Nat King Cole rocked the music world & left an ‘Unforgettable’ legacy

Nat King Cole at ClickAmericana com

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Legendary talent Nat King Cole’s legacy is still strong

Nat King Cole, a legendary figure in American music, left a lasting impression on fans worldwide. His contributions during the golden age of music are outstanding and continue to be celebrated.

His smooth voice and exceptional talent transcended the boundaries of jazz and pop, making him one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. 

Early life and musical beginnings

Born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1919, Nathaniel Adams Coles (only later was he known as Nat King Cole) grew up in a musical household. His mother, a church organist, introduced him to the music world. Cole’s early exposure to the piano led to a lifelong love affair with the instrument.

By age 15, he had dropped out of school to pursue a career in music — a decision that would soon prove fruitful.

Nat King Cole portrait at ClickAmericana com (1)

Rise to fame

Cole’s career took off in the late 1930s when he formed the King Cole Trio. The group’s unique blend of piano-driven jazz with rhythm and blues quickly caught the attention of the music industry. Their early hits, such as “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Route 66,” showcased Cole’s skillful piano playing and smooth vocal style, setting the stage for his later success as a solo artist.

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Breaking barriers

Nat King Cole was a musician and a trailblazer. In 1956, he became the first African American to host a national television variety show, “The Nat King Cole Show.”

While the show struggled with sponsorship due to racial prejudices of the time, Cole’s presence on national TV was a significant step forward in fighting for racial equality in the entertainment industry.

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Musical style and influence

Cole’s transition from jazz pianist to a leading pop vocalist was seamless. His lush voice, characterized by its warm, baritone quality, made songs like “Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa,” and “The Christmas Song” (the one that opens with “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”) timeless classics. His ability to infuse emotional depth into his music won him a legion of fans and influenced a generation of musicians.

Personal life and challenges

In 1948, Nat King Cole married Maria Hawkins Ellington, a talented jazz singer who shared his passion for music. Together, they had five children, including Natalie Cole, who followed in her father’s footsteps to become a successful singer.

Natalie Cole carved out her own illustrious career in the music industry and famously paid tribute to her father with a posthumous duet of his classic hit “Unforgettable,” blending her vocals with his in a seamless and touching homage.

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Behind the fame, Cole faced numerous challenges. The most notable was the racial discrimination he encountered, even at the height of his career. His family was subjected to racial abuse in their Los Angeles neighborhood, and he faced segregation and prejudice while touring.

Despite these obstacles, Cole continued to perform with dignity and grace, never allowing the ugliness of racism to deter his spirit or his music.

Legacy and impact

Nat King Cole passed away in 1965, but his influence on music and culture remains substantial. He broke racial barriers, set new standards in the music industry, and left a catalog of songs that continue to be celebrated. His smooth style and emotional delivery have inspired countless artists across various genres.

Nat King Cole portrait at ClickAmericana com (2)

Snapshots of Nat King Cole’s life & times

Nat King Cole’s journey from a talented young pianist to an international music icon demonstrates his enduring appeal. His music bridged racial divides and brought together audiences of all backgrounds, making him a musical legend and a cultural icon. 

His legacy lives on through his recordings, the countless musicians he influenced, and the barriers he broke. Nat King Cole remains an unforgettable figure in American music history, a symbol of elegance, talent, and the power of music to transcend societal boundaries.

Below, you’ll find a curated collection of press clips, photos and videos showcasing the extraordinary talent of this remarkable talent.

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Nat King Cole says his success is luck (1964)

In one of his final interviews before his untimely death, Nat King Cole spoke with Hedda Hopper for the San Antonio Express in December 1964, offering a personal glimpse into his life and career.

In this revealing conversation, Cole attributed his success to luck and discussed the serendipitous moments that shaped his journey, such as how he earned his iconic name and his unexpected transition to singing.

He also shared his experiences with racial tensions and his approach to handling adversity with calmness and dignity. Despite his global fame, Cole remained grounded, cherishing simple joys and prioritizing family. This interview stands as a poignant reflection of Cole’s humility and enduring spirit, captured shortly before he passed away in 1965.

