Nat “King” Cole was a pianist, singer and composer. Though born in Alabama, Nat was raised in Chicago, Illinois. The son of a Baptist minister, Nat was playing organ and singing in church by the age of thirteen. All four Cole brothers (Eddie, Nat, Ike and Freddy) became professional musicians; Nat’s first recordings were made in 1936 with Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers. By 1938, Cole had settled in Los Angeles, California, where he stayed for the remainder of his life.
Nat Cole’s prolific career has two distinct phases. He first gained notoriety as a jazz pianist with The Nat King Cole Trio with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince. He was a fine singer as well, and gradually he crossed over into popular music for the last twenty years of his life. He is the first African-American to achieve widespread acceptance and popularity with a mainstream American audience. Nat King Cole’s life was cut short by cigarettes; he was only 45 (or 47) when he passed away from complications of lung cancer.
Nathaniel Adams Coles, aka Nat King Cole (1919-1965), piano, vocals
The Nat King Cole Trio
Oscar Moore (1916-1981), electric guitar
Wesley Prince (1907-1980), double bass
Cole began with a deceptively lightweight, jiving music which masked the intensity of his piano style. Smooth, glittering, skating over melodies, Cole’s right-hand lines were breaking free of his original Earl Hines influence and looking towards an improvisational freedom which other players — Haig, Marmarosa, Powell — would turn into the language of bebop. Cole was less inclined towards that jagged-edge approach and preferred the hip constrictions of songs. With pulsing interjections from Moore and Prince (later Johnny Miller on bass), this was a surprisingly compelling music.
— Richard Cook & Brian Morton, “The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings”
Here the Trio, along with Jack Costanzo on conga, swing into “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” from around 1949 or 1950. The fine camerawork lets the listener see the piano playing in action:
How I Learned About Nat “King” Cole
My friend Peppy was the first who expressed a love of Nat Cole’s music. Pep and I became friends in the late eighties while working in the Silicon Valley aerospace industry. Like me, she liked older music, but she especially liked old TV shows and movies. Her enjoyment seemed not so much about nostalgia; she prefers the more refined and less vulgar entertainment from yesteryear.
“My mother was a Nat fan. That started out as a disincentive, but I finally saw the light. For me, Nat is a calm in a sea of life’s chaos. When I hear his voice, I feel that everything will be alright. One song that I only discovered lately is called “You’re My Thrill”. Check it out. Not one from the Trio days (I know you like those best), but still a good unknown piece.”
“By the way, I am still thankful to you for strongly suggesting that I buy the Nat King Cole Mosaic collection back in the nineties. What an awesome collection that is. I remember our discussion about it. I think it was something like $200 when it came out. I told you that I didn’t have the money readily available at the time. You said that I needed to rethink my position and come up with the money!”
Twenty five years ago, when coherent collections of the jazz masters were in short supply, I became aware of Mosaic Records. Mosaic is a small specialty record company, founded by jazz fanatics, who set about creating complete libraries of their heroes. At the time I was looking for certain Blue Note recordings by New Orleans saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and ended up buying them all in a Mosaic box set. These box sets are immaculate — the music is remastered and documented in great detail. I kept an eye on their products after that, and when The Complete Capitol Recordings of Nat King Cole appeared, I urged Peppy to buy it. Mosaic produces a limited number of these box sets, which added to the sense of urgency. The King Cole boxes are long gone, a true collector’s item.
The House That Nat Built
Nat King Cole signed a contract with Capitol Records in 1943, and remained with the company for life. By then, he had already performed and recorded extensively. And though The Trio sang many vocal numbers, they came to Capitol as a jazz trio, and made the transition to crossover pop stars in the forties and fifties. Phenomenal story. Nat King Cole was a big star for good reason. He might be my favorite swing piano player — his ability to move the music along seems effortless. He has a beautiful voice and sings with great diction, making the lyrics easy to follow. One of America’s classiest performers.
You probably know that The Beatles hired Capitol Records to distribute their music in America. You may know that the iconic Capitol Records building in downtown Los Angeles is often referred to as “The House That Nat Built”.
An Education In Standards
Nat King Cole played a lot of jazz standards from the twenties and thirties, so looking back at the origins of these songs was fun. I learned how great “Makin’ Whoopee” and “These Foolish Things” are. I spent a rewarding night of discovery investigating jazz standards while crafting my ideal set of Cole’s music, with an emphasis on his work with the Nat King Cole Trio. The orchestrated music from later years sounds heavy-handed to me, syrupy sweet with violins, leaving less room for the great piano and guitar duo of Cole and Moore.
