From the late 1930s through the '40s, Nat Cole was known as the dazzling swing pianist who led the popular King Cole Trio and sang a little. In the '50s and '60s, he became a superstar pop singer; casual latter-day fans didn't even know he played piano. Daniel Mark Epstein, in his fond, authoritative new biography, Nat King Cole (for which he interviewed Cole's surviving family and associates), persuasively argues the case for Cole as a major jazz instrumentalist, but he's also sympathetic to the motivations behind Cole's turn to pop.
The second son of a Baptist preacher, Nathaniel Coles (he dropped the "s" early on, for no apparent reason) was born in 1919 and grew up in Chicago. He was a prodigy on the piano. Epstein says, only a little hyperbolically, that Chicago in the 1920s hosted "the greatest gathering of musical genius America has ever known, in its most creative decade"; the local lineup included Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller and Earl Hines, and everyone else passed through. The young Cole modeled his high-speed, rhythmically sophisticated piano style on Hines'. He dropped out of school at 15; by 18 he had recorded for Decca with his bass-playing brother, Eddie, toured with the revue "Shuffle Along," gotten married to a dancer 10 years his senior and moved to Los Angeles, where he soon assembled the piano/guitar/bass trio that made him famous.
In the 1940s, the trio made a string of hit records featuring Cole's ever more assured and precisely inflected vocals, including the Louis Jordan-ish "Straighten Up and Fly Right," "Route 66" and that instant war horse "The Christmas Song." 1948's "Nature Boy," on which Cole was accompanied by a full orchestra, marked the beginning of the end of his career as a serious jazzman. He'd begun to make big money, and a combination of his own financial carelessness, alimony payments and the IRS, which nailed him in 1951 for nonpayment of back taxes, conspired to keep him on the more lucrative pop track.
Cole endured his share of humiliations touring the Jim Crow South, and when he bought a house in an all-white enclave in L.A., neighbors campaigned nastily to keep him out. In 1956, he became the first black man to headline a national television series, but NBC couldn't find a sponsor brave enough to underwrite the show and it was cancelled. Epstein catalogs the tirades of civil-rights activists who called Cole an Uncle Tom for continuing to perform before segregated audiences; in Cole's defense, Epstein points out that he sued segregated hotels and otherwise challenged segregation when he thought he could win but that he felt a "responsibility as an artist to his fans white and black, wherever he found them."
Cole smoked cigarettes by the bushel all his life and tried to ignore his increasing health problems until he developed lung cancer, which killed him at age 45. Ham-handed foreshadowings of his death pop up here and there in Epstein's account, and once in a while the author gets a little loopy, notably in his analysis of "Nature Boy" as a metaphorical theme song for the state of Israel. But his enthusiastic musical commentary is often enlightening, and his discussions of Cole's marital infidelities actually add a welcome human tarnish to Cole's ever-gracious, unruffleable persona. Finally, despite Epstein's passionate partisanship, his exhaustively researched portrait feels just. If turmoil bubbled beneath Cole's serene surface, he had the old-school dignity to keep it to himself.
This book is by far the best of the four full-length biographies of the most beloved pop balladeer of the 1950s.
Wall Street Journal
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Dulcet-toned Nat King Cole is remembered best today for ballads such as "Mona Lisa" and "Unforgettable," perhaps less so for his skills as a preeminent jazz pianist and composer. This respectful biography depicts a multitalented musician who--whether contending with racism, with black leaders criticizing his lack of activism or with jazz critics who believed he had "sold out"-- maintained an implacable, dignified demeanor. Born Nathaniel Coles, he grew up in Chicago in the 1920s, when Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Gatemouth Earl Hines were helping to turn that city into a virtual mecca of jazz. Cole moved to Los Angeles in 1937, paying his dues as a struggling musician and eventually forming the original King Cole Trio. The fledgling Capitol Records recognized the commerce in Cole's liquid voice (a voice created in part, according to Epstein, by Cole's heavy cigarette habit) and exquisite style, making him a star as he and his trio moved away from jazz and embraced the pop ballads the public craved. At the height of his popularity, Cole became the first African-American to host his own television show, which, while a ratings success, fell victim to prejudice as it failed to secure a national sponsor. By the time Cole died in 1965 of lung cancer, he had become one of America's best-loved entertainers. Epstein (Sister Aimee) writes gracefully and possesses admirable musical knowledge; yet his sympathetic narrative is oddly flat. Whether because, as Epstein writes, Cole "was a master of the art of concealment" or because his personality differed little from his calm, genial and sophisticated facade, the portrait of Cole that emerges is less vibrant than his music--the man himself retains a regal distance. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
[Epstein] keeps the story bouncing along with plenty of vigor,
and he makes room for the voices of people who knew Cole and were
of his time.
