By Michael Francis
Special to the Daily Record
February is one of my favorite months because it is Black History Month. In our often disparaging, hate-filled world that still insists on clinging to the antiquated concepts of racism and prejudice, it is a breath of fresh air to know that the forces of good have at least set aside a special month to honor the great accomplishments of African-Americans — and there are so many.
Take the creation of our American art form, jazz music, for instance. The list of outstanding African-Americans who played a part in forging the foundation of this purely American music, and who have succeeded under extreme adversity despite the theft of their God-given human rights, reads like a “who’s who” of the art form. One such African-American icon on that list is Nathaniel Adams Coles [sic], whom we know as Nat “King” Cole, born March 17, 1919, in Montgomery, Alabama.
Cole’s father joined the mass exodus of people seeking a better life in the prospering northern industrial cities and migrated his family to Chicago, where he was pastor of the First Baptist Church. Young Nat began learning piano by ear from his mother, who was a choir director at the church. At 12 years old, he began studying classical music but became enamored with jazz. He would sneak out of the house at night to hear artists like trumpeter Louis Armstrong and pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines. He ended up leaving school at 15 to pursue a career as a jazz pianist.
Although many still perceive Cole as primarily a velvet voice in the pop music world of the day, the truth is that before Cole reached the popular vocal stardom that we all remember, he was actually one of the greatest pianists in the history of jazz, performing in the famous Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and winning prestigious jazz piano poll awards in Downbeat magazine.
Cole’s first professional break came in 1936 when he was hired to play in the touring revival of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s “Shuffle Along,” which had previously opened on Broadway in 1923 to a long, successful run. When the tour suddenly ended in Long Beach, Cole went to work at the Century Club on Santa Monica Boulevard, where he reportedly made a great impression on the Hollywood “in” crowd.
In 1939, he formed a trio sans drummer with Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on upright bass. In this format, in which Cole attempted to musically express sophistication and high aspirations of the black community, he very gradually emerged as a singer.
Inspired in 1943 by one of his father’s sermons, he recorded “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” which sold 500,000 copies for Capitol Records. The rich orchestral strings version of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” and “I Love You for Sentimental Reasons” established Cole’s evolution into a sentimental singer and signaled a gradual move away from small-group jazz. The 1948 landmark recording of “Nature Boy” marked his obvious arrival at being one of the most popular vocalists of the day.
During the following period of enormous popularity in the easy-listening field, jazz fans were still packing his club performances seeking to hear his phenomenal piano virtuosity. It is said that the landmark unique circular building housing Capitol Records in Los Angeles was substantially funded by revenues from Cole’s records and came to be known as “The House that Nat Built.”
Despite his widespread popularity and acceptance by white audiences, Cole often suffered racial prejudice. He was attacked and beaten on stage in Birmingham, Alabama, by four men who were arrested and subsequently convicted for the crime. As a result, he vowed never to return to perform in the South, a promise that he kept.
Racism also harmed his career. In 1956, Cole became one of the first African-American television presenters, but the honor was short lived when he was forced to abandon the role when in 1957 the show could not find him a national sponsor.
With highly visible friends like Frank Sinatra, Cole was often perceived as making compromises that ironically gained him hostility from civil rights activists.
He often suffered the indignity of being “whited up” by producers of his TV performances to make him more acceptable to white audiences. He was attacked by the media for appearing before white audiences and labeled an “Uncle Tom” by the NAACP.
Deeply hurt by criticism in the black press, Cole found it necessary to visibly emphasize his opposition to segregation by joining other entertainers in boycotting segregated venues. He joined the Detroit NAACP as a life member and, until his death in 1965, became an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement. He played a prominent role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The Nat “King” Cole Trio. Oscar Moore, guitar; Wesley Prince, double bass; and Cole, seated at the piano (Photo courtesy of the William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress).
Throughout the 1950s, Cole continued to record successful hits. In 1959, he was awarded a Grammy for Best Performance by a Top 40 Artist at the second annual Grammy Awards for his recording of “Midnight Flyer.”
In 1956, Cole went to Havana, Cuba, where the casinos of crime boss Meyer Lansky were flourishing. He performed his contract, but was not allowed to stay in the Hotel Nacional because it operated a segregated bar. In 1958, he returned to Havana and recorded “Cole Español,” sung entirely in Spanish. The album was so popular in Latin America that it led to several more Spanish-language albums. Loved by the Cubans, Cole is honored with a lifelike Nat “King” Cole bust in the Hotel Nacional, which was seen by this writer in a recent trip to Cuba.
Cole sang at the 1956 Republican National Convention in support of Dwight D. Eisenhower and was present among invited guests at the Democratic National Convention in support of John F. Kennedy in 1960. He performed at the Kennedy Inaugural Gala in 1961, at which time he met with Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson on civil rights.
In the fall of 1964, Cole, a heavy smoker, began a serious decline in health attributed to lung cancer. He died on Feb. 15, 1965, at age 44. Notable honorary pallbearers at his funeral were Robert F. Kennedy, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis, George Burns, Danny Thomas, Jimmy Durante, Frankie Laine, Steve Allen and California Gov. Pat Brown.
Cole’s last album, “L-O-V-E,” recorded in 1964 just before he entered the hospital for cancer treatment, was released just before he died. In 1991, his daughter Natalie Cole recorded a new vocal track that was mixed with her father’s 1951 hit, “Unforgettable.” The song and album won seven Grammy Awards for Best Album and Best Song.
After his passing, Nat “King” Cole was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990.
In 1994, a U.S. postage stamp was issued with his likeness.
He was inducted into the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2007, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2013.
Michael Francis is the executive director of the Roswell Jazz Festival and a well-known jazz pianist.
Next week: Nina Simone.