His wife once said he wasn't a fighter. But while Nat Cole may not have swung direct punches, he did battle almost every day of his life.
During the course of his short but spectacular career, he produced some of the country's most popular music ( “Straighten Up And Fly Right,” “Mona Lisa,” “Route 66,” “Unforgettable,” “When I Fall In Love.”) He also pushed back against entrenched racism in private, on stage, on television, and on the radio, becoming a household name—even in households that would never have allowed him inside because of the color of his skin.
He and his family moved into a white neighborhood refusing to back down to hostile neighbors trying to force them out. He took hotels to court for hiring him sing but not allowing him to spend the night, and he was the first African American to host a TV show—all at a time when racism was rampant in almost every corner of America.
During his life Cole received flack from the black community and the media for not fighting racism more directly. But nearly 100 years after his birthday on March 17, 1919, as we look back at all that he accomplished in 1940s and 1950s Jim Crow America, it's clear: He was an extraordinary fighter.
The Roots of Nat Cole
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama. His family moved to Chicago when he was four. First playing church organ and then learning jazz piano, Coles eventually changed his name to Nat Cole and began playing various small gigs with his brother Eddie. Eventually, Cole found his way to Long Beach, California, where he began to make a name for himself in the King Cole Swingsters, later known as the King Cole Trio. The “King” part of his name is apparently from the old nursery rhyme, “Old King Cole.”
During some of his live gigs, Cole began to get requests for vocal numbers between songs, and quickly received accolades for his baritone, golden-voiced versions of songs he knew.
During WWII, the song “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” catapulted his trio to fame. Based on an old African American folk tale that his father, a preacher, had used in sermons, the song sold over 500,000 copies, proving Cole’s voice and musicianship could cross racial barriers and appeal to a mass audience. It, and several other records that followed, put Capitol Records on the map; in fact, the signature round building constructed by the company is to this day referred to as “The House That Nat Built.”
Soon, the first-ever radio program sponsored by African American artists went on-air, paid for and created by Cole’s group: “King Cole Trio Time.”
It was a time when radio shows were gaining in popularity, and as the Great Depression began to ease up, working families were able to afford luxuries like radios. At the same time, Cole and the various musicians who accompanied him began recording singles that made it big on the “Harlem Hit Parade” (the “R&B” chart of the time), and then crossed over onto folk and pop charts as well.
Jim Crow v. Nat King Cole
In 1948, Cole bought a house in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The KKK, active in the area until mid-1950s, burned a cross in his front yard, poisoned the family dog, attempting to scare him and his family into leaving. But neither Cole nor his wife Maria were budging.
In fact, when the all-white neighborhood association said to Cole that they didn’t want undesirables moving into the neighborhood, Cole responded, “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”
Things got worse. At a 1956 concert in Birmingham, AL, members of the “White Knights,” similar to the KKK, attacked Cole on stage in the middle of a concert. Fortunately the local police had been tipped off, so they were on the attackers quickly, but not before Cole was knocked off his piano bench. He never performed in the South again.
In part because some of his performances, especially in the South, were to all-white audiences, Cole received a fair amount of criticism from the black community. Critics felt he ought to use his popularity to do more publicly against racism.
Chastened and hurt by the negative press, Cole donated money to the Montgomery bus boycott, and took a number of hotels to court for hiring him to perform but refusing to serve him or let his family get a room. He joined other black entertainers in boycotting Jim Crow audiences, became a lifetime member of the NAACP, and took pains for the rest of his life to be a more visible participant in the civil rights movement, including playing a significant role in the 1963 March On Washington.
Very soon after the civil rights events in Birmingham, he began his own TV show—a first for African American entertainers. Like Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) a decade later, Cole showed that, yes, there could be black people on TV and in Hollywood in non-servile roles (although there was a strong push to lighten his skin which he gave in to when he first went on air.) The Nat King Cole Show lasted just over a year before he decided to pull it due to lack of corporate sponsorship. As he put it after closing the show, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
Never a Fighter?
Taken by lung cancer in 1965 at 45, Cole’s legacy as a pop singer and musician stands out to this day. He charted over 100 pop singles, and more than 2 dozen albums in about 20 years—second only to Frank Sinatra.
When Cole's wife remarked that he wasn't a fighter, she also said that mostly he just wanted to get along and perform his music. But in many ways, being who he was and doing the work he did, made him more of a fighter than perhaps even he knew.
Here's more on Nat Cole:
- Nat King Cole: Afraid Of The Dark, a fascinating documentary of his life, largely told through interviews with people who knew and loved him, released in 2014.
- “An Evening With Nat King Cole,” filmed about 2 years before he died—arguably at the top of his game vocally—it features vocal performances of some of his best songs.
- "The Nat King Cole Musical story" from 1955.
Brandon Weber writes on economics, labor union history, and working people. He is working on two books, one on forgotten labor history and one on the fatally flawed foster and adoption system, and some ways to fix it.