Remembering Nat “King” Cole

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the great Nat “King” Cole. Cole was born on St. Patricks’s Day, though until Daniel Mark Epstein did the research for his biography of Cole, we weren’t entirely sure that the year was 1919. He was born in Montgomery, Alabama and grew up in Chicago after his father moved the family there in 1923 to pursue a career in the ministry.

Cole first made his name as a jazz pianist. He developed an intensely loyal jazz audience with the King Cole Trio (Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass), the outfit that established the piano/guitar/bass format as a formidable jazz vehicle. It is almost unbelievable, given Cole’s talent as a vocalist, that the Trio in fact began as an instrumental combo. You can see a little of Cole’s grace on the piano in the video of “Route 66” below with the Trio (plus one):

Cole was a child prodigy on the piano. He took it up at age 4 and played by ear until he was 12, when he began taking lessons. By age 15 he had dropped out of high school to become a full-time professional musician. William Ruhlmann tells the rest of the story here.

Earl Hines was Cole’s original inspiration: “Everything I am I owe to that man, because I copied him.” Like Louis Armstrong, Cole must have been a man of incredible inner strength to withstand the racial indignities of the era and convey nothing but ease and joy in his music.

“Sweet Lorraine” was one of Cole’s favorite songs. Indeed, Cole recorded it with the Trio in 1941 at their first Decca session. I don’t know whether Cole’s version of “Sweet Lorraine” charted, but 118 of his recordings did, placing him in the company of Crosby (368), Sinatra (209), Elvis (149), Glenn Miller (129) and Louis Armstrong (85) in the empyrean of American popular music. In the video below, Cole performs “Sweet Lorraine” with Oscar Peterson on piano, Ray Brown on bass, and Herb Ellis on guitar. Coleman Hawkins joins in for a solo on the instrumental break.

Cole’s career with the Trio was sufficient to allow England’s Proper Records to compile the wonderful four-disc set Cool Cole, which ends in 1950 and consists entirely of Trio recordings. It comes with an informative booklet and costs all of about $25. (First posted in 2007.)

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