Nat King Cole


The first major biography of the great jazz pianist and singer, written with the full cooperation of his family.

When he died in 1965, at age forty-five, Nat King Cole was already a musical legend. As famous as Frank Sinatra, he had sold more records than anyone but Bing Crosby.

Written with the narrative pacing of a novel, this absorbing biography traces Cole's rise to fame, from boy-wonder jazz genius to megastar in a racist society. Daniel ...

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The first major biography of the great jazz pianist and singer, written with the full cooperation of his family.

When he died in 1965, at age forty-five, Nat King Cole was already a musical legend. As famous as Frank Sinatra, he had sold more records than anyone but Bing Crosby.

Written with the narrative pacing of a novel, this absorbing biography traces Cole's rise to fame, from boy-wonder jazz genius to megastar in a racist society. Daniel Mark Epstein brings Cole and his times to vivid life: his precocious entrance onto the vibrant jazz scene of his hometown, Chicago; the creation of his trio and their rise to fame; the crossover success of such songs as "Straighten Up and Fly Right"; and his years as a pop singer and television star, the first African American to have his own show.

Epstein examines Cole's insistence on changing society through his art rather than political activism, the romantic love story of Cole and Maria Ellington, and Cole's famous and influential image of calm, poise, and elegance, which concealed the personal turmoil and anxiety that undermined his health.

Black and White Photographs

Daniel Mark Epstein is the author of many books of poetry, stories, and essays. His work has been widely anthologized. His plays have been produced Off-Broadway and in regional theater, and his biography of Aimee Semple McPherson was praised by The New York Times as "a fascinating story, well told." He lives in Baltimore with his wife and son.

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Editorial Reviews

Greg Villepique

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.

Terry Teachout
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.
Margo Jefferson
[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
Kirkus Reviews
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 flaws—and, more to the point, a great artist in both the jazz and pop idioms. (b&w photos)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555534691
  • Publisher: Northeastern University Press
  • Publication date: 11/9/2000
  • Series: Biography/Music Series
  • Pages: 438
  • Product dimensions: 6.16 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.37 (d)

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 they relented.

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

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Table of Contents

Part 1 Chicago
The Kid--Chicago, 1935 3
Gatemouth 6
Flight Out of Egypt 14
Schoolboys 18
Bud Billiken Days 28
On the Town 36
The Savoy Ballroom--September 8, 1935 47
Brothers 52
Nadine 56
Part 2 Los Angeles
Sunshine and Shadow 65
The Trio 73
A Year on the Road 89
Fly Right 96
Carlos, and Capitol Records 104
The Big Money 115
Changes 128
Maria 136
Engaged 147
Part 3 America
Wedding Bells 163
Nature Boy 168
A Home of Their Own 177
The Price of Fame 183
Bop City to Dixie 192
Family 201
The Tax Man 214
The Big Show 223
Together and Apart 242
Mobbed 249
Home Again 261
Part 4 This World and the Next
Television 269
Sammy and Harry and the General 276
Games and Children 291
The Dawn of a New Decade 302
Jackpot Attraction 320
Love and Death 333
Epilogue 361
Acknowledgments 365
Notes 367
Bibliography 401
Index 421
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First Chapter


The kid was wearing a light green gabardine suit that draped his long, slender frame so loosely it looked like the first high-note blast of a trumpet might blow his coat off. His mouth was set, his dark face brooding like the rain-fixed clouds on that warm night in September. Approaching the bandstand with a flat-footed, pigeon-toed shamble, he held his head down and to one side, his slanted eyes averted, as if afraid to meet the gaze of several thousand dancers, jazz lovers, and curiosity seekers who filled the Savoy Ballroom.

The kid was shy, and he was amazingly bold. He was the one the young dancers had come to see. They came to hear him play, the boy who would be King, a skinny sixteen-year-old pianist who dared to go up against Earl Hines in the Battle of Rhythm. In 1935 Hines was King of the Ivories, pianist without peer, leader of the hottest dance band on the South Side of Chicago, which was the jazz mecca of America at the very moment the music had achieved a peak of perfection it could not sustain or regain, ever. The music would never be better.

Earl Hines smiled at the people. They called him Gatemouth because of his long smile, full of teeth. He had a dapper pencil-thin mustache and wide-set eyes with high arched brows. He grinned at the jitterbugs on the dance floor, and he smiled up at the slim kid who was whispering orders to his sidemen setting up on their side of the double bandstand.

