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Nat King Cole: Quiet Hero or Silent Bystander of The Civil Rights Movement?


Nat King Cole smiling and pointing at the camera

Nat King Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919. He was taught how to play the piano by his mom, who was a church choir director, around the age of four. He grew up in Chicago and was an organ player and singer in his father’s church. Although he learned how to play classical music, he decided to pursue his passion for jazz.



How Did Nat King Cole Become Popular?

Nat would sneak out of the house to go to jazz clubs, where he heard famous artists such as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hies. He dropped out of high school at age 15 to become a jazz pianist. His brother Eddie played with him, and eventually, he landed a spot as a pianist for "Shuffle Along," a national black musical revue. When that was over, he formed the King Cole Trio, where his name "Nat King Cole" originated from.

a photo of nat king cole's band, the King Cole Trio

One day, Nat was asked to sing by a drunk customer. Initially, he responded by saying that he and his band don’t sing. However, the manager told him that said customer was a "big spender." So Nat agreed to sing, and that’s how his career went from piano to singing; all of this is according to legend, though.

What is known is that they played in jazz clubs in Los Angeles and finally got on the charts in 1943 with "That Ain’t Right." In the 1950s, his singing career began to take off, and he began to work with other famous musicians of the era, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.



Nat King Cole and The Civil Rights Movement

nat king cole plays the piano on the nat king cole show
The Nat King Cole Show

Nat King Cole had a little bit of an acting career too. He appeared in several small parts in the 1940s and 1950s but eventually worked his way up to bigger productions in the 1960s. He was even one of the first black men to have a TV show: "The Nat King Cole Show." However, it succumbed to bigotry and racism and was canceled after one season.


martin luther king jr leads a march of the civil rights movements

When the Civil Rights Movement began to take off, Nat had trouble finding a place in the movement for him. Although he encountered racism and was even attacked in Alabama, he maintained the fact that he was a performer. This sparked a lot of criticism from the black community.

But despite not being a major civil rights advocate, Nat King Cole still suffered racist attacks. When he moved into a white-only neighborhood in Los Angeles, the neighbors began to complain about not wanting "undesirables" in the neighborhood. Nat cleverly responded by saying,

"Neither do I, and if I see any undesirables coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain."

The neighbors responded by shooting a gun at their house and killing their dog. However, they defiantly stayed in the neighborhood.

nat king coles house today

You can read more about Nat King Cole's Neighborhood Here


Another time, Nat was performing in Birmingham, Alabama, when he was attacked on stage. Mid-song, a handful of men rushed the stage and forced Nat to the ground. When plainclothes cops tried to stop them, regular cops confused them for more attackers. After he had gone backstage to recover, Nat returned to the stage and said,

"I just came here to entertain you," Cole explained. "I thought that was what you wanted. I was born here. Those folks have hurt my back. I cannot continue because I have to go to a doctor."

Nat King Cole was always a heavy smoker. He would smoke as much as three packs a day. In 1964, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Later, he gave an interview in which he said, "I am feeling better than ever. I think I've finally got this cancer licked." He died the next day, on February 15, 1965.



 

young nat king cole

Nat King Cole’s Legacy

capitol records building, the house that nat built