I must have been 4 or 5 years old when I first became aware of Nat King Cole. My dad, who had a smashing voice, would sing along with his records, which never seemed to be off the radio. I liked his name, I knew that I loved the voice; I loved the sounds of the orchestras and the big bands that accompanied him. But I remember the day when I first saw him on TV, and I discovered that he played the piano. I had seen entertainers sing and play piano on TV a lot – Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Neil Sedaca… but I had never heard ANYONE play like Nat. He was a revelation. I knew it was jazz, I knew liked it, and I liked him. I was instantly won over by him as a person; his handsome, deep-hued face and a smile that light up the screen was one that I became familiar with very quickly. In retrospect it was the best introduction to Jazz anyone could have asked for, because everything he did was accessible and appealing.
The Nat King Cole Show, 1956, with Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra
The story of his life is a lesson in triumph in the face of adversity and success of talent over prejudice. Nathanial Coles, started playing piano at the age of four – by age of fifteen, he was a jazz professional and after playing in touring shows he took the unusual step of forming a trio, with no drums; just piano, guitar and double bass.
Nat essentially invented the piano trio, and his playing demonstrated a harmonic and rhythmic style that set him above almost all the other pianists of the day, with a direct lineage to another great pianist (and singer), Oscar Peterson.
Nat’s command of the piano soon began to be overshadowed by his warm, smooth singing voice, capturing the public’s imagination. In 1942, Nat became one of the first artists to join a new record company; Capitol. In the 23 years that he recorded with Capitol Records, he turned out hit after hit – nearly 700 songs.
Now Nat wasn’t an improvising singer in the same way that Ella or Mel Torme were, and was more often than not featured on syrupy middle of the road ballads, but when the opportunity arose – Nat Cole could, and did, swing a band into bad health.
Nat King Cole at the BBC in 1963, with his quartet and the Ted Heath Orchestra
By 1956, he had his own network television show, and his records sold so well that journalists remarked that Nat’s recordings were “practically legal tender.” But a year into his show, the network could not find him a national advertising sponsor. Bitterly disappointed, he said “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
When Nat King Cole died of lung cancer on February 15, 1965, he was only 45. The same age I am right now. He was a brave figure in a period when racial prejudice was at its most demeaning. Above all else Nat was a superb vocalist and pianist whose singing and playing helped jazz gain wider popularity, without sacrificing its integrity. And that’s the word that sums him up. A man of integrity. An Unforgettable man who played good music the way that everyone liked it.
I’m presenting the music of Nat King Cole at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, from the 9-13 and the 18th August 2016, at the A Club at Merchant Hall in Hanover Street.