Gatemouth beamed at the crowd of thousands milling and jostling on the half-acre dance floor of the Savoy Ballroom. The bar in the northwest corner of the room was busy serving drinks to parties at the tables around the three sides of the dance floor. There were 3,000 people in the joint already and it would hold 6,000, at 40 cents a head. It was 30 cents a head before 8:30, when the show was to begin, but most folks couldn't get to the Savoy much before the show started. Gatemouth smiled at his competitor, but the youngster, self-absorbed, earnest, did not smile back, not because he was rude or hostile but because he was going about his business.

Earl Hines may have wondered if this very skinny, very black kid with the slanted eyes and bad complexion knew how to smile. A woman leaned over and whispered in Earl's ear. Wasn't there something about this boy, anyway, a power lurking? Wasn't there a kind of sweetness and vulnerability in his young face, his lean athletic carriage, his thick, soft hair? He was, well, he was adorable, that was the word, like a lion cub. You couldn't help but like him whether or not he could play a bit of piano ...

You could hardly help liking the kid, and right now Gatemouth was trying. He was trying like hell not to like him, tonight's rival in the Battle of Rhythm. The King of the Ivories could not figure out just how this had happened, how he, a master pianist and bandleader, thirty-two years old, at the top of his game, had been matched against this kitten half his age, this child who was up past his bedtime. The fledgling band would play the first set, Hines's band would follow, and so they would alternate, all night, competing for the crowd's applause. What hare-brained publicist, what backstabbing promoter would have put him in this position. Ed Fox of the Grand Terrace? Eddie Plique or Harry Englestein of the Savoy?

What could Hines possibly win from this beanpole kid and his high school band? It was as if Jack Dempsey, in the full glare of Madison Square Garden, should be pitted against some half-starved club fighter from Des Moines. If he beat him up, the crowd's heart would go out to the victim. If he didn't, if the youngster scored any points off the old man, he'd look like a young hero ... Gatemouth smiled at the Savoy. He had been set up. Money was changing hands. Money was always changing hands. Gatemouth was the property of Ed Fox of the Grand Terrace, on loan from the Terrace to the Savoy for two nights in September, the 7th and 8th. Last night the show had gone from 9 to 4 a.m. after the election of the "mayor" of Bronzeville, an annual popularity contest on the South Side. Folks had called this area Bronzeville since the blacks had settled here at the turn of the century.

Hines had been so busy he might not have noticed the little two-by- five-inch ad on page four of the Chicago Defender that day:

Battle of Rhythm
Sunday, Sept. 8th
Earl Hines and his Orchestra
Nat Cole, Chicago's Young Maestro,
And his Rogues of Rhythm

Gatemouth had to admit it was good marketing. His orchestra was the premier dance band in the Midwest, with nightly network broadcasts from the Terrace Ballroom, and dozens of recordings on the Victor label. And the kid? Somehow he was already famous in Chicago. Almost a year earlier, October 6, 1934, the Negro newspaper the Chicago Defender had published a headshot of the fifteen-year-old in a white collar and dark necktie, pouting pretty much like he was doing now, under the words "Plenty Hot," over the news story that "Nat" Cole had "started out a few years ago as just another musician, but today he is known as the leader of one of the hottest bands in the Middle West." Started out a few years ago! How old was he then? Nine? Ten? Now everybody knew that the kid and his band were battling every Sunday afternoon at the Warwick Hall against an older high school bandleader, Tony Fambro. They called Tony "Little Duke" because he modeled his band on Ellington's.

Jazz was bigger than any varsity sport on the South Side of Chicago in 1935. Any boy who could blow five notes on a horn or pluck a fiddle string or bang a pot wanted to be in a band. There were dozens of these outfits, hundreds of them. Somehow Nat Cole, playing in clubs and dance halls from childhood, had set himself apart, above the rest of them.

Everybody liked him, liked to hear him play piano. He had a following. And somebody "up there" liked him too, it seemed, somebody in the upper echelon of the Chicago Defender, the weekly newspaper that was the voice, the conscience and the guiding spirit of the South Side. They kept printing his name and his picture in the "Stage-Screen-Drama" section of the paper. On December 15, 1934, they had printed Nat Cole's picture again, this time the brooding, intense face in three-quarter profile, in white tie. It was to publicize the Defender's Midnight Show at the Regal Theatre. This was the seventh annual Christmas Basket Show, all proceeds to go to needy families.

Cole's name already was being used to sell seats in the largest theater on the South Side of Chicago.

