The American musician Nat Cole (Nathaniel Adams Coles; 1919-1965) was beloved by millions as a singer of popular songs, but his forte was piano, in the "cool" jazz idiom.
Nathaniel Adams Coles, the youngest son of the Reverend Edwards Coles and Perlina (Adams) Coles, was born on March 17, 1917 (St. Patrick's Day), in Montgomery, Alabama. Cole and his family were moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1921 by his father, who served as pastor of the Truelight Spiritual Temple on the South Side of Chicago. By the time he reached the age of 12, Cole was playing the organ and singing in the choir of his father's church under his mother's choir direction.
He took piano lessons "mostly to learn to read, you know. I could play more piano than the teacher." Infatuated with show business, Cole formed his own big band, the Rogues of Rhythm, joined by his older brother Eddie, previously bassist with Noble Sissle's orchestra. First recordings of the Rogues, for Decca Records, are now collector's items.
Working with the band in Chicago nightclubs and dance halls enabled Cole to develop both as a pianist and a singer. He was early influenced by the piano styling of Earl Hines and Jimmy Noone's band. Of Noone's theme song, "Sweet Lorraine," he said, "Man, that was the first song I ever sang." The tune, written by the New Orleans clarinetist Mitchell Parish, became a Cole classic.
Leaving the Chicago circuit, Cole and the band joined the Shuffle Along show scheduled to play the West Coast. Brother Eddie declined the engagement and Cole went along to California where, in 1937, he met and married Nadine Robinson, a chorus girl with the show. When the show folded, he and the band played a short-lived booking at the Ubangi Club in Maywood. "Old musicians never die; they just run out of gigs," said Louie Armstrong once, and when Cole's Ubangi gig was over the band broke up and he went on to do a solo act at the Century Club. From the Century, Cole was hired by Bob Lewis, owner of the Swanee Inn in Hollywood. Lewis insisted on a trio. The booking was for two weeks, but lasted six months.
Cole's first bass player, later to be replaced by the legendary Johnny "Thrifty" Miller, was Wesley Prince, who introduced him to Oscar Moore, a movie studio-guitarist. Although the phenomenal Moore was replaced years later by the excellent guitarist Irving Ashby, the trio reached its apex with the combination of the genius of Cole, Moore, and Miller.
The trio wove a fabric of blues licks, riffs, runs, arpeggios, and scalewise invented melodies, classically composed in an original and precise musical logic, as if nothing were left to chance, when, in fact, every note was a calculated risk controlled by the artists' innate rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic sensibilities—absolute freedoms contained by absolute rules of the musical art. Head arrangements were worked up from sheet music in rehearsals, but were not written down. Rehearsal time nods of the head by Cole signaled Moore and Miller and resulted in smooth transitions from piano to guitar solos and piano-guitar riffs, in the Benny Goodman mode. The three musicians each possessed exceptional improvisational melodic gifts which melded original inventions with jazz conventions.
Their harmonic genius added to a constantly swinging rhythm rooted in Miller's unswerving bass line and Moore's driving four to the measure chordal accompaniment—a beat which inspired the envy of contemporary big bands. Cole's accompaniment style, which backed up Moore's improvisational guitar lines and his own singing, was characterized by piano bass-note rockers and comped (chopped) chords executed by the left hand against exquisitely tasteful fill-ins executed by the right hand.
The trio was an original of the jazz combo which prepared future audiences for the small ensembles later to emerge as a consequence of economic retrenchment in the music industry, causing the demise of the big bands on the road circuit at a time when live radio and television broadcasting costs, too, became, for a while, prohibitive of orchestration on the grand scale.
Legend has it that upon an occasion of Cole's after-hours venture into vocalization with the previously predominantly instrumental trio, a young woman present in the club figuratively crowned him the "King," an affectionate nickname which stuck ever after. Among the "Counts" of Basie and the "Dukes" of Ellington, the title of "King" was reverential and emphasized Cole's high place in the enduring art and history of jazz.
After the Swanee Inn, the trio worked night spots in Hollywood and its environs; later, in Chicago, they played on the same bill with the Bob Crosby band and cut eight sides with Decca, including an early rendition of "Sweet Lorraine," one almost identical to their eventual hit on the Capital label. Moving on through Washington, D.C., they arrived in Manhattan in 1941 to play Nick's in Greenwich Village, Kelly's Stable (uptown), and one week at the Paramount, but the pay was "slim pickens," impelling the trio to return to the West Coast, where they played the 331 Club followed by a 10-week tour of Omaha and a return engagement at the 331 for almost a year, which got them through the winter of 1943-1944.
Lean times were followed by big hits. With the arrival of the spring of 1944 came a second Capital recording of "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and, on the flip side, "I Just Can't See for Lookin'," a novelty lyric derived from an old preacher's joke that Cole had composed and set to music about a buzzard who took a monkey for a ride. With personification came gratification and a series of hits: "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" "Bring Another Drink," "If You Can't Smile and Say Yes," "Shy Guy," and then, two real winners, "Frim Fram Sauce" and "Route 66."
