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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. All year, NPR is celebrating 50 great voices, 50 singers who represent a variety of styles, traditions and genres. Today, we turn to an American trailblazer.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: He began playing jazz piano, and he was one of the best. His trio: piano, bass and guitar, turned rhythm and melody into a seamless mix. For that alone, we would celebrate Nat King Cole, but what defined his greatness and his groundbreaking success wasn't his playing, it was his voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Route 66")

Mr. NAT KING COLE (Singer): (Singing) If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, take the highway that's the best. Get your kicks on Route 66.

SIEGEL: The trio's 1946 hit, "Route 66," climbed the R&B charts and the pop charts. Nat King Cole's voice was liquid and soothing. His pitch was impeccable. And there's a word you hear a lot when people talk about Nat King Cole: relaxed.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAT KING COLE: (Singing) They tried to tell us we're too young, too young to really be in love.

Mr. FREDDIE COLE: When you start listening to him, one of the most important things is he keeps you relaxed.

Mr. WILL FRIEDWALD (Music Historian): The amazing thing about Nat's voice is that it has this kind of incandescent quality to it. It's like some kind of a magic spell is being cast.

Mr. AARON NEVILLE (Musician): It just hypnotized me. It was like medicine to me. If I had got a spanking or something that day, Nat would smooth it all out.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAT KING COLE: (Singing) And yet we're not too young to know.

SIEGEL: Nat King Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Cole in 1919. He grew up in Chicago, the son of a Baptist minister. His younger brother, musician and singer Freddie Cole, says that accounted for one memorable feature of Nat's singing: He enunciated.

Mr. FREDDIE COLE: Yeah, my father, he didn't allow you to be messing over the language. You know, he would make you enunciate very well. He would get on your case about that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAT KING COLE: (Singing) L is for the way you look at me. O is for the only one I see.

SIEGEL: Nat King Cole was successful. Music historian Will Friedwald says that in the years between Crosby and Presley, Cole was the most successful American singer.

Mr. FRIEDWALD: He is, without a doubt, the single biggest record-seller of his generation, and the only one that comes close is - a generation later - is Elvis. I mean, Nat Cole just has hit single after hit single, and nobody could come near him, even Sinatra.

SIEGEL: "Mona Lisa," "Nature Boy," "The Christmas Song," "Rambling Rose" "Walking My Baby Back Home," he had so many hits, he helped put the fledgling Capitol Records on the map.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Many a tear has to fall, but it's all in the game.

SIEGEL: Nat King Cole was black and to appreciate what that means and what his career meant, you have to imagine a time when American music, like American schools and neighborhoods, was profoundly segregated. Record sales were measured on three separate charts in Billboard magazine: pop music was white. Hillbilly music was country. And R&B, or race music, was black. Historian Roger Wilkins grew up black in the 1940s.

Mr. ROGER WILKINS (Historian): The thing about Cole was that he was absolutely a black man. He conked his hair, he...

SIEGEL: ...processed it to smooth it out...

Mr. WILKINS: Smoothed it out and all shiny. Some of us, I included, had a view that guys who conked their hair were just escapists. With Nat Cole, you'd say: Well, that's okay. He does it because it's part of a thing that he has to sell.

Mr. NAT KING COLE: Nat King Cole crossed over. And he crossed over as a handsome, debonair man who exuded sex appeal. That was something new. Again, Will Friedwald.

Mr. FRIEDWALD: Black people were expected to sing comedy songs and, like, minstrel-type songs, or blues, or songs about work, but it was very, very unprecedented for a black man to come out and sing Cole Porter or sing, you know, George Gershwin or the great theatrical songs. He had this great sort of romantic aura about him, which was not what black performers of either gender were encouraged to do.

SIEGEL: Nat King Cole broke another color line: television. Roger Wilkins remembers the days when growing up black meant that everything that looked good and desirable was white and out of reach. Until Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball was all-white.

Mr. WILKINS: And this television, this new television stuff, it was all white people, and then Nat Cole got a show.

SIEGEL: In 1956, on NBC.

(Soundbite of television program)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible), Fabulous Nat King Cole.

Mr. WILKINS: Well, that's all people talked about: Did you see him last night?

(Soundbite of television program)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Nothing's impossible, I have found, for when my chin is on the ground, I pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again.

SIEGEL: The show aired without commercial sponsorship. Advertising agencies couldn't convince a national client to buy time on "The Nat King Cole Show," even though it was successful with audiences. They were afraid that white Southerners would boycott their products. The show did not survive, but a taboo was broken.

Despite his trailblazing role, Nat King Cole was no activist. Roger Wilkins says Cole could not have gotten where he did displaying the political engagement or the anger of a Jackie Robinson. And he says he never blamed him for it.

Mr. WILKINS: I didn't at all ever say: Darn that Nat Cole, he's got this whole audience. Why doesn't he say something? Never. In retrospect, what occurs to me is, he knew who he was. He knew how - as the boys say - he knew how he could get over. And he wasn't going to blow that.

SIEGEL: Cole influenced a slew of singers, including young Aaron Neville.

Mr. NEVILLE: I think Nat was everybody's favorite singer, from Ray Charles to Sam Cooke to Marvin Gaye. All of them loved - everybody wanted to do some Nat King Cole.

SIEGEL: Frank Sinatra said when he went home, he played Nat King Cole records to relax.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Before you go, make this moment sweet again. We won't say goodnight until the last minute. I'll hold out my hand and my heart will be in it.

SIEGEL: To me, Nat King Cole's voice is timeless. He died in 1965 and made a posthumous comeback a quarter of a century later, when his daughter Natalie made a tribute recording that mixed his voice with hers. He didn't sound dated then. And, to me, he still doesn't. I like the way Wilkins, the historian, remembers him: as a seamless character.

Mr. WILKINS: The man and the music and the physical presentation all fit together. You didn't look and say: Well, why is he dressed like that? This is Nat Cole, this coat, this shirt, this tie, this hair and this voice.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Tomorrow may never come for all we know.

BLOCK: You can hear more of Nat King Cole's great voice and guess the next voice in our series at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Youre listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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