"You are sure to like his playing," wrote the journalist, "for he is a second Earl Hines."

Gatemouth smiled, reflectively. Was there enough room in Chicago for another Earl Hines?


To know Nat Cole you must first know Earl Hines, his artistic father.

Earl's teeth were like the white keys of a piano. They called him Gatemouth because his mouth was like the pearly gates and he was always smiling. He smiled because he loved to play piano and he was almost always playing. Sometimes he smiled so hard the muscles in his face would freeze and the smile would stick on his face for an hour or so after the show was over. One of his sidemen would have to massage the smile off his face.

Musicians were already beginning to call Earl Hines "Fatha" at age thirty-two because he had given birth to a style--more than a style, a virtual language--of jazz piano. There were wicked rumors that Hines had an invisible third hand, that he had made a pact with the Devil. Men who had never seen him up close, envious musicians, said that Gatemouth had cut the "webs" between his fingers with a razor blade, so as to give him the extra stretch needed to manage those tenth-interval trills.

Every kid pianist in the Midwest copied Earl Hines.
Little Nat Cole learned to play jazz piano by listening to Gatemouth on the radio. And when the radio blew a tube the boy would sneak out of his apartment on Prairie Avenue, run several blocks through the dark, and stand outside the Grand Terrace nightclub, under the elevated train, and listen to Earl's piano live from there. It inspired him to precocious mastery of jazz.

Hines, too, had been a prodigy, mastering the Czerny exercises and playing Chopin preludes by the age of eleven in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. By the time he was fourteen Hines was winning prizes and getting his picture in the paper. He was drawn to popular music. Earl was living with his Aunt Sadie Phillips when he was in high school, and she dabbled in light opera. Musicians like Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, renowned pianist/composer Lucky Roberts, and singer Lois Deppe liked to visit Sadie and play on her piano. That is how Earl first heard ragtime and blues.

Mr. Deppe the jazz singer was so impressed with the boy's command of the keyboard he persuaded Earl's father to let him come and live at Lieder House. This was a sort of cabaret and inn in Pittsburgh. There, for fifteen dollars a week, Earl accompanied the singer. Soon Hines organized a band called the Symphonian Serenaders. He watched other pianists. Jim Fellman taught him to make "tenths" with his left hand. Johnny Waters of Detroit could stretch tenths with his right hand while playing a little melody with the middle fingers. Young Earl watched, and listened, and stretched his growing hands.

Deppe took him on the train to visit Lucky Roberts in New York. The titanic composer of "Junk Man Rag" lived in a three-room apartment furnished exclusively with pianos. Talk about the musicians' skill in terms of quantity must have started with Lucky, who did indeed play a lot of piano. He had great big hands, and fingers bigger than most people's thumbs. Lucky would break down your piano. He could, and would, break down anybody's piano, when he got warmed to his work on numbers like "Maple Leaf Rag" or "The Crazy Blues." He made money writing show tunes, most of which went to buy pianos, which he regarded as a disposable commodity like shirt collars and umbrellas. He had a piano for every day of the week, for every mood. To walk through Lucky's rooms was to survey the wreckage of his musical epiphanies.

Earl Hines and Lois Deppe watched Lucky roll up his sleeves and attack one of his torn-out pianos in pursuit of some uncommonly syncopated boogie-woogie; the men ducked and dodged piano keys as they came flying across the room.

By the time Earl Hines arrived in Chicago in 1924 at age twenty, he had recorded eight sides for Gennet, including his own "Congaine," and Lucky's "Isabel." He had formed his own band with Benny Carter on sax and "Cuban" Bennet blowing trumpet. And at twenty-one, Gatemouth had forged a piano style that surpassed that of James P. Johnson and rivaled the work of the great Jelly Roll Morton, the self-styled "Originator of Jazz."

Ferdinand Joseph Morton, a.k.a. Ferdinand La Menthe and "Jelly Roll," born in Louisiana in 1885, moved to Chicago a year before Hines. In the sporting houses of New Orleans's red-light district, Storyville, Jelly Roll fused ragtime, blues, and marches into a foot-stomping, finger-snapping dance music for the piano. His left hand would "stride" out bass rhythms like the drums and saxhorns of a marching band (oomp-cha, oomp-cha) while his right hand fingered syncopated melodies and high obbligati.

It was Jelly Roll's stride style of piano that folks danced to in sporting houses and gin mills from New Orleans to Biloxi, in roadhouses and at rent parties from Jacksonville to Mobile, from St. Louis to Kansas City, from San Francisco to Detroit, as Jelly rambled for twenty years before hauling up to Chicago in the summer of 1923.

