In the traditional pop market, Nat King Cole is best known for major pop hits like "Mona Lisa", "Unforgettable," "Too Young" and "Walkin' My Baby Back Home". But Cole's roots were straightahead jazz, and before he was a pop superstar, he was a swing-oriented singer/pianist who had an improvising group that was billed as the Nat King Cole Trio. One thing that made the combo unique was the absence of a drummer; while about 98% of the small swing groups that were active in the '30s and '40s had full-time drummers, the Cole Trio only used piano, guitar and acoustic bass. Whether Cole was singing or favoring an instrumental approach, that piano/guitar/bass format was unique--and if the Nat King Cole Trio did work with a drummer, he was strictly a guest.
Born Nathaniel Adams Cole Montgomery, AL on March 17, 1917 but raised in Chicago, Cole came from a very musical family--three of his brothers (Freddy, Eddie and Isaac Cole) were also jazz musicians, and of course, his daughter Natalie Cole (b. Feb. 6, 1950, Los Angeles, CA) became an R&B/pop superstar about ten years after his death. It was in 1936 that Nat King Cole first played piano and recorded with his siblings in a Chicago-based group that was billed as Eddie Cole's Solid Swingers. Nat King Cole was really the group's leader, but it was named after Eddie Cole because he was better known in Chicago at the time. Then, in 1937, Nat King Cole (who was heavily influenced by Earl "Fatha" Hines) ended up in Los Angeles (where he spent the rest of his life) and formed the original lineup of the Nat King Cole Trio, which employed Oscar Moore (b. Dec. 25, 1912, Austin, TX, d. Oct. 8, 1981, Las Vegas, NV) on guitar and Wesley Prince (b. April 8, 1907) on upright bass. Moore started out on acoustic guitar, but he plugged in and took up the electric guitar after hearing the seminal Charlie Christian. Playing the Hollywood club circuit as well as the famous Central Avenue scene in South-Central L.A., the Cole Trio acquired a small local following in the late '30s and recorded a lot of radio transcriptions. Those transcriptions were broadcast nationally on NBC Radio, and in 1939, the Cole Trio was receiving enough attention to embark on its first tour of the East Coast and the Midwest--in New York, Cole, Moore and Prince backed singer Billie Holiday on one of her Manhattan gigs.
Commercially, the Cole Trio continued to make progress in 1940, when the group had an extended engagement at a Hollywood club called the Radio Room, backed Lionel Hampton on some 78s and signed with Decca. That year, the Cole Trio made its first commercially available recording of "Sweet Lorraine," which featured Cole on lead vocals and became the group's first hit as well as the group's theme on radio. Amazingly, Cole was not fond of singing lead at the time--he considered himself a pianist first and foremost, and many of the Cole Trio's late '30s transcriptions were either instrumentals or group vocals. But when he realized that there was a demand for his lead vocals, Cole gave the people what they wanted and did more and more lead singing.
In 1941, things seemed to be moving right along for the Nat King Cole Trio. In addition to having a deal with Decca, the group was getting quite a few gigs in New York. But some historic events adversely affected the Trio and the recording industry in general. After Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II. That meant rationing, and one of the things that had to be rationed was shellac--which was an important ingredient of 78s. Between the rationing of shellac and the American Federation of Musicians' infamous recording ban, 1942 was a rough year for the recording industry--and Decca ended up dropping the Cole Trio. It was also in 1942 that Prince was drafted into the U.S. military, which illustrated the mind-boggling contradictions of racism--Prince, an African-American, was willing to serve his country and do his part to protect the U.S. from fascist aggressors but was still considered a second-class citizen under the racist jim crow laws of the Deep South. He was good enough to fight in Germany or the Pacific, but he was still required to go to the back of the bus if he decided to use public transportation in many parts of the South.
But the blows that the Cole Trio was dealt in 1942 certainly weren't fatal blows. Prince was temporarily replaced by Red Callender, and the Cole Trio recorded a few 78s for the independent, L.A.-based Excelsior label. When Callender left the Trio in November 1942, he was replaced by Johnny Miller (b. 1915, d. 1988). After recording some 78s for Premier Records (another small indie label), the Cole/Moore/Miller edition of the group signed with Capitol in 1943--and it was at Capitol that the threesome enjoyed its greatest commercial success. Moore (whose brother was Johnny Moore of the Three Blazers) stayed with the group until 1947, when he was replaced by Irving Ashby (b. Dec. 29, 1920, Somerville, MA, d. Apr. 22, 1987, Perris, CA).
During its 1943-1949 period, the Cole Trio had its share of major hits, which included "It's Only a Paper Moon," "I Love You for Sentimental Reasons" (a #1 pop hit on Billboard's pop singles chart in 1946), "I'm a Shy Guy," "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and "The Frim Fram Sauce". Another big Cole Trio hit from that period was "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You," which spent four week at #1 in Billboard in 1944. And the Trio's famous 1946 recording of Bobby Troupe's "Route 66" not only became a #11 pop/#3 R&B hit in Billboard--it was also loved by the Rolling Stones, who covered the tune in the '60s. The Trio's recordings were not only commercially successful--they were also extremely influential. Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Shirley Horn, Red Garland, Tommy Flanagan, Gene Harris and Diana Krall are among the numerous artists who have been influenced by the Cole Trio over the years.
But as commercially successful as the Cole Trio was in the '40s, Capitol had even bigger plans for Nat King Cole--bigger from a pop standpoint anyway. By the end of the '40s, Capitol was starting to envision Cole as a jazz-influenced pop singer instead of an improvising jazz singer/pianist. Capitol was doing extremely well with traditional jazz-influenced pop singers like Peggy Lee and Jo Stafford, and the company saw no reason why Cole couldn't be just as big in the pop market. There were certain '40s recordings that made Capitol feel that way--lavish pop recordings that he recorded apart from the Trio. One was his 1948 version of Eden Ahbez's haunting "Nature Boy," which soared to #1 on Billboard's pop singles chart. Another was Cole's 1946 recording of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song," a #3 pop hit in Billboard. Both of those smashes were jazz-influenced, but neither was jazz--and both predicted what was to come in the '50s and early '60s. From 1950 on, Cole was primarily a pop singer--he didn't abandon jazz altogether, but he did make pop his main focus. After phasing out the Nat King Cole Trio, he did little improvising and was backed by lavish pop orchestras (including arranger Nelson Riddle's band). And that is the Nat King Cole that pop fans know best--the crooner who took Billboard's pop singles chart by storm thanks to smashes like "Mona Lisa" (a #1 hit in 1950), "Too Young" (a #1 hit in 1951), "Unforgettable", "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" and "Pretend". In the '50s, Cole was so famous for his pop singing that many pop fans didn't know he played piano. But jazz fans knew, and many of them criticized him for placing jazz on the back
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