Singer Singer Nat King Cole in the 1960s - ClickAmericana com

By Hedda Hopper – San Antonio Express (Texas) December 20, 1964

Nat King Cole attributes most of his success to luck. “I’ve come to the conclusion the fellow upstairs has been kind to me,”‘ he said, relaxing between scenes for his new picture, “Cat Ballou,” at Columbia.

One of the most popular guest stars on television, Nat is kept on the hop with recordings, nightclub dates, his own production company, and motion pictures.

“Even my name was luck,” he said. “When a happy night club patron slipped a gold paper crown on the head of Nathaniel Adams Cole’s head one night and shouted, ‘He’s KING!,’ the name caught on, and the Nat King Cole trio was born.

Singer Nat King Cole filming - ClickAmericana com (1)

“We had a guitar, bass fiddle, and me at the piano, but I never thought of myself as a singer. I owe that to another enthusiastic patron at a Hollywood night club who insisted I sing ‘Sweet Lorraine.’ From then on, I was a vocalist.”

(Shortly after Miss Hopper interviewed Cole, it was disclosed that he had entered a hospital for treatment of a lung tumor. Doctors advised him to take an extended break from his entertainment schedule.)

Tall, handsome, impeccably groomed, and sartorially elegant. he’s stayed at the top for 17 years. No artist in the business has had more solid hits and he’s known and loved on four continents. Every record he makes has an 80-20 chance of hitting the jackpot.

The keynote to Nat’s personality is gentle amiability.

“You never seem to lose your temper, not even in Birmingham when you were attacked by three men,” I remarked.

“That happened when I was doing a show — the first integrated show ever to play the South,” he said. “We had Ted Heath’s band, June Christie, the Four Freshmen, and Gary Morton. We played two segregated shows — the first for white people, the second for my people. The audience paid $6 and $8, and it was a sellout.

Nat King Cole portrait at ClickAmericana com (5)

“But this was around the time Autherine Lucy was enrolling in the University of Alabama, and tension ran high.

“When I first saw the men coming up over the spotlights, I thought the fans were becoming ecstatic. But I was wrong, I was knocked to the floor.

“Gary Morton walked on stage and made a little speech. He told me I should go on myself, but I didn’t want to go back, I was too upset. I did go out later, and told them I was upset and sorry but I was canceling the show and would give them their money back. But no one asked for a refund.

“I saw women in the audience crying and one white woman told me, ‘These people certainly don’t represent the majority.’ It was a beautiful audience.

“I didn’t feel it was an attack against Nat King Cole, but resulted from the tensions of the time. We received letters from officials and ministers apologizing for the incident, and the newspapers were very nice to me.”

Singer Nat King Cole filming - ClickAmericana com (2)

Soft-spoken and easygoing as a rule, Nat feels people often mistake gentleness for weakness.

“The thing that makes me fly off the handle the quickest is any attack about my work. I’m a perfectionist. When I get mad, I’m too emotional to express myself. It boils up. I wish I could say what I have to say, impulsively, and get it off my mind. But I have to think before I speak.

“I’ve been told I’m frank. That’s good. But sometimes it can hurt, because some people aren’t built to hear the truth. I try to take this into consideration in my dealings with others. But if someone keeps goading me, it’s another Story.”

He says you can forget the King title so far as his five children are concerned (he has four daughters, Carol, 19: Natalie, 14; 3-year-old-twins, Casey and Timolin; and a son, Kelly, 5).

“I have a wonderful relationship with them, but most show business children spend more time with their mother, and mine are no exceptions.”

Nat King Cole portrait at ClickAmericana com (4)

Vacation doesn’t mean a trip to some far off place. He likes to loaf around his lovely Hancock Park home, play a little golf, see some baseball from his box at the stadium.

Nat is originally from Chicago but says Los Angeles is his favorite spot in the world. “It’s the only place where you can enjoy living right in the city. You have everything here — theater, night clubs, sports, cultural life.”

Nat is one of the founders of the Music Center committee in Los Angeles and was coordinator of the Festival of Popular Music. I asked him how he liked performing in night clubs.

