5 things you might not know about Nat King Cole
In August 2023, Down for the Count are heading to The Pheasantry, Pizza Express Live's venue on the Chelsea King's Road in London, with a brand new show "Ella, Louis, Nat & More" featuring our 7-piece band. This week, band leader Mike Paul-Smith is looking ahead to that show with some interesting facts about Nat King Cole's life.
1. When he died, Nat King Cole had sold more records than just about anyone
One of the things I find most interesting about Nat King Cole is that, at the time of his death in 1965, he had sold more records than anyone else in history - with the sole exception of Bing Crosby.
When you think about the fact that Nat King Cole was performing and recording at the same time that Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly and Ella Fitzgerald were at the peak of their powers, and that he had to endure the prejudices that all African Americans faced in the middle of the century, it was quite an incredible achievement.
Discographers believe that Nat King Cole recorded more than 1400 songs in his career (46 per year of his life) - which means that picking just a few songs for a show of his music his an incredibly difficult task.
Nat died at the tragically young age of 45 due to lung cancer - caused by his long-term addiction to cigarettes. The list of active and honorary pallbearers reads like a who's who of stars of the swing era - including musical stars Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr, Johnny Mathis alongside political figures such as Robert Kennedy, proof that Nat King Cole was loved and revered by many.
2. His surname was actually Coles, and there is confusion over his date of birth
Nat was born Nathaniel Adams Coles - but started leaving off the "s" when he was 15 years old, the age he dropped out of high school to pursue a musical career.
Whilst everyone agrees that he was born on 17 March (St. Patrick's Day), there has been a fair amount of confusion surrounding the actual year of his birth - mostly down to Nat who, it seems, lied about his age on at least two official documents - once on his first marriage certificate (when, in 1937, he wrote that he was 21 so that he could get married to his first wife without parental consent) and once when registering for the draft in 1940.
However, meticulous research undertaken by several biographers has led to the conclusion that Nat King Cole was actually born in 1919.
3. The Nat King Cole Show was the first nationally broadcast television show hosted by an African American
In 1956, NBC gave Nat King Cole his own television show, The Nat King Cole Show - meaning that he was the first African American to host their own nationally broadcast television show.
The show faced challenges from the beginning, and a national sponsor - critical to the success of American television shows - was never found.
To their credit, NBC stuck with the show for a while, despite the fact that it made a loss. Nat's show-business friends also rallied around him and often agreed to appear for very little money ("union scale", instead of their usual fees) but it was all in vain and the show ended in December 1957.
4. Nat King Cole was an influential jazz pianist
Nat King Cole is rightly remembered for his wonderful warm singing - but he started out as a pianist and had a long-lasting influence on other jazz pianists, with none other than the great Oscar Peterson citing Nat King Cole as one of his main piano-playing influences.
Growing up in Chicago, Nat was surrounded by some of the best jazz musicians of all time and beginning in 1932 used to climb out of his bedroom window at night and hear the sounds filtering out from the "black and tan" cabarets on to the streets of Chicago. This is how he heard Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, borrowing aspects of their playing for his own soloing.
As Nat's career progressed he sung more, and played piano less, but there are two great albums from later in his career that shine a spotlight on him as a piano player.
One was called After Midnight - about which, more later - and the other was called The Piano Style of Nat King Cole, arranged by Nelson Riddle and featuring Cole performing jazz standards accompanied by a studio orchestra. A personal favourite of mine from this album is Imagination.
5. He survived a racially motivated kidnapping attempt
Throughout Nat King Cole's career he, like many jazz greats, had to suffer and endure unimaginable racism. It came to a head in 1956 when he was assaulted onstage whilst performing in Birmingham, Alabama, in the Deep South.
The assailants (who had links to the Ku Klux Klan) were apparently trying to kidnap him, in protest at his appearance onstage with the white Ted Heath band, something that had never happened in that town before. Although they were not successful, the attack had a lasting influence on Cole. (As a side note it's interesting to note that in the aftermath of the attack, Cole actually received a lot of criticism from the black liberal press and the NAACP, who didn't feel that he was doing enough to combat racism).
One result of the attack was Nat's management pressurising NBC to give him the television show and another was one of Nat's most popular albums, conceived during his rest and rehabilitation period. Over a series of four dates in late 1956 Nat gathered his band and favourite soloists in a studio to play jazz standards, capturing the essence and spirit of an after-hours jazz jam.
The album was called After Midnight and for many young Nat King Cole fans - who didn't grow up surrounded by his piano playing - it was the first time they were able to hear him return to his jazz roots.
Find out more
The information in this article is mostly obtained from three fantastic biographies of Nat King Cole:
- "Nat King Cole", Daniel Mark Epstein, published 1999 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (New York)
- "Unforgettable: The Life and Times of Nat King Cole", Leslie Gourse, published 1991 by New English Library (UK)
- "Nat King Cole", James Haskins with Kathleen Benson, published 1984 by Stein and Day (USA)
Supplementary information was obtained from "Oscar Peterson: The Will To Swing", Gene Lees, published 1988 by Lester & Open Dennys Limited (Toronto)
Tickets to our Ella, Louis, Nat & More show are available now.