Nat King Cole

Film Actor, Pianist, Television Actor, Singer & Television Personality

“Music is emotional, and you may catch a musician in a very unemotional mood or you may not be in the same frame of mind as the musician. So a critic will often say a musician is slipping.”

Nat King Cole became the first African-American performer to host a variety TV series in 1956. He's best known for his soft baritone voice and for singles like “The Christmas Song,” “Mona Lisa“ and “Nature Boy.”

Early Life

Sometimes called the father of soul music, singer Sam Cooke first reached the top of the charts in 1957 with “You Send Me.” A string of pop and R&B hits soon followed, but he actually started out as a gospel performer. Born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he grew up in Chicago as the son of a minister.

Cooke began performing with his family as a child. In his teens, he formed a quintet called the Highway QCs. Cooke modeled his early work after one of his greatest inspirations, the Soul Stirrers, a popular gospel group. Not long after graduating from high school in 1948, he got the chance of a lifetime: being asked to join the Soul Stirrers, which provided him with an opportunity to hone his craft.

Nat King Cole

Career Highlights

After six years with the Soul Stirrers, Cooke began to branch out into secular music. He recorded his first single, 1957's “Lovable,” under the pseudonym “Dale Cooke.” Later that year, Cooke released his first number one hit, “You Send Me.” Music fans loved this ballad so much that it toppled Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” from the top of the charts. Before long he put his crystal-clear, velvet-smooth voice to work on such up-tempo tunes as “Only Sixteen” and “Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha.”

In addition to being a talented singer and songwriter, Cooke had business smarts. He established his own publishing company for his music in 1959 and negotiated an impressive contract with RCA in 1960. Not only did he get a substantial advance, but Cooke would also get ownership of his master recordings after 30 years.

Getting this was a remarkable feat for any recording artist at the time. He continued to be a pioneer behind the scenes, founding his own record label in the early 1960s. Working with other artists on his label, Cooke helped develop the careers of Bobby Womack and Billy Preston, among others.

More hits followed Cooke's move to RCA, including 1960's “Chain Gang.” Behind the song's catchy rhythm mimicking the sound of prisoners breaking rocks, the song also served as a social commentary by Cooke. He continued to win over fans with a variety of musical styles, from the 1960 ballad “Wonderful World” to the 1962 dance track “Twistin’ the Night Away.” In 1963, Cooke once again charted with his ode to loneliness, “Another Saturday Night.”

Nat King Cole

Tragic Death and Legacy

No one knows for certain what exactly happened in the early hours of December 11, 1964. Cooke had been out the night before, reportedly drinking at a Los Angeles bar where he met a woman named Elisa Boyer. The pair hit it off and eventually ended up at the Hacienda Motel.

There the couple had some type of altercation in their room, and Cooke then ended up in the motel's office. He reportedly clashed with the motel's manager, and the manager shot Cooke. Cooke died from his injury, which the manager claimed was inflicted in self-defense. It was later ruled justifiable homicide.

Thousands turned out to mourn the legendary singer. Ray Charles and Lou Rawls sang at his funeral in Los Angeles, and another service was held in his former hometown, Chicago. The year after his death, Cooke's record company released his song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” He wrote this civil rights anthem in response to Bob Dylan's “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was perhaps his most pointedly political song.

No matter the circumstances of his passing, Cooke left behind a tremendous musical legacy. It only takes a listen to recordings of his live shows, such as his 1963 performance at Miami's Harlem Square Club, to recognize his contributions to soul music. And as a pop icon, Cooke has endured through his songs. Otis Redding and Al Green are among the artists who have covered his work. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Quick Facts

Birth Date:
March 17, 1919

Death Date:
February 15, 1965

  • He began formal lessons at the age of 12, learning jazz, gospel, and classical music on piano from Johann Sebastian Bach to Sergei Rachmaninoff.
  • He would sneak out of the house to visit clubs, sitting outside to hear Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone.
  • His first professional experience as a musician came when he was asked to join the jazz style revival show “Shuffle Along.” When the touring show folded in Los Angeles, Cole began working at a night club called the Century Club.
  • At the age of 20, Cole started a jazz trio with two musician friends, Oscar Moore and Wesley Prince. The trio produced a unique sound with the absence of a drummer and was made up of only three instruments, piano, rhythm guitar and bass.
  • Cole’s release of the song “Mong Lisa” in 1950 became his first number 1 hit even though he didn’t care for the song and was opposed to releasing it as a single.
  • Throughout his life, Cole faced adversity and inequality as a black performer in the entertainment industry. When he performed on television, his face was lightened with make-up to reduce the dark color of his skin.
  • Nat King Cole
  • Nat King Cole
  • Nat King Cole


BIO: +
PHOTO: MagnoliaBox + GettyImages + NPR + ManOnPlezent + LATimes

Last Updated

June 2020

Original Published Date

December 2016

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