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Unforgettable

Singing great Nat King Cole confronted racism throughout his career, but he left behind an unrivaled musical legacy, including many memorable television appearances.

Will Friedwald
  • Photofest
  • Nat King Cole...        

    Photofest
  • ...with Harry Belafonte...

    NBC/Photofest
  • ...with Frank Sinatra...   

    Photofest
  • ...on The Hollywood Palace.

    ABC/Photofest

Nat King Cole's television debut — on June 1, 1948, on the premiere episode of CBS's We the People — could, in retrospect, be considered one of talk TV's earliest plugs.

Just two months earlier, Capitol Records had released Cole's biggest hit to date, "Nature Boy."

Cole had enjoyed hit records before, such as "The Christmas Song" and "For Sentimental Reasons"; the latter was the first number-one pop hit by an African-American solo vocalist. But "Nature Boy" became such a blockbuster — selling some 2 million records in two months — that CBS flew him into New York from Chicago, where he was playing a club called The Rag Doll.

"Nature Boy" not only brought Cole to TV for the first time, it did more than any other song to change the course of his career, transforming him from a jazz pianist to a popular vocalist. In both categories, he was one of the all-time giants.

You could say that Cole was the Jackie Robinson of music: the first black performer to become a chart-topping superstar, and the first to be accepted by "mainstream" (read "white") audiences when he sang straight-ahead love songs. As his contemporary Billy Eckstine said, "They weren't ready for black singers singing love songs. It sounds ridiculous, but it's true. We weren't supposed to sing about love."

Born in 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, and raised in Chicago, Cole started his career as a jazz piano player, and he was one of the greatest. Then he led one of the most successful groups ever (his famous King Cole Trio) before becoming a singer.

He dominated the hit singles charts for 20 years, selling more records in his day than anyone short of Elvis Presley. Yet it was his musical prowess — that matchless timing, perfect intonation and crystal-clear articulation — that commanded the kind of peer respect accorded such colleagues as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

An imposing visual presence, Cole was, as they used to say, tall, dark and handsome (very much all three). Yet because of racism, his onscreen career never took off. His movie work was sporadic, with only one legitimate starring role to his credit.

Though he was denied a long-running variety show (like those hosted by such peers as Dinah Shore and Perry Como), his television work was rich and varied. Live TV performances survive of virtually all his signature songs, and his work in the medium forms a very important part of his legacy.

The Toast of the Town/The Ed Sullivan Show (1949–58)

As noted, Cole made his first appearance on the new medium on that debut episode of We the People. He gave his most enduring and meaningful TV performances, however, on another CBS show, the long-running Sunday-night variety series hosted by Ed Sullivan — originally titled Toast of the Town.

Sullivan first introduced Cole, then leading the celebrated King Cole Trio, to his viewers on March 27, 1949, and for the next 10 years that program offered a wonderful venue for the artist to promote his latest recordings to a vast audience.

Unfortunately, in 1961, the two men had a sharp argument over a song that Cole wanted to perform, and they wound up not speaking to each other again. He appeared on shows that were regarded as Sullivan's rivals, including The Jack Paar Program on NBC and The Hollywood Palace on ABC. In one of his final interviews, given in the hospital as he was being treated (to no avail) for lung cancer, Cole said he regretted the falling out and wished he and Sullivan could work together again.

The Snader Telescriptions (1950-51)

The Snader "telescriptions" are a fascinating experiment from the dawn of video.

Veteran jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden came up with the idea that TV could be a visual version of radio, with top-drawer recording artists performing their big numbers in pre-filmed shorts of roughly three minutes each. Yes, that's exactly the same idea that drove MTV 30 years later, but the telescriptions are much more valuable as musical and cultural history, because the artists are singing live, not lip-syncing to recordings.

Teagarden gave his idea to California entrepreneur Lou Snader, whose telescriptions remain noteworthy to this day for their musical diversity. They not only included contemporary pop stars, but jazz, country and virtually everything else.

The company created 400 titles in its first 10 months, most of them produced and directed by Duke Goldstone, who would later direct The Liberace Show and other programs. Snader distributed the films to local TV stations on a subscription basis.

Cole filmed roughly 15 songs for Snader, some in full color. The clips — which capture his great trio of those years: guitarist Irving Ashby, bassist Joe Comfort and Afro-Cuban percussionist Joe Costanzo — are priceless footage of one of the all-time great jazz groups in action.

The Nat King Cole Show (1956–57)

In 1946, NBC Radio anointed Cole as the first African-American headliner to star in and host his own long-running weekly radio series: King Cole Trio Time, sponsored by Wildroot Cream Oil (a hair tonic advertised to white men), ran for 18 months. There was every reason to hope that when NBC gave Cole the same honor 10 years later on television, the show would be a success.

The Nat King Cole Show started spectacularly, scoring top ratings and excellent reviews and coverage, but alas, it ended ingloriously.

