Nathaniel Adams Coles (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965), known professionally as Nat King Cole, was an American musician who first came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist. Although an accomplished pianist, he owes most of his popular musical fame to his soft baritone voice, which he used to perform in big band and jazz genres. He was one of the first black Americans to host a television variety show, and has maintained worldwide popularity since his untimely death. He is widely considered one of the most important musical personalities in United States history.
His career started primarily as a piano player in a Jazz trio. This continued throughout the late 1930s. Cole was considered a leading jazz pianist, appearing, for example, in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. Cole frequently sang in between instrumental numbers. Noticing that people started to request more vocal numbers, he obliged.
Cole's first mainstream vocal hit was his 1943 recording of one of his compositions, "Straighten Up and Fly Right," based on a black folk tale that his father had used as a theme for a sermon. Johnny Mercer invited him to record it for the fledgling Capitol Records label. It sold over 500,000 copies. Although Cole would never be considered a rocker, the song can be seen as anticipating the first rock and roll records.
Beginning in the late 1940s, Cole began recording and performing more pop-oriented material for mainstream audiences, often accompanied by a string orchestra. His stature as a popular icon was cemented during this period by hits such as "The Christmas Song," "Nature Boy" (1948), "Mona Lisa" (1950), "Too Young" (the #1 song in 1951), and his signature tune "Unforgettable" (1951).
While this shift to pop music led some jazz critics and fans to accuse Cole of selling out, he never totally abandoned his jazz roots. As late as 1956, for instance, he recorded an all-jazz album “After Midnight.” Cole had one of his last big hits in 1963, two years before his death, with the classic "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer", which reached #6 on the Pop chart.
On November 5, 1956, “The Nat King Cole Show” debuted on NBC-TV. The Cole program was the first of its kind hosted by an African-American, which created controversy at the time.
Throughout the 1950s, Cole continued to rack up hit after hit, including "Smile," "Pretend," "A Blossom Fell" and "If I May". In 1955, his single "Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup" reached #7 on the Billboard chart. His release “Love Is the Thing” hit #1 on the album charts in April 1957.
Cole was inducted into both the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1990, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1997 was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. In 2007, he was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
In the summer of 1991, Natalie Cole and her father had a hit when Natalie mixed her own voice with her father's 1961 rendition of "Unforgettable" as part of a tribute album to her father's music. The song and album of the same name won seven Grammy awards in 1992.