From his beginnings as a jazz pianist to his rise as a singer, Nat King Cole was an unmatched talent. Everyone knows that voice. Smooth, silky, and cool, it dominated American music. He was a groundbreaker. Born in Alabama in 1919 and raised in Chicago from the age of four, he dropped out of high school at 15 to pursue his music. He was making jazz records with the King Cole Trio throughout the 30s and 40s. His first big hit, 1943’s "Straighten Up and Fly Right," fused jazz and popular music and in turn appealed to both black and white audiences. He began to shift more to popular music in 1946 with "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons." Cole found great success. The revenues from his albums helped finance the construction of the Capitol Records building in 1956, which became known as "the house that Nat built." Cole was a famous man, but not immune to racism and discrimination. Throughout his career he was squeezed on all sides, with cries among jazz circles that he was a sellout while grappling with those in the entertainment industry and the public that would not completely accept him as a black man.
When Cole and his wife bought a house in the wealthy white Hancock neighborhood of LA, they faced harassment from their new neighbors. When the press got wind of the story, he made a public statement : “I am an American citizen and I feel that I am entitled to the same rights as any other citizen." When it was explained to him the residents didn't want any undesirables in the neighborhood, he responded , "Neither do I, and if I see any undesirables coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain."
He appeared on TV and in films. In 1956, he was the first African-American to have a network television show, "The Nat King Cole Show." It was canceled after a year when it could not gain a major sponsor. That same year he was attacked on stage by white supremacists at a show in Birmingham, Alabama.
Meanwhile, civil rights activists demanded more. He did not march with them, but he did donate financially, and was still called an "Uncle Tom" by activists for performing before segregated audiences and not playing a larger public role. Even following the attack, he was publicly shamed and chastened by the media and the NAACP. In response, he boycotted segregated audiences and became more vocal in the civil rights movement. He was politically unattached, performing at the RNC in 1956 and the DNC in 1960. He consulted with politicians on race, but he was quiet about it. In some ways like his music: Tough, cool, graceful. He saw his role as leading by example, achieving that which no other black man had achieved.
In 1964, Nat King Cole was recording his last album, "L-O-V-E." It was a collaboration with arranger Ralph Carmichael, who had been Cole's regular arranger since 1960. The title track was recorded in June. Cole was working on films and other projects through the summer. In September, he was losing weight rapidly. "I thought you fixed these pants" he would say to his assistant, because they were always too loose. He experienced crippling, burning pain and nearly collapsed at a show. Cole smoked three packs of menthol cigarettes a day. He believed they were good for his voice. An X-ray showed a malignant tumor on his lung.
So in December of 1964, rock and roll was taking over and the golden age of crooners was coming to a close. The civil rights movement was marching on, and against the advice of his doctors, Nat King Cole was recording his last songs. Dying of lung cancer, he dressed up in a suit, walked into a studio in San Francisco, and got to work.
Carmichael described the last recording sessions as such: "It was so sad. Nat was so full of life and joy. I remember after Nat had been diagnosed with cancer, he came to a session in San Francisco in a suit, like he was getting ready to meet the president. Usually he dressed casually for the studio. But on this date, he was dressed up because he was relishing his life."
"L-O-V-E" was released that month. Billboard called it, "A Cole classic." They were right. It reached #4 on the charts.
He had surgery to remove his left lung, but died on February 15, 1965. In his complicated era, Cole was an artist who was both everything and never enough. His legacy paved the path for all the black artists who would follow up to the modern day. He was called a traitor to his roots, segregated by those who exploited his talents, unwelcome in his own neighborhood, and decried by the civil rights movement as ineffectual. But despite all that, he left a legacy much greater than his voice.
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