Fri | Aug 23, 2019

Nat King Cole stumbles into bright singing career

Published:Sunday | March 22, 2015 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Nat 'King' Cole
Freddy Cole, brother of the legendary Nat King Cole in performance.

To most of Nat King Cole's fans, he was considered the warm-voiced singer of ballads, love songs and happy songs that sent an aura of romanticism to all who came into contact with his music. But on the contrary, following his adopted path as a jazz pianist, he had never even thought or dreamt of being a singer. His dream was to become a great jazz pianist with a band of his own. Growing up in a musical family (all his brothers became professional musicians), Cole's earliest influence came from his mother, Perlina, herself an accomplished pianist, who taught him the rudiments of piano playing.

Thereafter, he became obsessed with the instrument, always sporting bruises from falling off the piano bench from about age four, but climbing right back up again. It was at this age that Nat and his family moved from Montgomery, Alabama, where he was born on St Patrick's Day (March 17, 1919), to Chicago, where he grew up. Last Tuesday marked the 96th anniversary of Cole's birth, and it makes this tribute particularly timely.

Didn't like singing

Music was always his passion. He was a musician - the only singing he did was in church, and he didn't particularly like it. By his early teens, he became a stand-by organist in his father's Baptist church, and by his mid-teens, he was an accomplished pianist, having also received formal piano lessons in classical music. So there might have been very few people around in 1936 who thought that the 17-year-old Nathaniel Adams Cole could become a great singer. It was at that age that this practical-minded youth, possessing an abundant gift as a jazz pianist, began to think seriously about becoming a commercial success. It was also at that age, while still a schoolboy, that Cole formed his first band, made up of students of two Chicago high schools. For a minimal fee and with Cole as pianist, they would perform gigs at local nightclubs and dances, whenever their services were needed.

Playing music at night, jamming at clubs into the wee hours, and going to school during the day, was just too much for the teenager, and so he quit high school without getting his diploma in order to spend more time with the music. He became closer to his older, bass-playing brother, Eddie, and both talked music, played music, analysed music and elevated themselves to mental and spiritual heights through music. Also in 1936, Eddie was instrumental in merging some of the musicians in Nat's group to form Eddie Cole's the Solid Swingers with Nat at the piano. The ensemble provided Nat with his first recording - an instrumental piece titled Honey Hush, done for Decca's Sepia Series label, which made records especially for blacks. A year later, Cole made his most important and boldest step when he formed The Nat Cole Trio. The owner of a nightclub called Old Sewanee Inn promised to try out a group if Cole could put it together, and so, after searching, he assembled the trio of bassist, Wesley Prince, guitarist, Oscar Moore, and himself on piano. The trio, and occasionally a drummer, played at Sewanee for a weekly salary of US$75, which they split among themselves. It was during this time, that Nat was crowned 'King'. Among the many stories concerning his crowning is one that the manager of the club was so delighted with Cole's singing, that he placed a gold leaf crown on his head, calling him King Cole. The trio then began calling themselves, the King Cole Swingers and later, the King Cole Trio. Their popularity grew astronomically, with performances in Chicago, California, New York and Hollywood, as the demand for their performances spread right across the country.

Tipsy customer

Vocalising was never a part of the group's repertoire, but one night, as Cole and his colleagues played their instrumentals, a tipsy customer hollered, "Sing!" Nat pretended not to hear, as he was not into that type of thing, and furthermore, the pianist had no confidence in himself, having never given himself any training in that art. The patron pleaded louder, to which Cole replied, "Our group is purely instrumental; no singers." As the drunken man insisted, the manager intervened and requested that Cole try, as the guy was a big spender.

Turning point

What ensued represented a turning point in Cole's career. It is said that one patron almost tumbled off his stool in disbelief. The episode was dramatically recounted by Marianne Ruuth in her book, Nat King Cole - Singer and Jazz Pianist.

"Nat shrugged and sang, Sweet Lorraine, feeling his way every inch, aware that his range was limited and he had to make up for the 'furry' sound of his voice by meticulous phrasing and perfect timing. The regulars at the Sewanee Inn that night loved Cole's performance. This was a new side to their favourite piano player. Some liked his singing specifically because they could hear every syllable and the tune was not interfered with."

Cole had indeed surprised himself.

It was at one of these performances that the group was seen and promptly signed by Johnny Mercer and Glen Wallichs of Atlantic Records. One of the first sides they recorded was a song Cole had written a few years earlier for the trio. It was a whimsical song about a monkey who took a sky-ride on a buzzard, refusing to let go and fell to his death. Cole was forthright as he sang:

"A buzzard took a monkey for a ride in the air

the monkey thought that everything was on the square

the buzzard tried to throw the monkey off his back

the monkey grabbed his neck and said, now listen jack.

Straighten up and fly right, straighten up and stay right.

Cool down papa, don't you blow your top.

Aint no use in diving

Aint no use in jiving."

The story came from a sermon that Cole's father preached. The message was: Don't give up. Hold on to your principles and do your best. On its release in 1943, it was a terrific hit, bringing Cole to the fore as a class singer.