Nat King Cole
by Daniel Mark Epstein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999 364 pages, $27.00
reviewed by Terence M. Ripmaster
Born Nathaniel Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1919, Nat King Cole lived only 46 years, but packed in a couple of lifetimes. Epstein's biography, which reads like a narrative novel, details the life and times of the school boyish, velvet-voiced singer/ pianist.
His father, Reverend Coles, moved his family to Chicago in 1923. As in the case of many African-American musicians, Nathaniel got his early training listening to gospels and playing hymns on a piano. In a Chicago school, young Coles (who later dropped the 's') was to get a good musical education, learning sight reading and "ear" training with the same teacher who educated Lionel Hampton and Milt Hinton.
Epstein provides ample information about the young prodigy, who in his teens formed his first band and played in a contest with the man he most admired, Earl Hines.
He quit school and was jamming with the likes of Les Paul at age 15. By 1937, he was in California, where he met Oscar Moore, the brilliant jazz guitarist, and formed the first of the Nat King Cole trios. For the remainder of his short life, Nat Cole returned to his jazz roots from time to time. Epstein gives Cole credit for his piano techniques and states that Cole was innovating with bebop chords before bop was popular.
During the war years of the 1940s, Cole took on Johnny Miller as his bass player and recorded "All of You" and "Straighten Up and Fly Right," two popular tunes that established Cole as a vocalist. Epstein includes an account related to the various meanings of the lyrics of "Straighten Up and Fly Right."
By 1943, he signed on with Capitol, and "It's Only a Paper Moon" was a hit tune, finally making some money for Cole, who had struggled in near poverty. Norman Granz picked him up and included him in his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. In 1945, he made his first recording of "Christmas Song," and in 1948 married Maria Ellington (not related to Duke Ellington).
With his wealth, he purchased a beautiful home in Hollywood and faced one of his many battles with racism. Neighbors formed a committee to prevent the Coles from buying the home. This resulted in court cases regarding restrictive covenants that excluded home sales to Jews and Negroes. In 1950, his daughter Natalie was born, one of five children (one adopted).
With "Mona Lisa," his Capitol record sales numbered 15 million singles and 5 million albums by 1953. By the end of his life, he would sell 75 million records for Capitol and be one of the most popular names in the music business.
In 1954, he played a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, where a group of Ku Klux Klan members raided the theater and nearly killed him. Epstein presents daunting accounts of Cole's various civil rights efforts and troubles with civil rights leaders.
He came off the road, where he was making good money, to host the NBC The Nat King Cole Show. In 1957, "Cole's television show became one of the most popular and closely watched shows in history—for entertainment values, and as a social experiment in merchandising." Cole, with his producer, Robert Henry, featured Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Cole's singing and piano playing was backed by the Nelson Riddle orchestra. Affiliate Southern stations would not carry the show and NBC had a difficult time finding sponsors. The 30 segments of the show have been preserved on kinescope.
Cole's popular fame continued with his recordings of "Unforgettable" and "Ramblin' Rose," and he traveled internationally, giving concerts for the Queen of England. What little time he had off the road was spent with his family and practicing his piano. He was to make one last jazz recording, "After Midnight," displaying his wonderful piano techniques and love for jazz.
A heavy smoker, his health deteriorated rapidly in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He appeared in a couple of Hollywood films and continued his touring. Epstein devotes many pages to his various money problems, which included his being hounded by the IRS. A generous man, he gave to his friends, family and various causes.
In his last years, he caused his wife and family great pain because of a love affair with a young Danish woman. His lung cancer resulted in hospitalization, where he died on February 15, 1965. In 1991, his daughter, Natalie, won a Grammy for "Unforgettable With Love," and millions watched as she credited her father and sang along with him on film.
Nat King Cole's music, jazz and popular, was always excellent and sensitive. He devoted his life to music and promoting better human relations. Epstein has written what will probably be the definitive biography of this complicated and talented individual. It is informative and a good read.
Copyright ©1999 Terence M. Ripmaster