Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole

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Born on March 17, 1919, in Montgomery, Alabama. Known for his smooth and well-articulated vocal style, Nat King Cole actually started out as a piano man. He first learned to play around the age of four with help from his mother, a church choir director. The son of a Baptist pastor, Cole may have started out playing religious music.

In his early teens, Cole had formal classical piano training. He eventually abandoned classical for his other musical passion—jazz. Earl Hines, a leader of modern jazz, was one of Cole's biggest inspirations. At 15, he dropped out of school to become a jazz pianist full time. 

Cole joined forces with his brother Eddie for a time, which led to his first professional recordings in 1936. He later joined a national tour for the musical revue Shuffle Along, performing as a pianist.

The following year, Cole started to put together what would become the King Cole Trio, the name being a play on the children's nursery rhyme. They toured extensively and finally landed on the charts in 1943 with "That Ain't Right," penned by Cole. "Straighten Up and Fly Right," inspired by one of his father's sermons, became another hit for the group in 1944. The trio continued its rise to the top with such pop hits as the holiday classic "The Christmas Song" and the ballad "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons."

As an African-American performer, Cole struggled to find his place in the Civil Rights movement. He had encountered racism firsthand, especially while touring in the South.

In 1956, Cole had been attacked by white supremacists during a mixed race performance in Alabama. He was rebuked by other African Americans, however, for his less-than-supportive comments about racial integration made after the show. Cole basically took the stance that he was an entertainer, not an activist.

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Cole's presence on the record charts dwindled in the late 1950s. But this decline did not last long. His career returned to top form in the early 1960s. He made his last appearances on the pop charts in his lifetime in 1964.

Cole made television history in 1956, when he became the first African-American performer to host a variety TV series. The Nat King Cole Showfeatured many of the leading performers of the day, including Count Basie, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Bennett. Unfortunately, the series didn't last long, going off the air in December 1957. Cole blamed the show's demise on the lack of a national sponsor. The sponsorship problem has been seen as a reflection of the racial issues of the times with no company seemingly wanting to back a program that featured African-American entertainers.

In 1964, Cole discovered that he had lung cancer. He succumbed to the disease just months later, on February, 1965, at the age of 45, in Santa Monica, California.