Love for a mother is profound. A mother is the shield, tower, inspiration, and for music icon Nat King Cole, his mother Perlina Adams Coles was his only music teacher who he hoped would become a classical pianist.
So when she died on February 23, 1955, in North Chicago, Lake County, Illinois, aged 58, Cole took the loss particularly hard. At her funeral, Cole collapsed in grief as he viewed the body of his mother for the last time. Luckily, he collapsed into the arms of his brother Edward who, together with others, carried him from Chicago’s Tabernacle Baptist Church.
Cole himself would die on February 15, 1965, aged a mere 45 years from lung cancer. But if a man needed to be productive and take his rightful place in society, Cole had done just that.
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Cole started out not as a singer but as a piano man, learning first to play around four with help from his mother, a church organist and church choir director. He took formal classical piano training at 12 but would ditch classical music for jazz.
By 15, he had dropped out of school to become a jazz pianist full time. And soon, his soft baritone voice was noticed which he used to perform in big band and jazz genres.
Although a Montgomery, Alabama native, the Cole family moved to the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. His three brothers were Eddie (1910–1970), Ike (1927–2001), and Freddy (1931-2020) as well as a sister. His father, Edward Coles, was a Baptist minister.
At the urging of a night club owner, Cole hired bassist Wesley Prince and guitarist Oscar Moore, going by the name King Cole Swingsters. They changed their name to the King Cole Trio before making radio transcriptions and recording for small labels.
Cole tasted his first hit with “Sweet Lorraine” in 1940. In 1946, the trio broadcast King Cole Trio Time, a fifteen-minute radio program. This was the first radio program to be sponsored by a black musician.
He later became better known for hits such as “All for You” (1943), “The Christmas Song” (1947), “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66”, “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” (1946), “There! I’ve Said It Again” (1947), “Nature Boy” (1948), “Frosty The Snowman”, “Mona Lisa” (No. 1 song of 1950), “Orange Colored Sky” (1950), “Too Young” (No. 1 song of 1951).
By the 1950s, Cole had emerged as a popular solo performer with numerous hits including “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young” and “Unforgettable.”
In 1956, Cole became the first African-American performer to host a network variety program, The Nat King Cole Show, which debuted on NBC television. The show, although a hit with fans, fell victim to the “bigotry of the times” and was canceled after one season as sponsors were not willing to be associated with a black entertainer.
Seeing himself as an entertainer and not an activist, Cole didn’t touch on the racism by whites against blacks. In black-owned newspapers, his performances for all-white audiences were described as an insult to his race. Eventually, Cole became a lifetime member of the Detroit branch of the NAACP and became an active and visible participant in the civil rights movement, playing an important role in planning the March on Washington in 1963.
He has been described as the single biggest record-seller of his generation. On the back of his many hits, the fledgling Capitol Records found its feet.
The man born Nathaniel Adams Coles recorded over one hundred songs that became hits on the pop charts. The Freemason was regarded among top male vocalists. His voice has been described as liquid, soothing and pitch impeccable. His records sold 50 million copies during his career.
Cole also acted in films and on television and performed on Broadway. He is known for films such as Istanbul (1957), China Gate (1957), Night of the Quarter Moon (1959), and Cat Ballou (1965). He also played himself in The Nat King Cole Musical Story (1955) and portrayed blues legend W.C. Handy in St. Louis Blues (1958).