We missed the anniversary of the birth of Nat “King” Cole this past Monday. 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, the trio 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.
Cole was a child prodigy on the piano, which he took up at age 4. He played by ear until he was 12 and 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. In the video above, 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.
“Sweet Lorraine” was one of Cole’s favorite songs. Indeed, Cole recorded it with the Trio (Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass) 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.
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 a terrific booklet and costs all of about $25. (First posted in 2007.)
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