Jelly Roll came swaggering into a house party and musicians made way for him like the Red Sea parting for Moses. He was a slender and light-skinned Creole, a dapper man utterly without humility. As he took over the piano he would throw his head back and proclaim: "I am the great Jelly Roll Morton." Then he would turn his head to the crowd and flash them a smile that lit up the 30-point diamond set in his front tooth. He would pound the keyboard hard with block chords in both hands to establish his authority, then lightly tease with a seductive melody as he again shouted, "I am the great Jelly Roll! " Then the voodoo thunder of the striding bass would start in the left hand and a double-note obbligato or trill in the right hand on a knockout tune like "King Porter Stomp." As he played, Jelly Roll would scream, "I invented jazz! Yes I did! I did that!" But by then everybody would be jumping and swinging around the room, and the music was so good nobody cared who had invented it.

Jelly Roll may have created jazz piano. But Gatemouth Earl Hines was the first grand master of the art, bringing to that complex, many-voiced instrument the volume and harmonic richness it deserves. He drew upon three hundred years of European chording and counterpoint to embellish the dance music of New Orleans. He would free his left hand from the chains of the stride bass, without missing a beat of dance rhythm, using his left to make melodies and harmonies from one end of the keyboard to the other. Upward glissandos, octave slides, he played with a nimble left hand so free of his right that it was hard to believe there was only one man at the piano.

Jelly heard Earl Hines playing solo at the Elite No. 2 Club in Chicago in 1924, before Gatemouth went on the road with Carroll Dickerson's band. A few years later he might have heard Earl at the Sunset Café, a mob-controlled nightclub on 35th and Calumet, playing ducts with Louis Armstrong, numbers such as "Muggles" and "Weather Bird Rag."

There in the Sunset Café in 1927 and 1928 the twenty-one-year-old keyboard genius and the twenty-seven-year-old archangel of the trumpet created the seminal rhythmic language of ensemble jazz.

It is fitting that the central act of creation was not a solo or a chorus but a duet: high jazz was born by Satchmo's horn out of Gatemouth's piano. Listening to the masterpieces recorded in those years, "Skip the Gutter" or "West End Blues," you cannot separate rhythm from melody, or divorce the inspiration of the piano from the trumpet's. They greet each other, trade phrases and solos, they harmonize. They fall in love, fight, and make up again. If Jelly Roll Morton heard them at the Sunset Café, or later at the Warwick Hall, where Gatemouth and Satchmo tried, and failed, to start their own gangsterless nightclub, Jelly might well have wondered what God had wrought, what his own invention had come to. These young men were breaking the old wood into kindling and setting the house on fire.

ON HIS BIRTHDAY, December 28,1928, Earl Hines and his ten-piece band opened Ed Fox's brand-new Grand Terrace, a Chicago nightclub and dance hall at Oakwood and South Parkway Boulevard. Customers sat on different terracelike levels on either side of the bandstand. Owner and manager Fox was a stocky Jew with close-cropped hair, a flat nose, and a triangular smile. He had ambitions to be a music impresario.

Puffing on a cigar, he told Hines, "I have a hundred thousand dollars," back when that much could buy more than a million can now. "I'm going to run this place for one year. Whether anybody comes in here or not, you're going to get your money."

For the twenty-three-year-old pianist this was a dream come true. He bought a three-piece suit and a beaver coat. He bought kid gloves and a big gold ring. His contract with Fox guaranteed Gatemouth $150 a week, rain or shine. It was a fortune. Earl and his band began recording for Victor records in 1929. Summers the band toured, playing St. Louis and Earl's hometown, Pittsburgh. WSBC radio began broadcasting Earl's performances at the Grand Terrace.

In 1932, when business was booming at the Grand Terrace, Al Capone sent five men to pay Ed Fox a visit. They entered without knocking. The first man went straight to the cash register. One stood outside the front door, on guard, one on either side of the building, while the lieutenant of the squad led Fox to the back office.

"We're going to take twenty-five percent," Capone's man told Fox.

"You must be losing your mind," the club owner replied.

When the visitor softly explained that Fox needed protection, and that his wife and little boys also needed protection, Ed Fox found himself without the heart to refuse it.

