Nat King Cole, born March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, is one of the most identifiable and memorable voices in American music, and he ranks among a very short list of music royalty. Cole was among the first artists to sign with Capitol Records in 1942, and he recorded nearly 700 songs for the label, becoming the first artist to reach Number One on Billboard’s first album chart.
Cole recorded more than 150 charting singles on Billboard’s Pop, R&B, and Country charts during his 30-year recording career, a staggering record that has yet to be broken by any other artist ever signed to Capitol Records, earning the label the nickname “The House That Nat Built.”
By the 1950s, Cole had established himself as a popular solo performer. He had a string of hits, including “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young,” and “Unforgettable.” Cole worked in the studio with some of the country’s top musicians, including Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as famous arrangers like Nelson Riddle. He also met and befriended other celebrities of the time, such as popular crooner Frank Sinatra.
Cole struggled to find his place in the Civil Rights Movement as an African American performer. He had firsthand experience with racism, particularly while touring in the South. Cole was attacked by white supremacists during a mixed-race performance in Alabama in 1956. Other African Americans, however, chastised him for his less-than-supportive comments about racial integration made after the show. Cole essentially stated that he was an entertainer, not an activist.
Cole’s popularity on the record charts began to wane in the late 1950s. This decline, however, did not last long. In the early 1960s, his career was at its peak. The country-influenced hit “Rambin’ Rose” peaked at number two on the Billboard pop charts in 1962. Cole won over music fans the following spring with the lighthearted song “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer.” In 1964, he made his final appearances on the pop charts. Cole delivered two ballads in his signature smooth style, “I Don’t Want to Hurt Anymore” and “I Don’t Want to See Tomorrow,” which were modest successes in comparison to his earlier hits.
Cole remained a television presence even after his show was cancelled. He appeared on shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Garry Moore Show.
Cole first appeared on the big screen in small roles in the 1940s, mostly as a version of himself. In the late 1950s, he landed some significant roles, including one in the Errol Flynn drama Istanbul (1957). Cole co-starred in the war drama China Gate with Gene Barry and Angie Dickinson the same year. His only major starring role was in the 1958 drama St. Louis Blues, in which he co-starred with Eartha Kitt and Cab Calloway.
Cole portrayed blues legend W.C. Handy in the film. His final film appearance came in 1965, when he co-starred with Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin in the lighthearted western Cat Ballou.
Cole was also the first person of color to host his own national network television show, NBC’s “Nat King Cole Show,” in 1956. Cole’s classic album, Unforgettable, was released in 1965, and he died that year at the age of 47. Capitol Records had sold more than nine million Nat King Cole records at the time of his death.