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Nat King Cole was born Nathaniel Coles in Alabama, probably in 1919, although various official documents have differing dates. His family were generally gifted musically. His father, Edward, was a Reverend; so church music especially was an integral part of the children’s lives. Three of Nat’s brothers went on to become successful jazz musicians. As a child, Nat first played the piano aged four, and had proved himself to be very adept by the age of twelve. He received his tutelage directly and solely from his mother.
The early professional musical life of Nat King Cole was mainly taken up with instrumental tracks. His first recordings came in 1936, in a band formed by his brother Eddie, called Eddie Coles’ Solid Swingers. Nat was an excellent jazz pianist, and had he not followed the path of a pop ballad singer, would undoubtedly be remembered as one of the great jazz pianists.
By the age of twenty, Nat had joined a trio lacking a drummer, because the drummer didn’t turn up to any of the early recordings. There was no need to hire another though, because the timing of Nat as a jazz pianist was so immaculate. Then came the night that Nat was cajoled into singing by a drunken customer. From that night on, people were entranced by his wonderful voice.
An executive from Capitol records spotted Nat King Cole in 1943. Throughout that decade he and his band recorded many songs as the King Cole Trio. By the end of the 1940’s, his singing had become quite popular.
It was in the 1950’s though that Nat King Cole became truly famous as a pop ballad singer, with hits such as ‘Mona Lisa’. He became popular amongst the white majority, and this helped his record sales enormously. This was in stark contrast to previous years when he had often encountered racism, to the extreme of an attempted kidnap on him, by racist whites in Alabama who were angry because he was on the stage! He had stood firm in his beliefs though, and was a pioneer for black performers. He still experienced problems with racists after he became a millionaire, most notably in the upmarket area of Los Angeles, where he moved to with his newfound riches.
Throughout the fifties Nat King Cole continued his career as a pop ballad singer, often recording duets with the likes of Dean Martin. By 1960, he had sold a staggering fifty million records. The success Cole enjoyed as a singer is one of the main reasons he was not recognised as a great jazz pianist, which undoubtedly he was. He was also the first black person to have his own radio show, and subsequently TV show. His pioneering work in this area continued, as he appeared in several films as an actor, and of course many just to sing a song or two.
A lifetime of heavy smoking eventually caught up with the multi talented Cole, and he died of lung cancer in 1965, aged 47.