From that point forward Fox had a partner in the gold mine that was the Grand Terrace, and Earl Hines had two bosses, one of whom was scarface Al Capone. Police never came near the speakeasy. Gangs would come in and try to outspend one another. Al Capone would drop by the club. Earl said hello to him at the door. Capone would lift his hand to straighten the handkerchief in Earl's breast pocket and later Gatemouth would find a hundred-dollar bill there. It was during the reign of Al Capone that Earl Hines got his three-thousand-dollar Bechstein piano. Band members Jimmie Mundy and Trummy Young were amazed how Earl could break strings in the Bechstein with the power of his left hand. Later they would hammer at the Bechstein with their fists and they couldn't do it.

Capone began to think of Gatemouth as property. When Hines went on the road with his band, two bodyguards accompanied him everywhere because Scarface was worried a rival gang might injure Hines to hurt Capone. When the pianist protested he didn't need two bodyguards, Capone shrugged and said it was no big deal, he had thirty of them himself.

Now Gatemouth smiled at the boy called Nat Cole. Did he really want to be a second Earl Hines? Did he know the cost?

DURING THE RULE OF THE GANGSTERS in the 1930s Earl Hines's dream became a nightmare. He was a black songbird in a gilded cage. Hines was one of many great musicians chained to a certain nightclub or theater the way antebellum Negroes were chained to a plantation. The jazz slave masters were mobsters: Owney Madden of Harlem's Cot- ton Club, Johnny Lazia of Kansas City, and Al Capone in Chicago. The bandstand at the Cotton Club even featured white columns, with a backdrop that depicted the slave quarters and weeping willows of a Southern mansion. The mob network controlled the bookings and salaries of such jazz luminaries as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, and Earl Hines.

But while Fox and others at the Grand Terrace were getting rich, Gatemouth found himself shackled to a $150-per-week contract that was built to outlast Chicago itself. Through his front man Ed Fox, Capone had a covenant with Hines that would not even allow him to use his own name if he left the Grand Terrace without permission. The contract existed in perpetuo: If Fox died, Gatemouth would be the widow's chattel; if she died, the eldest son would inherit the pianist . . .

If it wasn't the gangsters it was the musicians' union complicating Earl's life. Jealous musicians without steady work resented Earl's arrangement with the Grand Terrace. They would mutter under their breath: "Everybody standing around the mail box / While Gatemouth got his pension with Mister Ed Fox." It was bad enough having Al Capone ordering him around, but he was damned if the union was going to tell him where he could play.

So in May of 1933, when the union suspended Hines for playing a nonunion café in St. Louis, he tried to ignore it. He needed money. A month later he played a nonunion gig at a dance in Danville, Illinois, and the union suspended him for a year. That hurt him, and he spent much of the summer of 1933 in the appeal process, getting his colleagues to forgive and reinstate him.

And if it wasn't the gangsters, or the union, it was the women, flirting, distracting, double-timing, loving and leaving him in joy or misery. But that was another story ...

Through all the toil and trouble Hines at least had his music, his piano, and the orchestra to nourish and sustain him. And he enjoyed the company of bandmates who were great musicians in their own right: Walter Fuller and George Dixon on trumpets, Trummy Young and Louis Taylor on trombones, Budd Johnson and Jimmy Mundy on saxophones, plus Omer Simeon and Darnell Howard, versatile on clarinets and saxes.

Now they were all standing around at the Savoy Ballroom, smoking, drinking, joking, waiting for this new kid Cole to hit the keys and make music. That's what they were all here for, the music, to play it and hear it and dance to it. None of them were getting rich from it.

It was almost nine o'clock, and soon the kid had to begin. A stream of automobiles crawling bumper to bumper north and south on South Parkway Boulevard was unloading passengers--girls in black satin dresses, guys in loose pinstripes and shiny wing-tip shoes. Incredibly, the crowd was still filing into the ballroom, three, four thousand of them, laughing, jostling under the lighted beams of the high ceiling, eddying around the square columns with the plaster Corinthian capitals, maneuvering for a little ground on the dance floor with a clear view of the stage.

There stood the announcer, Eddie Plique, a thin white guy with a pinched face, dark eyes, and a square chin, holding a crumpled piece of paper. Over the din at the Savoy, Eddie Plique introduced the meager band of high school boys that would throw the first punch of the evening... "Ladies and gentlemen, Nat Cole and his Royal Dukes!" Applause. "On saxophone, Andrew Gardner, on trumpet, Charles Gray ... Russell Shores on drums ... on bass, Mr. Henry Fort, on trombone John Dawkins ... and last but not least, the Prince of Ivories, Nat 'Schoolboy' Cole!"