The New York Times Book Review
An effusively admiring biography of the brilliant jazz pianist whose mellow crooning made him one of the first black performers to win mainstream success with white audiences. As in his book about controversial 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (Sister Aimee,1993), Epstein displays a warm affection for his subject that is appropriate when detailing the breathtaking work of Nat King Cole (1919–65) as a key figure in the transition from the Golden Age of Jazz to the Swing Era, but somewhat much when dealing with his personal life. The cooperation of Cole's widow, Maria, explains Epstein's gushy portrait of their marriage and ain't-it-sad coverage of the singer's divorce from his first wife, frequent casual infidelities on the road, hard-hearted financial dealings with his sidemen when he hit the big time, and late-life affair with a white teenage chorus girl. Nonetheless, this is a marvelously evocative rendering of American jazz in its glory days and a thoughtful assessment of Cole's transition to ballad singing, which resulted in such megahits as "Nature Boy," "Mona Lisa," and "Unforgettable." Purists cried "sellout," yet Epstein makes a strong case for Cole's desire to reach a wider audience without abandoning his musical sophistication. Wealth and prominence brought Cole into direct conflict with racism: Residents tried to prevent him from buying a mansion in Los Angeles's affluent Hancock Park section in 1948; Las Vegas hotels that paid him thousands of dollars a night to perform wouldn't permit him to stay in their rooms. Although he sued two hotels in the late 1940s, Cole was by nature nonconfrontational; he played before segregated audiences in the South,justifying it as the best way to challenge prejudice. The horrifying depiction of the chain-smoking singer's ghastly final days as he succumbed to lung cancer might prompt a few readers to chuck their cigarettes. Could use a bit more edge, but Cole emerges as a lovable man with forgivably human flawsand, more to the point, a great artist in both the jazz and pop idioms. (b&w photos)
Read an Excerpt
"The Christmas Song"
This time every year we recall Nat King Cole, even if we haven't
thought of him since last Christmas, because it is his heart-warming
voice on the radio that brings us one of our favorite carols, "The
Christmas Song." Some of us may remember Nat's TV show from the
1950s, and others may enjoy his piano playing from the earlier
days of the King Cole Trio. But all of us know the nostalgic
poetry of "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...."
The song was written by Mel Torme and Robert Wells early in 1946,
and Torme showed it to Cole one night when the singer was
performing at an L.A. nightclub. He loved the lyrics, and on
the unseasonable date of June 14, the King Cole Trio entered a
New York studio to record it. Cole felt that the sentimental
melody needed violins, but he couldn't convince his producers.
The King Cole Trio was then under attack by jazz purists who
thought Nat was drifting too much toward a pop audience. So
that day in June, the Trio -- guitar, bass, and piano -- cut
the very simple, first version of "The Christmas Song."
This spare arrangement, with guitarist Oscar Moore's delicate
guitar work, is enchanting. But it was not quite the sound Cole
wanted. A perfectionist when it came to his music, Cole kept
badgering his producers at Capitol to give him a richer
orchestral arrangement for "The Christmas Song." And finally
So on August 19, Nat, Oscar Moore, and bassist Wesley Prince
entered the WMCA studios in New York, and this time they were
met by veteran producer Carl Kress, four violinists, and a harp
player. On that hot afternoon in late summer this team recorded
what many believe to be the greatest American Christmas carol
(not putting aside "White Christmas.")
Nat Cole had never been more inspired. He had just fallen in
love with Maria Ellington, the woman who would be the great
love of his life. He was about to make up his mind to leave
his first wife, Nadine, in order to marry Maria. The richness
of his voice at this moment comes from a certain nostalgia for
past love and excitement over the new.
By early December, "The Christmas Song" had risen to No. 3 on
the popular music charts. It was to be a year of enormous changes
in Cole's life: a new family, a rush of popular success, and
financial fortune as the songs "I Love You For Sentimental
Reasons" and "Nature Boy" topped the charts. But in some ways
it all started with "The Christmas Song," which was the first
tune in which Nat stood up from the piano bench to sing, a song
with a message so personal and universal it required the whole
man, from head to toe, to deliver it.
And it never ceases to amaze and delight me that in the 1950s,
when few white families welcomed African Americans into their
homes, Nat Cole could be heard, on Christmas eve, in every
household in the land, bringing his message of peace and love.
Daniel Mark Epstein