"Twenty-third and Wentworth, was it's beating Heart, ...But there was everything, back when Jazz was King, on the South Side of Chicago."
-- Ray Price song in 1974
Nat King Cole was born on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama where his father was a butcher and a deacon in the Baptist Church. His actual birth name was Nathaniel Adams Coles. When Nat was two years old in 1921, the family moved to the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago's South Side where his father became a minister. In those days, Bronzeville ran between State Street on the west and Grand Boulevard on the east (now called Martin Luther King Drive) and between 31st Street on the north and Pershing Road on the south. Naturally enough, gospel music from his father's Baptist Church was an early influence on Nat. When Nat was just 12, his first performance in public was Yes, we have no bananas!
Ragtime and jazz music was flourishing in the small clubs of Bronzeville in the 1920s and 1930s. Beyond the immediate Bronzeville neighborhood, most of the South Side was alive with the hottest Jazz anywhere in the country. From 1922 to 1930, Louis Armstrong was playing at Lincoln Gardens on 47th Street and he met and married his second wife Lil Hardin in Chicago. Other great stars were playing in Chicago clubs such as Earl "Fatha" Hines and Jimmy Noone.
Nat and his older brother Eddie hung out at the clubs as kids whenever they could getting to know the music and the musicians. Nat graduated from Wendell Phillips High School in 1935. He also studied in the music program of Walter Dyet at Du Sable High School. Just out of high school in 1936, Nat had formed his own band at age 17 and they made their first recording featuring Eddie Cole on bass and Nat on piano.
In the late 1930s, Nat got stranded in Long Beach, California while touring with a revival of Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along revue and the show folded. Nat started over in Long Beach and formed a new quartet called "The King Cole Swingers" and they were able to make a meager living playing the bars in Long Beach.
Nat married Nadine Robinson, a dancer he met with the Blake revue and the couple moved to Los Angeles were Nat formed the "Nat King Cole Trio" with arrangements for him to both play piano and sing. A second version of that trio signed with Capitol Records in 1943 and Nat stayed with the Capitol label for the rest of his life. His upbeat World War II song Straighten Up and Fly Right, was based on one of his father's sermons and was a huge hit in 1943. By the end of the war, Nat King Cole was already a major popular performer for both black and white audiences. His string of hits built a momentum that took him right through the decade of the Fabulous Fifties. His daughter Natalie Cole was born in 1950.
Nat's biggest hits during this period included The Christmas Song (1946), Nature Boy (1948), and Mona Lisa (1950). His biggest hit in 1951 was Unforgettable and that became his signature song. Forty years later in 1991, twenty-six years after Nat died, his famous daughter Natalie Cole recorded "Unforgettalble" as a duet with her father by splicing together some of his original sound track with her own voice. This beautifully arranged sentimental novelty song hit number 14 on the Billboard charts and an album of the same name with more of Nat and Natalie "smooth jazz" hits sold more than five million copies in the U.S. alone and earned several Grammy Awards for Natalie.
Nat was the first African-American to have his own network radio program and in 1956, Nat King Cole was also the first African-American to host his own general variety network TV show on NBC. The popular show featured guests and several songs by Nat and made him a national celebrity if he was not one before. The show was a perfect showcase for many of Nat's hits such as Smile, Pretend, and A Blossom Fell.
Nat King Cole appeared in several movies including playing the role of W.C. Handy in Saint Louis Blues and as an American soldier in China Gate. His last appearance on film was a duet with Stubby Kaye in Cat Balou which was released a few months after his death from lung cancer on Feb. 15, 1965 in Santa Monica, California. He had been a heavy smoker for many years and he was only 45 years old at the time of his death.