“I saw Nat King Cole once, at the Venetian Room in downtown San Francisco. I believe it was 1951, when I was twenty years old. I was newly married, and we decided to celebrate in San Francisco. I had to learn how to coiffe my hair for the wind. We took the Shasta Daylight train from Portland to Oakland, followed by a ferry ride into town. It was especially thrilling being served alcohol once we reached California, as this was not legal in Oregon at the time. San Francisco was so beautiful and classy back in those days.
It was only after we arrived in town that we found out Nat King Cole was playing. So thrilling. He played at The Venetian Room, a beautiful club on top of the Fairmont Hotel. I remember stepping out between sets for a cigarette during a break, and Nat did the same. I saw him and I asked him for his autograph. He peered down at me, down that long cigarette holder, as if I was so gauche to ask.”
— Mary in Portland
P.S. Mary divorced, and remarried Lorie within a few years. Mary and Lorie are still together, with seven children, nine grandchildren, and fourteen great-grandchildren.
“Nature Boy” — The Curious Story of eden ahbez
“Nature Boy”, Nat King Cole’s second number #1 hit, was written by eden ahbez, whose ascetic lifestyle became influential with the California hippie movement. A vegetarian who spent most of his life sleeping under the stars, ahbez sought out Cole, and implored Cole’s manager to look at the tattered manuscript of “Nature Boy.” Cole recognized the Yiddish melody, liked the lyrics and added it to his act. It was well received so Cole decided to record it. One problem: Cole and Capitol Records could not find ahbez in order to secure the publishing rights. Finally they located ahbez, camped beneath the first L in the “Hollywood” sign.
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn,
is just to love and be loved in return.”
— eden ahbez
1. “Unforgettable” is a bonus outtake from the album Penthouse Serenade.
2. There are two alternate versions of “Route 66”, from The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio and the 1957 jazz album After Midnight. “Just You, Just Me” is also from After Midnight.
Nat King Cole Songs:
Sweet Lorraine, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭✭✭
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭✭✭
The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You), Nat King Cole ✭✭✭✭
Nature Boy, Nat King Cole ✭✭✭✭
Walking My Baby Back Home, Nat King Cole ✭✭✭
Slow Down, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭✭
Easy Listening Blues, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭✭
Rhumba Azul, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭✭
Moonlight In Vermont, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭✭
Mona Lisa, Nat King Cole ✭✭
Straighten Up And Fly Right, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
Laugh! Cool Clown, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
Lament In Chords, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
These Foolish Things, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
Makin’ Whoopee, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 (Alt), Nat King Cole ✭✭
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 (Alt), Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
Just You, Just Me, Nat King Cole ✭✭
Send For Me, Nat King Cole ✭✭
I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons), Nat King Cole ✭✭
Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
It’s Only A Paper Moon, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
When I Fall In Love, Nat King Cole ✭✭
Prelude in C-Sharp, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
How High The Moon, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
You Call It Madness, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
Unforgettable (Alt), Nat King Cole ✭✭
I’m In The Mood For Love, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭
Ramblin’ Rose, Nat King Cole ✭
If I May, Nat King Cole ✭
Jumpin’ At Capitol, Nat King Cole Trio ✭
Bop Kick, Nat King Cole Trio ✭
Honeysuckle Rose, Nat King Cole Trio ✭
Don’t Blame Me, Nat King Cole Trio ✭
Nat King Cole Trio with Kay Starr, vocals:
If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight), Kay Starr ✭
I Can’t Get Started, Lester Young Trio ✭✭
Sweet Lorraine, Sidney Bechet ✭
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, Chuck Berry ✭✭
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, The Rolling Stones ✭✭
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 (Live), The Rolling Stones ✭✭
The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You), Los Lobos ✭
The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You), Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭
Nature Boy, Miles Davis ✭✭
Moonlight In Vermont, Willie Nelson ✭✭✭
Moonlight In Vermont, Marian McPartland ✭✭
Moonlight In Vermont, Stan Getz ✭✭
Moonlight In Vermont, Frank Sinatra ✭✭
Mona Lisa, Carl Mann ✭
These Foolish Things, Charlie Christian ✭✭✭
These Foolish Things, Teddy Wilson ✭✭✭
Makin’ Whoopee, Eddie Cantor ✭✭✭
Makin’ Whoopee, Gerry Mulligan Quartet ✭✭✭
Makin’ Whoopee (Parts 1 and 2) (Live), Ray Charles ✭✭✭
Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?, Count Basie ✭✭✭
Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?, Chu Berry & His Little Jazz Ensemble ✭✭
It’s Only A Paper Moon, John Kirby ✭✭
You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You, Dean Martin ✭✭
When I Fall In Love, Bill Evans ✭
How High The Moon, Joe Pass ✭✭
How High The Moon, Les Paul & Mary Ford ✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose, Fats Waller ✭✭✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose (Alt), Fats Waller ✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose, Django Reinhardt (w/ Benny Carter All-Star Band) ✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose, Le Quintette Du Hot Club De France ✭✭✭