Constantly together on the road, Cole, Moore, and Miller lived and breathed their music at work and at play, until they played as one. Most often Cole sang solo, but some tunes were rendered in a unison band chant. His piano talent, synthesized from cross-fertilization of Earl "Fatha" Hines, Fats Waller, Frankie Carl, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Mel Powell, and Teddy Wilson, was the bridge between the preceding style of Art Tatum and the styles to follow of George Shearing and Oscar Peterson. This lineage is, perhaps, best exemplified in Cole's solo rendition of "Body and Soul." Such is the family way in which jazz musicianship develops: first imitation and then innovation; first convention and then invention. Moore had picked up a few tricks along the way from Django Rinehardt, Eddie Lang (Salvatore Mussaro), Charley Christian, and Danny Perri; Miller had profited from listening to "Slam" Stewart and "Bobby" Haggert—but the trio's synthesis was original.
Cole and some of his Californian friends, including songwriter-singer Frankie Laine, prepared original compositions for what proved to be a successful concert tour, but as success mounted, so the jazz lessened and the popular vocalization increased, and so, too, the trio faded into the background, sometimes appearing with full orchestra in concerti sections; sometimes not appearing at all. With his recording of Mel Torme's "Christmas Song," a new career was launched for Cole which left little room for Moore and Miller; the trio broke up, to be restaffed later on by Cole for occasional gigs. Unfortunately, new success marked the end of old friendship.
There are three major lineages in modern American popular singing. The earliest is the Neapolitan School, which resulted from a fusion of Al Jolson's and Carlo Buti's styles by Russ Columbo, who was the leader in a family of crooners including Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby, Buddy Clark, Perry Como, Dean Martin, and Elvis Presley. The second, the Big Band School, traded Rudy Valley's megaphone for the more sensitive microphone and includes Bob and Ray Eberly, Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Steve Lawrence, and Jack Jones. The youngest of the three pre-rock schools is the Cool School, deriving from the harsher toned ancestry of Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Rushing, and Louis Prima to culminate in the smooth, relaxed delivery of Cole, who established a style out of which others grew, including the styles of Mel Torme, Johnny Ray, Johnny Mathis, Oscar Peterson (whose similarity of style with Cole's caused a lifetime contract between them requiring Peterson to refrain from singing), Frankie Laine, Tony Bennett, early Ray Charles, and later, John Pizzarelli, Jr. (son of Bucky).
After seven film contracts with the trio, a long-term contract with the NBC Kraft Music Hall, recording contracts with Decca and Capital, top-ten hits, Metronome Poll awards, Gold Piano and Silver Singing Esquire awards, and a Gold Esquire Guitar award for Moore; after the constant friendship, the countless one-night stands, the concert engagements, and the fame and the fortune, the trio gig was up and Cole was on his own.
Cole never belted a song in his life, but depended on interesting subtleties of vocal timbre and texture and the art of nuance. Even Sinatra admired his intonation. Cole never sang a sour note in his life. He well knew how to hold the vowels and let go of the consonants. He was master of the art of understatement and knew how to capitalize on brief spaces of pregnant silence, as dramatically important to music as sound itself. He mastered the art of rubato, which resulted in an intricate ability to phrase a melodic line and tell a lyric story. The consummate jazz artist became the consummate balladeer, the singer of art and folk songs of the future, an American troubadour.
Cole bought a home in Los Angeles—"my own home," he said, but two lives spent in show business had led to divorce from Nadine. He married for a second and last time to singer Marie Ellington, who, although not related, sang with Duke Ellington's band. He and Marie had three daughters: Carol, Timlin, and Natalie. Natalie followed in her father's swinging footsteps.
After the successes of "Dance, Ballerina, Dance," "Nature Boy," and "Lush Life," there came the sudden and most sad end to the artist's life and the beginning of a landmark of native American music. The sound quality of Cole's voice derived not only from his broad Southern dialect (the vowel sounds almost Italian in pronunciation), his impeccable ear, the microphonic amplification of his tone color, his idiosyncratic pronunciation of "I", or from his velvet falsetto, but also from his cigarette smoking. On a WNEW New York interview shortly before his untimely death in 1965 by throat cancer, he was asked by host William B. Williams how he could smoke so much and still be a singer. Cole responded by saying he had learned two things, the first thing being that the choice of the right key for a song meant everything, and the second being that smoking helps a singer get a husky sound in his voice that the audience loves—"so, if you want to sing, keep on smoking."
When Cole died, a consummate jazz artist and a voice millions knew as the voice of a friend was irreplaceably lost to the world.
Additional information on Nat "King" Cole can be found in Look (April 19, 1955); Newsweek (August 12, 1946); TIME (July 30, 1951); Saturday Evening Post (July 17, 1954); ASCAP Biographical Dictionary of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (1952); and Who Is Who in Music (1951).