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Nat King Cole

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 24, 2012
Category: Jazz

When did I learn my first French phrase?

When I was just out of diapers, from a song by Nat King Cole: “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup.”

When did I learn about the Mona Lisa?

In nursery school, from a Nat King Cole song.

The first time a song made me cry?

In first grade, when I saw Nat King Cole sing “Smile” on Ed Sullivan. (extra points for knowing it was written by Charlie Chaplin).

Half a century later, I started listening to Nat King Cole again. Nobody much thinks about him or plays him now — I’d bet serious money that you don’t — but he turns out to be a major figure in modern pop music, right up there with Sinatra. But with an asterisk: He’s also a major jazz musician and pianist. Like this major: In June 2004, "Down Beat" Magazine polled 73 jazz singers. Their favorite recordings… ever? Cole ranked #12.

Cole looked slick. His baritone was slicker. Successful? It’s said that sales of his records are responsible for much of the cost of the round Capitol Records building in Hollywood. And this CD has 28 of his best songs. (To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. To buy the MP3, a much better deal, click here.) 

Some things I have only recently learned about Nat King Cole:

In 1948, he bought a house in the ritzy Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The property association reaction: We don’t want undesirables here. Cole: Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain."

In 1956, he was assaulted on stage in Birmingham, Alabama. He never performed in the South again.

In 1957, he had a nationwide television show. It was cancelled after a year — no national advertiser. Cole: “America is afraid of the dark.”

He believed smoking helped his voice, so he smoked three packs of Kools a day. He died of lung cancer.