The Life of Nat King Cole

Nathaniel Adams Coles was born to the Reverend Edward James Coles Snr. and Parlini Adams Coles, on St. Patrick’s day 17th March, in Montgomery Alabama.  Together they had thirteen children, but only five of them lived to adulthood.   But it is hard to say which year it was that Nat was born, he used three different dates himself on official documents, 1915, 1916, and 1919. Other dates used during his life were 1912 and 1917.  The year 1917 is the date most commonly used by him.  His headstone on his grave says, born 1919.

At four he moved with his family to Chicago, when his father was called to the true light Baptist church.  Even at the age of four he could sing, “yes, we have no bananas”, as he accompanied himself on the piano.  His mother was a piano teacher and wanted Nat to become a concert pianist, but his love was jazz, and at age 12 he formed his own jazz band at high school.

By this time in his life he had decided to drop the “s” from his name, and leave it at Cole.  Three of Nat’s brothers, Eddie Fred and Isaac were already jazz musicians, and Nat first played piano in Eddie Coles jazz band, the rogues of rhythm.

In 1936, he moved to Los Angeles where he formed a group that later became the King Cole trio.  In 1943 he recorded his first national hit record, “straighten up and fly right”, which was based on one of his father’s sermons, and on a traditional black folktale.

The trio featured no vocals at first until one night a drunken customer demanded that Cole sing “sweet Lorraine”, from that day Nat sang from time to time to provide a bit of variety. Gradually the king Cole trio became well known in the Los Angeles area, by making recordings and appearing on local radio.

Nat king Cole had even greater success with his recording of “Christmas song” in 1945.  After the release of “nature boy” in 1946, the trio broke up and he became a solo artist.

In 1949 Nat’s recording of “Mona Lisa” crossed over onto the pop charts and eventually sold three million records, it established him as the bestselling African American recording star of his generation.

He did a lot of work to make things better for black people, by refusing to play at places that wouldn’t let black people in, or making them change their rules before he would play there.  In his early days of touring, Nat and his band were often not allowed to stay at the places they played at.

When he started to earn more money, he bought a house in a very expensive area of Los Angeles.  Some of the people who already lived there protested and said they didn’t want any undesirables moving in around them.   Nat said he didn’t either and would be the first to complain if any did move in.

He became so famous however, that he was invited to places by president john Kennedy, in fact President Kennedy attended Natalie Cole’s debutante ball.  Nat was the first black man to have his own radio show and later his own TV show.  In 1946, Nat started doing a radio show every week, it lasted for four years.  In October 1956, he started his own tv show, but businesses were afraid that white southern audiences would stop buying their products if they advertised during the show.

Nat also appeared in quite a few movies, the best known of these was “St Louis Blues” in which he played the role of jazz composer, W.C. Handy. He also appeared in a film about himself. He also appeared in others, just to sing a song or two, remember “cat bayou”.

His first marriage was to Nadine Robinson in 1936, she was a dancer in the show that was on tour with him.  His second marriage was to Maria Ellington, they met in 1946 and married on the 28th march 1948.  Maria was a singer and related to bro. Duke Ellington.  Although she sang in his band for a while, after Nat’s death, she put together a show of her own, which premiered in Australia.

Maria and Nat were not on speaking terms just before the wedding ceremony, because Nat had been so carried away with  a bachelor party the previous night that he had failed to turn up for a wedding rehearsal date.

Nat only had children in his second marriage to Maria. Their first child was Natalie Maria, born 6th February 1950, She was born a few months before the record of “Mona Lisa” was released, she was more often known in the family as “sweetie”.

A few years later they adopted carol, who was born on 17th october 1944, she was Maria’s sister’s daughter, she was adopted by Nat and Maria after both carol’s parents had died.

In 1959, Nat and Maria adopted a son who they called Nat Kelly Cole, he was born on the 8th February and they thought that they would never have any more children of their own. Unfortunately, he died of aids on the 24th October 1995 aged 36, and is buried in the same cemetery as his father.  On the 26th September 1961, twin girls were born to Nat & Maria, Timolin and Casey.

One night in February 1965, at around 11-30pm an older African American woman was standing on the side of an Alabama highway trying to endure a lashing rain storm.  Her car had broken down and she desperately needed a ride. Soaking wet, she decided to flag down the next car that passed by.

A young man stopped to help her, it was generally unheard of in those conflict filled 1960’s. The man took her to safety, helped her get assistance and put her into a taxi cab, she seemed in a big hurry, but wrote down his address and thanked him very much.

Seven days went by and a knock came on the man’s front door, to his surprise a giant console colour TV was delivered to his home with a note attached to it, reading.
Thank you so much for assisting me on the highway the other night, the rain drenched not only my clothes, but also my spirits, then you came along.  Because of you I was able to make it to my dying husband’s bedside, just before he passed away.  God bless you for helping me, and unselfishly serving others, sincerely yours  Mrs Nat king Cole.

Nat died on February 15th 1965. He died of lung cancer because he used three packets of cigarettes every day for many years.  He is buried at forest lawn cemetery, memorial park, Los Angeles California, in the freedom mausoleum, sanctuary of heritage.

Since his death, daughter Natalie Cole has carved out a very successful musical career for herself.  She has won a Grammy award for that recording of her and Nat singing a duet of the song “unforgettable”.

Prepared by
Bro. Brian Mackander  OAM
23rd October  2001