Jazz Profiles from NPR
Nat "King" Cole: The Singer
Produced by Margaret Howze

Nat King Cole  

Nat King Cole is undoubtedly one of America's most beloved cultural icons. Beginning in the early 1940s, his elegant piano playing defined the jazz trio and helped popularize the genre. But when took hold of a microphone to sing, Cole set a standard that transformed him into a world-famous, successful and consummate entertainer.

Listen to Nat's sister, Evelyn Coles, singer Mel Tormé, and guitarist John Collins describe Nat's singing talents

During the mid 1940s, the Nat King Cole trio continued to evolve with Nat's supple voice becoming more prominent. The trio's personnel was also changing, as guitarist Irving Ashby replaced Oscar Moore in 1947 and bassist Joe Comfort replaced Johnny Miller the following year. With the addition of bongo player Jack Constanzo, the ensemble placed an even stronger focus on the rhythmic intricacies of the music. During this time, the group began recording a stream of pop-jazz vocal classics like 1948's "Nature Boy" and 1949's "Yes Sir, That's My Baby."

As Nat's popularity as a vocalist continued to gain momentum, he began collaborating with some of the top arrangers of the day. These collaborations usually featured Cole with orchestral strings and woodwinds. Arranger Pete Rugolo, who worked for many years with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, was one of the first to work with the crooner.

Listen to arranger Pete Rugolo recall his work with Nat "King" Cole

Nat's collaborations with strings often yielded big sales for Capitol Records. Whereas many other jazz musicians despised record companies for forcing them use to strings as marketing sweeteners, Capitol Records never forced them on Nat. Label and artist concurred: string arrangements were right for the music.

Listen to writer Will Friedwald explain Nat and Capitol's agreement to use string arrangements

Nat's 1946 rendition of "The Christmas Song" by Robert Wells and vocalist Mel Tormé exemplifies the magical marriage between the singer's glowing voice and Charlie Grean's lush string arrangement.

Listen to Mel Tormé recount Nat's stirring performance of "The Christmas Song"

Although Nat the vocalist would soon become an American pop icon, his nimble singing clearly betrayed his jazz sensibilities, especially in his rhythmic flexibility. But for all of Nat's rhythmic dexterity, he was a superb balladeer, because he paid close attention to the lyrics while keeping the melody simple. His bewitching rendition of Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish's classic, "Stardust," is one of many examples of Nat's sublime touch for ballads.

Listen to Mel Tormé talk about Nat's rendition of "Stardust"

Nat's groundbreaking popularity also helped create more opportunities for other black artists. But his success didn't completely shield him from the industry's pervasive racism. Even though he was a top-billing star in Las Vegas, he still wasn't allowed to stay at certain hotels or visit certain casinos. Eventually, he used his star power to fight the city's racist system by seeking legal action against the hotels and clubs that barred him and members of his group.

Listen to singer/pianist Bobby Short, Natalie Cole, and Johnny Collins talk about the racial injustice Nat endured in Las Vegas

In 1956, Nat became one of the first blacks to host his own television show -- "The Nat King Cole Show" -- which aired on NBC between November 1956 to December 1957. Although Nat's television program had a modest production budget, the variety show often featured some of that day's top-notch performers like Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt and Peggy Lee.

Listen to television producer Bob Henry talk about the significance of The Nat King Cole Show

"The Nat King Cole Show" garnered critical acclaim, but suffered due to a lack of national sponsors, who were wary of a show with hosted by a black entertainer. The show ended in December 1957, one month shy of a year after its debut.

Listen to Henry, Billy Taylor, and Tormé lament on the cancellation of "The Nat King Cole Show"

Regardless of Nat's enormous success as a vocalist, he never left the piano behind. In 1956, he revisited the small ensemble setting with the album, After Midnight, which featured guest solo artists like alto saxophonist Willie Smith, trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, and violinist Stuff Smith.

Listen to daughter Carole Coles explain how Nat never forgot his jazz roots

In 1965, Nat died of lung cancer at age 47. During his short life, he covered a tremendous amount of ground as an innovative jazz pianist and vocalist, as well as a radio and television personality. His artistic accomplishments continue to be a benchmark for pop and jazz musicians to this day.

Listen to pianist Monty Alexander, Natalie Cole, and Carole Cole reflect on Nat's artistic achievements


View the Nat "King" Cole show playlist


ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for After Midnight, The Best of Nat King Cole, and The Best of The Nat King Cole Trio


More InfoThe Official Nat "King" Cole Society Site