“It’s fun, except for the bores and hecklers,” he replied. “They’ll come up to tell you they remember you from a club in Jersey in 1938, name a song you sang, and then proceed to sing it. You say, “I remember the whole thing, I was there.” Then there’s the guy who makes a bet with a buddy at the bar that you’ll remember him and wants you to go over and convince the buddy.

“Or the one who tells you, ‘My wife loves you, but I can’t stand you!’ You shrug, tell him to talk her out of it. There are all kinds, and you develop a system of gentle brush-off.”

One of his favorite stories is about a doctor who heard him sing at the outset of his vocal career, and gave him some earnest advice: “With a throat like yours, son, you should be home in bed!”

In new movie — Nat King Cole, right, and Stubby Kaye play wandering singers out West during the early 90s in the new movie “Cat Ballou.”

SEE MORE: The Ed Sullivan Show was a launchpad for legends (1948-1971)

Nat King Cole songs

Nat King Cole, an iconic figure in American music history, left behind a rich legacy of timeless songs. Each track, characterized by his smooth baritone and distinctive style, tells a unique story and captures a different facet of human emotion. From the cozy warmth of holiday classics to the deep introspection of romantic ballads, Cole’s music spans a vast emotional landscape.

Nat King Cole portrait at ClickAmericana com (3)

Below are some of his most celebrated songs, providing a glimpse into the depth and diversity of his musical genius. These songs highlight his remarkable vocal talent and ability to connect with listeners on a profoundly personal level.

“The Christmas Song” (1946)

Nat King Cole Christmas album at ClickAmericana com

Originally recorded in 1946, “The Christmas Song” quickly became a staple of the holiday season. Nat King Cole’s warm, soothing voice, coupled with the song’s nostalgic lyrics about chestnuts and yuletide carols, captures the essence of Christmas. It’s a song that has warmed the hearts of listeners for generations, becoming as much a part of the holidays as mistletoe and Christmas trees.

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“Nature Boy” (1948)

Released in 1948, “Nature Boy” is a hauntingly beautiful ballad that became one of Nat King Cole’s signature hits. The song’s enigmatic lyrics and Cole’s expressive, tender delivery create a mystical atmosphere. Its message about the greatest thing being to love and be loved in return resonated deeply with audiences, further cementing Cole’s status as a musical icon.

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“Mona Lisa” (1950)

“Mona Lisa,” released in 1950, is a masterpiece of musical artistry. Nat King Cole’s velvety voice and the song’s gentle orchestration combine to create a romantic serenade. The song, which compares a loved one to the enigmatic smile of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, showcases Cole’s ability to convey deep emotion through his music.

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“Unforgettable” (1951)

“Unforgettable,” released in 1951, is a timeless love song that has lived up to its name. Cole’s smooth, rich baritone gives the song a sense of depth and sincerity, making it one of the most cherished love ballads of all time. Its enduring popularity is a testament to Cole’s exceptional talent as a vocalist.

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“Smile” (1954)

Nat King Cole’s 1954 rendition of “Smile,” with music originally composed by Charlie Chaplin for “Modern Times,” is a poignant reminder of the power of positivity. Cole’s comforting voice and the song’s uplifting message about smiling through heartache add a layer of depth and resilience, resonating with audiences facing their own challenges.

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“Autumn Leaves” (1955)

In 1955, Nat King Cole released his version of “Autumn Leaves,” a song that captures the melancholic beauty of change and passing time. Cole’s interpretation, sung with a mixture of nostalgia and acceptance, gives the song a reflective quality. It’s a musical embodiment of autumn’s bittersweet, colorful transformation.

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“Stardust” (1957)

Nat King Cole’s 1957 cover of the 1927 classic “Stardust” is a foray into the world of dreamy, starlit romance. His smooth, effortless delivery floats over the lush orchestration, creating a sense of longing and nostalgia. This rendition of “Stardust” is a testament to Cole’s ability to breathe new life into classic tunes.

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“L-O-V-E” (1965)

One of Nat King Cole’s last recordings, “L-O-V-E,” released in 1965, is a jubilant celebration of love. With its upbeat tempo and Cole’s charismatic delivery, the song exudes joy and playfulness. It’s a fitting capstone to a career that was marked by an unending ability to connect with listeners through the universal language of music.

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