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Nat King Cole

Daniel Mark Epstein

Nat King Cole

Author:Daniel Mark Epstein
Publisher:Farrar, Straus & Giroux

By James D. Dilts | Posted 12/22/1999

Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Ala., but grew up on Chicago's south side, where the young piano prodigy dropped the final "s" from his name. He was not yet 20 when he joined the ranks of musical royalty (in Los Angeles with the King Cole Trio), and his regality never left him.

Before he died at age 46 from lung cancer—Cole smoked incessantly—he had helped to invent the jazz piano trio (preceding Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Bill Evans), and become one of the most distinctive and successful singers in 20th century American popular music, ranking with Armstrong and Sinatra.

His other achievements were nearly as notable. He was one of the first black jazz musicians with his own radio program (it aired in the late '40s) and the first African-American star to have his own network TV show (for one year, ending in 1957). These shows presented more entertainment in a single segment than can be found in a month of similar offerings on radio or TV today. And what talent! The performers included June Christy, Johnny Mercer, Mel Torme, Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughn, Cab Calloway, Peggy Lee, Duke Ellington, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, and Mahalia Jackson. But the TV program never found a sponsor and the tragicomic story of its removal from the NBC listings is well told in this biography. "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark," the singer quipped, but Cole was deeply hurt by the loss of the show.

There were other insults: when he and his wife, Maria, bought a home in exclusive Beverly Hills and were hounded by bigots; when Southern hotels refused him accommodations (Cole sued twice in response); when he was attacked onstage by members of the White Citizens Council during a segregated concert in his native Alabama. Cole's measured response—that it was the U.S. Supreme Court's responsibility to effect integration, not his—turned black public opinion against him briefly, but "the ruined concert did more to integrate Birmingham than did Dinah Washington's refusal to perform in that tormented city," according to biographer Daniel Mark Epstein.

Cole derived his clear, floating, seemingly effortless piano style from the great Earl Hines and, in creating longer right-hand melodic lines, anticipated the language of bebop and modern jazz. His silken voice, equally articulate, seemed directed individually to each person who heard him (a quality shared by his brother Freddy, also a performer). Cole's handsome appearance and dignified demeanor further endeared him to audiences.

But his "intense calm," combined with the pressures of show business and overwork, resulted in bleeding ulcers and domestic disruptions. Cole kept his family together through it all, however. (He and Maria had three children and adopted two more.) Meanwhile, he had several million-selling records, en route to career sales of 75 million.

There have been three previous biographies, including one by Cole's widow. Epstein draws heavily on these, as well as extensive interviews with Maria and other family members and musical associates and the results of a heroic harvest of the newspaper and trade magazine articles about the singer. The author, a Baltimore poet, playwright, and previous biographer of 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, skillfully pulls the reader through his narrative. However, his musical descriptions, necessarily "impressionistic," as he claims, are more atmospheric than acute. For this aspect of Nat King Cole, a better bet is Unforgettable, the 1991 biography by jazz writer Leslie Gourse.

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