The problem was not with Cole, an affable and gracious host who performed at the top of his musical game week after week. Nor was it with the network: NBC stuck with Cole faithfully, despite other problems. Nor could you blame the talent: Cole lined up a dazzling array of guest stars, like Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee and Harry Belafonte, all of whom worked for union scale.

The problem was the sponsors, or lack thereof. Despite the show's high ratings, no major brand — except Rheingold Beer, and even that only advertised on a regional basis — wanted to be associated with a black entertainer.

But Cole could have made much more touring, so in effect, doing the TV show cost him money. He finally gave up and went back to making personal appearances, particularly in Las Vegas, where he was the highest-paid entertainer up to that time. Later, discussing the TV show was about the only time Cole allowed himself to sound bitter in public. His much-quoted observation was, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."

Comedians' Variety Shows

Cole got a sort of payback by appearing on other stars' variety shows and demanding top-dollar fees from sponsors. (Even well before his NBC series, he was able to command $2,000 for a few songs on Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar.)

In the 1950s, there were two kinds of hosts for TV variety programs — comedians and singers — and Cole shared the stage with plenty of both.

He appeared on variety shows hosted by funnymen Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Garry Moore, Red Skelton and George Gobel. On Texaco Star Theater in 1951, he dressed as a newsboy in a sketch opposite Milton Berle, who played a garbageman. On The Garry Moore Show in 1961, he did a lavish piano-and-vocal version of his classic "Autumn Leaves," complete with a full dance company.

On The Danny Kaye Show for Christmas 1963, he illustrated how "Jingle Bells" is sung in the different nations and cultures of the world. His January 1964 appearance on The Jack Benny Program was particularly inspiring and touching, in part because Benny would be the chief speaker at Cole's funeral just a year or so later.

Singers' Variety Shows

The 1950s were great years for weekly programs hosted by star recording artists. Cole appeared on variety shows hosted by Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Patti Page and Pat Boone. They appreciated his musical gifts, because they knew better than anyone that what he did was far from as easy as he made it look.

Como and Shore, perhaps the most successful singing hosts in TV history (on The Kraft Music Hall and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, respectively), were especially forthcoming with Cole; they seem to have always gone out of their way to make sure he was well presented. Cole would usually sing one or two solos and a duet — often a medley with the host.

On a New Year's show with Shore in 1961, for instance, Cole first broke hearts with a moving saloon song titled "Where Did Everyone Go?" and then joined the hostess for a rousing medley of traditional gospel songs.

Foreign Television

More than most of his contemporaries, Cole spent a great deal of time touring the world, and he recorded a classic series of three albums for Spanish-speaking markets, starting with Cole Español in 1958.

Overseas, he could escape the institutionalized racism that had dogged him throughout his career. (As late as 1960, Cole was barred from performing at San Francisco's Masonic Temple; the venue manager claimed he attracted the wrong "class of people" — even though Cole was himself a Mason.) Outside the U.S., however, he had no shortage of offers to play the biggest, most prestigious halls, and to star in and host his own specials.

The wonderful concert programs from both Tokyo (1961) and London (1960 and 1963) amount to the most fully realized documents of his live performances. He also appeared on Italian, Australian and even Filipino TV. Cole's most ambitious project, however, was Wild Is Love, an all-original musical story that he starred in and produced for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1960.

But home-grown racism kept catching up with him: Nat's son Kelly said his father had a hard time selling the show to an American network because of a scene in which Cole and the white Broadway actor Larry Kert share a friendly embrace.

And More…

Between 1948 and 1964, Cole appeared on all kinds of shows. In 1951, he and his wife Maria guested on a game show–variety show hybrid called Star of the Family, for which they performed "Walkin' My Baby Back Home." In 1960, he and Steve Allen played a two-piano duet on one of his signature songs, "It's Only a Paper Moon," on Allen's very popular Sunday night NBC series. In 1959,

Cole guested on the premiere episode of his friend Hugh Hefner's Playboy's Penthouse. In an era when African Americans were only grudgingly allowed to sing on talk shows and never to "panel" with the white guests, Hefner insisted on treating Cole as an equal, which yielded a fascinating chat session with the King.

The last show Cole hosted was The Hollywood Palace, during the week of his final birthday, in March 1964. He sang folk songs and spirituals, as well as his own classics like "Day In, Day Out." He also offered the greatest live version of the song that would, with vocals added by daughter Natalie, spearhead the Nat King Cole revival 30 years after his death: "Unforgettable."

Cole's last TV appearance was probably on The Jack Paar Program on November 13, 1964, just weeks before he entered the hospital with lung cancer. He sang a newer recording prophetically titled, "I Don't Want to See Tomorrow." Introducing him, Paar riffed on the show business adage that great performers know how to "sell" a song. He noted that Cole doesn't exactly "sell" anyone a song. Instead, Paar said, "He makes a gift of it to you."


Thanks to research associate Jordan Taylor and to Jane Klain at The Paley Center for Media in New York.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2018