Nat ‘King’ Cole conquered the pop charts in the Fifties and early Sixties as a warm-voiced singer of orchestrated ballads like ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Unforgettable’ and breezy, countrified sing-alongs like ‘Ramblin’ Rose’ and ‘Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer.’ Less well known is the fact that he played a mean piano (in the style of Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines) and led a swinging jazz trio from 1937 to 1955. Cole’s drummerless trio was an innovation, and no less an authority than Count Basie marveled at their improvisational interplay: ‘Those cats used to read each other’s minds - it was unbelievable.’
Early stirrings of rock and roll can be detected in such swinging, lingo-filled tunes as ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ and ‘(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,’ recorded in 1943 and 1946, respectively, by the King Cole Trio. With its three guitars, honking sax and gritty vocal, the 1957 hit ‘Send for Me’ (#1 R&B, #6 pop) was formally as close as Cole ever got to rock and roll.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1919 and christened Nat ‘King’ Cole by a Los Angeles clubowner in 1937. As both a jazz pianist and pop singer, he made his mark on the middle decades of the 20th century. Cole’s transformation from jumpin’ jive to pop balladry came in 1946, when ‘(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons’ became a million seller for the King Cole Trio. When his first orchestrated number, the definitive version of Mel Torme’s classic ‘The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You),’ became a seasonal hit that same year, there was virtually no turning back. The Fifties and Sixties found Cole recording with various orchestras, including Nelson Riddle’s and Billy May’s. While his work from this period shared little with the rock and roll revolution that was under way, Cole’s broader influence on the idiom as a musical pioneer and as a popular star is undeniable.
He died on February 15, 1965 of lung cancer