Born Nathaniel Adams Cole in Montgomery, Alabama, his father was a Baptist minister and an influential leader in the segregated black community. His mother was the choir director for his father's church and introduced piano music to Nat when he was 4 years old. He began learning to play by ear even before he learned to read. At the age of 12, to further his already broad knowledge of the instrument, he began taking classical piano lessons.
While growing up in the black communities of Chicago, Cole was introduced to Jazz music. His passion for the free form style that it presented was influential and at 15, Cole quit school to pursue a career as a jazz pianist. His first professional experience as a musician came when he was asked to join the jazz style revival show "Shuffle Along." When the touring show folded while in Los Angeles, Cole began working at a night club there called the Century Club. It was at this time that one of the club's managers began referring to him as "King" Cole.
At the age of 20 Cole started a jazz trio with two musician friends, Oscar Moore and Wesley Prince. The trio produced a unique sound with the absence of a drummer and was made up of only three instruments, piano, rhythm guitar, and bass. Cole soon became the recognized leader when he added vocals to the group's instrumental music. Now known as the King Cole Trio they found their first success with the song "Straighten Up and Fly Right" released by Capitol Records. The song was co-written by Cole and was based on a sermon he had heard his father give when he was a child. It became a hit and launched Cole's career as a popular singer around the country.
In 1946, Cole released "The Christmas Song
" and showcased the soft, melodic side of his vocal abilities that were rarely heard before that point. "The Christmas Song" became a seasonal hit for Cole and began his transition from Jazz musician and front man to solo artist.
Cole's release of the song "Mona Lisa
" in 1950 became his first #1 hit even though he didn't care for the song and was opposed to releasing it as a single. It was one of his first recordings to feature a full background orchestra. The combination of Cole's voice and a studio orchestra became a production template that he utilized frequently for the rest of his career.
In 1951 Cole released his signature song "Unforgettable
" and it reached #12 on the popular music charts. His daughter Natalie re-released the song as a duet 40 years later. Natalie Cole's version featured her father's original vocals from the 1951 release along with her own voice overdubbed into the song so that it could be produced into a new duet.
Cole's talent and popularity during the 1950s ushered in a period of increased exposure for minority entertainers. In 1956 he became the first black man in American television history to host his own show: The Nat "King" Cole Show. He understood the importance of the event and described his feelings about the show during an interview that year:
"Negroes have been exposed to many single appearances but have not been given a chance to do a regular show before now. I've been waging a personal campaign, aiming at a show of this kind. I hit a few snags here and there but I didn't give up the fight. It could be a turning point so that Negroes may be featured regularly on television."
She show was canceled the following year, with Cole stating, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark." The show was popular with viewers but had trouble attracting advertisers.
In 1957 Cole appeared in the motion picture China Gate. He also sang "Three Coins in a Fountain" for the movie's opening credits. He was paid $5,000 for acting in the film and $75,000 for the opening song.
Throughout his life, Cole faced adversity and inequality as a black performer in the entertainment industry. When he performed on TV his face was lightened with make-up to reduce the dark color of his skin. It was believed by many producers at the time that "whitening" the face of black performers made them more acceptable to white audiences.
He vowed to never return to the American south after being attacked while on stage in Birmingham, Alabama, and he never did. When he purchased a home in an all white neighborhood in Beverly Hills his neighbors asked him to leave and made life uncomfortable for the Cole family, but he refused to move.
Cole was a heavy smoker throughout his life and often smoked in excess of three packs a day. He believed that smoking helped to keep his singing voice low. The habit caused him to develop lung cancer, and he died on February 15, 1965.