The Unforgettable Nat King Cole: Celebrating His Music and Birth Centennial

By Keith Mason, Ph.D.

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Nathaniel Adams Coles, known familiarly as Nat King Cole, was born on March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama. Popular for his music in jazz, swing, blues and traditional pop for both piano and vocals, Cole recorded more than 100 song hits on the pop charts and had two dozen chart albums over a 20-year period. In addition to his recordings, Cole performed on international concert tours, radio and television shows, film appearances, and Broadway.

Cole spent a decade as a jazz pianist, heading his own small group. This differed from band singers of the swing era such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Dean Martin. He ranked only behind Sinatra as the most successful pop singer of his generation. Cole learned to play the organ from his mother Perlina Coles, who was a church organist. He formally studied piano at age 12 focusing on jazz, gospel and classical music.

Cole formed a sextet with his brother Eddie, a bassist, called Eddie Cole’s Swingsters. They participated in a revival of the musical Shuffle Along. Cole went on tour with the musical. He then led a big band and found work as a pianist in nightclubs. At the request of a club owner, Cole formed a band with bassist Wesley Prince and guitarist Oscar Moore calling themselves the King Cole Swingsters after the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole was a merry old soul.” They changed their name to the King Cole Trio. The nickname “King” between Nat and Cole derives from the group names. The trio performed on radio programs in the late 1930s.

The group’s first hit was “Sweet Lorraine” in 1940.  Their next recordings included “That Ain’t Right,” All for You” and “I’m Lost” in 1941 and 1942. Other song hits by Cole as a solo artist included “Strengthen Up and Fly Right,” “Nature Boy,” “Smile,” “Pretend,” “A Blossom Fell,” “If I May,” “When I Fall in Love,” and the Grammy-Award-winning “Midnight Flyer.” “Unforgettable,” which peaked at number 12 in 1952, became one of his better known recordings. His daughter Natalie Cole recorded a duet of “Unforgettable” with her father’s recorded voice in 1991 and won a Grammy for Record of the Year. Cole recorded three Spanish language albums that were quite successful.

Many people are familiar with Cole’s  renditions of “The Christmas Song,” written by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells, which begins with “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” He recorded four renditions between 1946 and 1961. Cole hosted a television show that debuted on NBC-TV on November 5, 1956. He was a pioneer, being the first African American man to host an American television variety series.

Learning Scenarios

Explore the life and music of Nat King Cole through the following learning scenarios. Incorporate one or more curricular frameworks such as habits of mind, multiple intelligences, differentiation , understanding by design or another curricular framework  to help shape activities.

Nat King Cole Research the life of Nat King Cole. What role did music play in his life?

  • “The Christmas Song” Research the four Cole recordings ranging from 1946 to 1961 of this Christmas song. Compare and contrast the various versions for musicality, orchestration and vocal delivery. What is the main message of the lyrics?
  • “Unforgettable” One of Cole’s biggest hits, find out about “Unforgettable” in terms of lyrics, composer and lyricist and its presence on radio.
  • Hits Create a chronology of hits by Cole using technology or traditional methods.
  • Cole en Español Find out about the three Cole albums recorded in Spanish. What songs did he record and what impact did they have? Where did he record these albums?
  • Films of Cole In which films did Nat King Cole appear? Did he have starring roles in any of these films?
  • TV series Find out about Cole’s 1956 TV series “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show.”
  • Great Performances Alone or with others, perform one Cole song for the rest of the class, in recital or in concert.

Summary

Nat King Cole’s vocals and piano playing are an important part of our musical heritage and popular culture. Students and educators stand to benefit greatly from the music of the unforgettable Nat King Cole.

Keith Mason, Ph.D. writes extensively about musicals in the curriculum and commemorates milestone anniversaries of musicians and musicals.

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