeared as himself in the films "The Blue Gardenia" and "Small Town Girl". The rest of the year saw Cole continue to sell hit after hit, but not in the amount of his number ones. They all got into the top twenty in sales - "Can't I?" with Billy May on # 2389,"I Am In Love" from the Broadway show "Can-Can" on # 2459, "Return To Paradise" on # 2498, "A Fool Was I" and "If Love Is Good To Me" on 2540, and a solid seller with a snappy up tempo version of "Lover Come Back To Me" from the Broadway show "New Moon" with the Billy May band on # 2610.

In 1954 Nat Cole continued to be a dominant presence on the record best seller charts. "Answer Me My Love" was a huge hit hitting the top five in the country and lasted on the listings for five months and becoming Cole's fifth million seller. The flip side "Why?" on # 2687 also had a brief stay on the hit charts. "It happens To Be Me" and "Alone Too Long" (from the film "By The Beautiful Sea") on # 2754, was followed by "Make Her Mine" a solid hit on # 2803. In June Nat takes part in a show called "Star Night" in Chicago at Soldier Field. Also on the bill are Sarah Vaughn, Roy Hamilton, and The Orioles. The show will also play Detroit and Cleveland. A song written by Charlie Chaplin back in the mid thirties provided Cole with another huge seller in the fall of the year. "Smile" recorded with Nelson Riddle's orchestra on # 2803 was a top ten seller and had a four month run on the best sellers. In November of the year another movie tune "Haji Baba" was a decent seller (Capitol # 2949) getting to the number fourteen spot in the nation while the flip side a tune called "Unbelievable" was a top thirty seller in its own right. That same month Cole is set for a week's run at New York's Apollo Theater. Finally Nat re-recorded his annual top seller of the season "The Christmas Song" on # 2955 with the Nelson Riddle orchestra.

By 1955 as most music listeners knew, the transformation of pop culture in this country was well under way. The R & B field had morphed into rock 'n roll and the music was now the domain of the American teenager. Nat Cole however was in a unique situation that prohibited him from being pigeonholed into a particular category or niche market. He continued to be embraced by a wide range of record buyers and listeners. Nat officially disbanded the trio (it had been an afterthought since 1951 actually) but he continued to have his own personal rhythm section consisting of John Collins on guitar, Charles Harris on bass, and drummer Lee Young. He produced seven solid hit records that year and Capitol Records kept him in the forefront even as they attempted to cash in on the new sound by signing the Five Keys vocal group among others geared toward the R & B fans. Cole appeared in the musical short film called "The King Cole Musical Story" during the year. "Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup" was a top ten seller and a four month chart hit, while the flip side "The Sand And The Sea" also did well as a top 25 seller on # 3027. This was followed in May by a huge two sided hit on # 3095 - "A Blossom Fell" and the slightly R & B feel of "If I May" recorded with The Four Knights. A five month charter "Blossom" was kept out of the number one spot by only Prez Prado's "Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White", and "If I May" got to number eight with the record becoming the sixth gold record for Nat Cole. During the month Cole was on an extensive tour with Atlantic singer Lavern Baker. In July "My One Sin" is a top twenty five seller on # 3136, and was followed by another two sided hit - "Someone You Love" and "My One Heart" on # 3234 which had a stay of more than two months on the hit list. In October a new film called "Rock 'n Roll Revue" starring Nat Cole debuts in theaters across the country. The film stars some non-rock performers besides Cole such as Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington. Also in the film are Ruth Brown, The Clovers, Larry Darnell, Joe Turner, Dinah Washington, and others. Interestingly enough, a similar film by the same studio (Studio Films) is being readied at the same time. Called "The Rhythm & Blues Revue" it also stars Nat Cole along with an even heavier cast of R & B performers such as Amos Milburn, The Delta Rhythm Boys, Paul Williams and his band, and others.

In 1956 Cole's first chart hit was "Ask Me" on # 3328 a top twenty seller. This was followed by a tune from the motion picture with the provocative title "Strip For Action". The song was "Too Young To Go Steady" on # 3390, another top twenty hit. In May the annual poll by the Pittsburgh Courier once again named Cole as the top pop vocalist. Racism reared the worst of its extremes when Cole, appearing before an audience in his home town of Birmingham, Alabama, in April was physically attacked while performing for a segregated White audience by members of the local KKK subsidiary The White Citizens Council. Continuing on record, "That's All There Is To That" recorded with The Four Knights on # 3456 did a bit better on the sales charts during the summer. In November "Night Lights" and "To The Ends Of The Earth" for Capitol # 3551 scored as "Lights" got to the top ten. The year of 1956 was also the year that Cole began to be a force in the LP album field. His recording of "Ballads Of The Day" on # 680 contained a number of his previous single hits and was a good seller. Cole appeared in another musical film featuring Black musicians in "Basin Street Revue" along with Sarah Vaughn, Lionel Hampton, Amos Milburn, Faye Adams, and Cab Calloway. That November Cole was given his own television show by NBC. Despite decent ratings the show was unable to book permanent sponsorship because of racial attitudes prevalent during the time. Advertisers felt that Southern consumers would boycott their products because of the backing of an African-American entertainer. The show also featured The Randy Van Horne Singers and the orchestra of Nelson Riddle.

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