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February 15, 1965 — Nat King Cole, who died on this day, possessed a unique soft baritone voice which, to use the title of one of his most famous songs, was “Unforgettable”. But despite his talent and huge success as a recording artist his short life was plagued by incidents of racial discrimination.
Born in 1919, at the age of four he began learning to play the piano with help from his mother, a church choir director in their home town of Montgomery, Alabama.
At 15, he dropped out of school to become a jazz pianist. Cole said he “played piano at almost every beer joint from San Diego to Bakersfield”. Legend has it that at one of the venues a drunken customer jammed a paper hat onto the pianist’s head and proclaimed, “Look! King Cole!” The name stuck.
He made his first professional recordings in 1936 and the following year put together what would become the King Cole Trio.
By the 1950s, Nat King Cole emerged as a popular solo performer with numerous hits including “Mona Lisa”, “Smile” and “Unforgettable”. He was to sell a total of 50 million records during his career.
He said later: “I started out to become a jazz pianist but in the meantime I started singing and I sang the way I felt and that’s just the way it came out.”
In 1956 he became the first African-American performer to host a variety TV series – The Nat King Cole Show, which featured leading performers of the day. But it was scrapped the following year, Cole blaming its demise on the lack of a national sponsor.
This was seen as a reflection of the racial issues of the time, no company wanting to back a show featuring African-American entertainers. Cole later quipped: “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
It was also in 1956 that Cole experienced racial discrimination in its most savage form. British music paper New Musical Express reported on April 13: “One of the world’s most talented and respected singing stars, Nat King Cole, was the victim of a vicious attack by a gang of four men at Birmingham, Alabama, during his performance at a concert on Tuesday.
“His assailants rushed down the aisles during his second number and clambered over the footlights. They knocked Nat down with such force that he hit his head and back on the piano stool, and they then dragged him into the auditorium.
“Police rushed from the wings and were just in time to prevent the singer from being badly beaten up.”
In her book, “Talking Swing, the British Big Bands”, Sheila Tracy recalls that the Ted Heath Orchestra – one of the star British acts of the time – were touring with Nat on that tour. She quotes saxophonist Ronnie Chamberlain as saying:
“We were booked to play in Birmingham, Alabama, and the guys in Nat’s trio were absolutely scared stiff, saying, ‘We don’t want to go there, man.’ Recalling the attack on Cole, Chamberlain said: “I felt really sick and went outside and puked, it frightened me so much. Poor Nat was in a terrible state.”
Though this was an extreme incident, Cole had become used to – and philosophical about – racial discrimination. In 1948 he bought a house at the exclusive all-white Hancock Park development in Los Angeles, where former residents included Howard Hughes, Katharine Hepburn and Mae West.
The Ku Klux Klan responded by placing a burning cross on his front lawn. Members of the property-owners association told Cole they did not want any undesirables moving into the area.
Cole famously retorted: ”Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”
He continued to live in the house until his death in 1965. A heavy smoker, Cole was just 45 when he died of lung cancer.