At the sound of Cole's name, a roar of affection arose from the audience, and Earl Hines knew he was in trouble. The Schoolboy had the home-court advantage. If this scant band of amateurs could play jazz at all, then it would take enormous finesse and tact for Hines's fourteen-piece orchestra to survive the night with any dignity. It was David vs. Goliath.

Could the kid play? Gatemouth watched the boy as he sat sweating under the bright lights of the bandstand, fronting his ragged orchestra of dented horns, dressed in ill-fitting green suits like their leader's, gripping their instruments in terror as if the dancers were about to open fire on them. What would they play?

The kid jerked his left hand in the air and dropped it. There sounded the dull sputtering of an alto saxophone, and they were off running, the kid nodding on the beat, his arms hanging at his sides as the muted trumpet stated the theme. It was Gatemouth and his arranger Quinn Wilson's version of "Sweet Georgia Brown." Hines might have known the battle of rhythm would be fought with his own weapons. The kid knew him by heart. Maybe he would just echo the master, roughly, in respectful homage. That wouldn't be so bad. Or would it?

"No gal made has got a shade on ... sweeet Georgia Brown..." No vocal, just the simple tune played by the muted trumpet in a steady moderate tempo and a little doubling at the end of the chorus but nothing too ambitious. Then the sax returned to take over the next chorus, blurting the melody, chewing it up a little while the trumpet harmonized in the fourth line, or commented with obbligati in the fifth and sixth. It wasn't very good playing but it wasn't quite embarrassing either ...

Then the crowd that had been murmuring and restless grew still. There was a perceptible straining of attention as they heard, somewhere a long way off, ever so faintly through the dense forest of horn growls and blasts, drumrolls, and thumping bass, a ripple of harmony. There was a dear harp in the distance that moved toward them rapidly as the young man at the piano began to brush his long hands lightly over the keys, looking at the crowd slyly out of the corners of his eyes. It was the kid, Nat Cole, entering the Savoy Ballroom through the last bars of the second chorus, come to rescue his schoolboy band from adolescent aimlessness and confusion.

The next chorus was all his, and Cole pounced on it, grabbing up the theme with his right hand in bright clear octaves while keeping a solid stride rhythm with his left hand. That was good, a fine copy of the master, Gatemouth, but how far could he go with it? The crowd was bouncing, nodding in time, and some were calling out encouragement. At the fifth bar Cole hit the high note and slid down off it into the middle register with the grace of an otter. Then he bounced back to play three more measures the same, maintaining the melody line within the cascade of glissandos, and the crowd began clapping in time. At the ninth bar the kid threw his right hand far east to grab whatever notes he could find up there and came down with clams, cherrystones, raw noise. But it hardly mattered as Nat cut the notes into double-eighths, sixteenths. All the while that stride rhythm kept going strong, rocking in the bass, Earl's men were staring and all the kids in the ballroom were on their feet dancing.

Gatemouth smiled in wonder at the kitten on the keys. It would be a long night. The kid had the gift, no question. But how bad did he want it, the music, the moments of glory, the trouble--gangsters, unions, the women? He might have the gift, but he was going to have to fight for it. Tonight and forever.

Who was Nat Cole, this boy who would be King?

Copyright (c) 1999 Daniel Mark Epstein
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2002

    Maudlin and forced

    This is more a book about Daniel Epstein identifying himself as musical connoisseur, with his gargly rhapsodizing over Cole's music (just so you know he REALLY listens, unlike you Philistines). Truly annoying. I couldn't even finish the book, and I love Nat King Cole.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2000

    The best book on Nat's life yet

    I enjoyed this book very much. It is excellently written. I felt like I really knew Nat after reading this bio, which is very intimate. Epstein keeps the story moving along, just like a novel, but it's better than a novel, because it's a true story! So you never get bored with anything. Of all the books written about Nat's life, this is far and away the best one I've ever read. It is candid and truthful, and doesn't sugarcoat the man that Nat King Cole was. Nat wasn't an angel, but simply a man ~ a nice man ~ in extraordinary situations. Even after reading about some of the questionable and unpopular decisions he made in his life, I found myself even more in love with this man and his music. I gave the book four stars because there were some parts of the book that I found to be very private, and should not have been included. I'm sure Nat would not have wanted anyone to know the reason why he had problems having kids at first. That, I thought, was a little too personal. But aside from that, this book is a must for all NKC fans. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

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