For me, Nat King Cole is the most listenable singer of all time. I’ve always considered his to be the closest thing to a perfect singing voice that I’ve ever heard.
I’m not alone in that assessment. With his string of international hits in the 1950s and 60s, songs such as Mona Lisa, Nature Boy, (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, and Unforgettable, the whole world voted by their purchases to affirm Nat’s greatness. And although he died of cancer in 1965, Nat King Cole remains a household name today.
Nat’s real name was Nathaniel Adams Coles. So, “Nat King Cole” was not just a nickname, but an apt stage name he deliberately chose as a play on his birth name.
Nat first came to fame not as a singer, but as a jazz musician. He was the son of a Baptist minister in Montgomery, Alabama, and his mother, the choir director in his father’s church, began teaching him to play the piano at the age of four. By the time he turned 15, Nat was so good he left school to become a professional jazz pianist. In 1939 he formed the King Cole Trio, a jazz ensemble with Nat starring as the mostly non-singing piano player. But in 1946 he turned one of his father’s sermons into a major hit, Straighten Up and Fly Right. Nat’s vocal on that recording launched him into the spotlight as a singer.
Nat introduced The Christmas Song (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) in 1946 with the King Cole Trio. But later that year he fought to have strings added to the arrangement and re-recorded it. That version became a huge hit. He recorded that arrangement twice more, the last of those recordings, made in 1961, being done in stereo. That version is the one now heard almost continuously during the Christmas season every year.
Nat was the first black performer to have his own nationwide network TV variety show.The Nat King Cole Show aired on NBC from November, 1956 to December, 1957. It was a variety program that not only featured Nat’s singing, but also presented the greatest entertainers of the day as guest stars. People like Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Mel Torme, Pearl Bailey, and even movie star Robert Mitchum graced the program each week.
Nat cancelled his own TV show due to lack of sponsors. Although The Nat King Cole Show was top notch in production quality, the show could never find a national sponsor. The reason was that the specter of a black man starring in his own show, sometimes with white female guests like Peggy Lee, scared the advertising executives of Madison Avenue to death. They were petrified with fear of how the South would react, and refused to recommend that their clients associate their products with Nat’s program. Knowing that NBC, though willing to continue the show, was losing money due to the lack of sponsorship, and unwilling to move to a less desirable time slot, Nat finally pulled the plug on his show. He would later famously say of those gutless ad executives, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
I well remember the excitement that ran through the African American community when The Nat King Cole Show came on the air. People would get on the phone and call friends and relatives to make sure they didn’t miss it. Short lived as it was, Nat’s pioneering effort on network television was a source of pride and hope for millions of people.
Photo credit: William P. Gottlieb via Library of Congress (public domain)
Ron Franklin is a pastor, writer, radio broadcaster and producer, computer programmer, and musician. Now the founding pastor of Covenant Community Church in Harrisburg, PA, he was an engineer and manager for high-tech companies such as IBM and EDS. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and Denver Theological Seminary.