Among all the great singers of the mid-20th century – the golden age of crooners and popular song – two stand alone at the summit. Frank Sinatra is one, of course. The other is Nat King Cole. The songs Cole sang have been sung well by hundreds since but there is something about the sheer beauty of his voice, his tone, his musicality, his warmth and maybe his very soul that make other versions pale copies.
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting etc), TooYoung (They tried to tell us), Mona Lisa, Nature Boy and, of course, Unforgettable have all been performed and recorded dozens of times but they are forever Nat King Cole songs. He sang them first and he sang them best.
There are many millions of people for whom these songs carry romantic memories from years gone by but, like all consummate artistry, they are not simply nostalgia pieces. Hear them for the first time today and their beauty is still transfixing.
In 1946 he was the first to record (Get your kicks on) Route 66, a song we know in many other versions.
In the hands of Chuck Berry or the Rolling Stones it’s a harum-scarum ride to excitement. With Cole it’s a silky-smooth cruise in a Cadillac with soft suspension and white-wall tyres.
The songs Cole sang have been sung well by hundreds
Born in Alabama 100 years ago this Sunday, the son of a preacher, he grew up in Chicago and as a child played organ in his father’s church.
By 16, a precocious pianist described in a local paper as “Plenty Hot”, he was already a star in that jazz-fuelled city, confident enough with his Rogues of Rhythm to publicly take on his idol, the great Earl Hines, in a battle of the bands.
Needless to say, his father didn’t approve of him dropping out of high school nor becoming a musician like his elder brother but he was not to be stopped and soon The Nat Cole Trio was well travelled and much in demand.
Had he never sung a note, he would have his place in the jazz pantheon. He might well also have remained quite poor.
GOLDEN AGE OF CROONERS: Nat with his daughter Natalie
Instead, he made a vast amount of money, became a huge international star and went where no African-American had ever been before, a route that brought risk, pain and hatred as well as love, wealth, status and adulation.
Songwriting was not his forte but in 1943 it brought him his biggest early success. After years of trying, he came up with Straighten Up And Fly Right, a swinging little parable about a buzzard and a monkey with a chorus ending, “Cool down papa, don’t blow your top.”
The title became a wartime catchphrase. The song has been recorded by everyone from the Andrews Sisters to Robbie Williams but the copyright didn’t make him rich.
Married with a baby but not a bank balance, he sold it for either $50 or a necktie, depending on whom you believe. But all was not lost. His recording sold half a million copies.
There are many millions of people for whom his songs carry romantic memories
The Nat King Cole trio became a major attraction, playing to big audiences in concert halls, and he was selling records.
In 1946 The Christmas Song and Route 66 were released. Both were hits and in 1947 in a freakishly unusual way came what may be his biggest hit of all.
One morning in May a longhaired guy called Eden Ahbez in dungarees, sweatshirt and Jesus sandals – he didn’t live in a house but slept under the stars with his wife – turned up at the door of the Lincoln Theatre, Los Angeles, with a song on tatty paper, asking for Cole’s manager.
He was sent packing but managed to leave the song. And Nat King Cole did look at it. The song, reflecting Ahbez’s beliefs, was Nature Boy.
Cole and his people were sceptical about it but recorded it as the B-side of a single. A smart discjockey quickly saw that it was very much the A-side.
Millions were mesmerised by the beauty of the tune (which had actually been plagiarised from a Yiddish song).
The African-American paper The New York Age wrote: “On 42nd Street great crowds gather, some hearing it for the umpteenth time we couldn’t help beaming with pride – inside – to hear some of the comments. That feller King Cole, he’s coloured, isn’t he?”.
By 1948, he was divorced and remarried – to Maria, a beautiful, refined, carefully brought-up singer he had seen performing with Duke Ellington’s band and fallen in love with. The couple had money enough to live wherever they wanted, and where they wanted was Hancock Park.
It was one of Los Angeles’s most desirable areas but was restricted to white people in the shocking racism of the time. $85,000 changed hands but the Coles were extremely unwelcome.
Singer Nat ‘King’ Cole, daughter Natalie Cole, wife Maria Cole at home in 1957
At a gathering of neighbourhood property owners, it was explained to Nat that they didn’t want undesirables.
“Neither do I,” said Cole, “and if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”
When the Coles moved in they were horrified to find a vile racist message carved into their lawn. But they stayed.
In May that year he and his trio had lost thousands of dollars by refusing to play to a segregated audience at a ballroom in Kansas City but his stellar career was based on global success and big paydays, and that meant white audiences were important.
Performing with Frank Sinatra
In late 1956 – as rock ‘n’ roll was hitting – Nat King Cole became the first African-American to have his own network TV show.
It was popular but crucially it was not supported by advertisers and sponsors. So the second series was cancelled. Cole memorably said: “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
Green Book, the enjoyable but somewhat soppy film that won this year’s best picture Oscar, is about a black musician’s travails in the racist Southern states in the early Sixties.
At one point someone mentions what happened to Nat King Cole in Birmingham, Alabama, in April 1956 when the battle for civil rights was reaching its hottest.
It was an all-white audience. He was pulled from the stage and beaten up.
Los Angeles California: King Cole with President Kennedy at Beverly Hilton Hotel in 1961
Even when very famous, in the South he had to stay in segregated hotels and go on stage at casinos through kitchens. He didn’t go on civil rights marches though he did give financial support.
He was criticised as a traitor, of course. He said it was his role to achieve what black men had not done before, doing it with dignity and grace, being a good example (though not in the marital fidelity department), and inspiring respect without making concessions.
Nat King Cole was quietly tough.
He died of lung cancer in 1965, aged 45. In 1991, his late daughter Natalie made the first record where someone duetted with the recorded voice of a dead person (and it should have been the last. It was the only one that had quality and meaning).
She was a wonderful singer and it was the biggest hit of her very big career. The song and the father she sang it with were Unforgettable.