Born 100 years ago yesterday, Nat King Cole was one of the most popular and influential entertainers of the 20th century. As an African American ballad singer and jazz musician, he topped the charts year after year, sold more than 50 million records, pushed jazz piano in a new direction and paved the way for later generations of performers.
"Nat King Cole's voice is really one of the great gifts of nature," Daniel Mark Epstein, author of the 1999 biography Nat King Cole, says. "Remember, he was never trained as a singer. And so, his voice is absolutely pure. He's a baritone with absolutely perfect pitch. He sings the notes true and he hits them right in the center."
Born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Ala., on March 17, 1919, the child prodigy was later raised in Chicago. Cole's mother taught the him to play the piano when he was four, and at 15, he dropped out of high school to lead his own bands. His first recordings show the influence of his idol, Earl Hines.
By the time he was 18, Cole was married, living in Los Angeles and fronting a nightclub act with a name that riffed on a nursery rhyme — the King Cole Trio — featuring guitar, bass and piano, but not a lot of vocals.
The King Cole Trio had a huge influence, inspiring other jazz musicians like Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal to form similar trios. Epstein says if Cole had never crooned a note, he would still be an important figure in jazz.
"He really is, I would say, one of our top five greatest and most influential jazz pianists," Epstein says.
Johnny Mathis, the 83-year-old balladeer who grew up listening to Cole as his father's favorite singer in the 1940s, later met and became friends with him after moving to Beverly Hills in 1958.
"Nat King Cole was the God of popular music in our house," Mathis says with a laugh. "That is the way that I fell in love with his music, is through his piano playing, then of course, I occasionally listened to him singing — that wasn't too bad either."
The Nat King Cole Trio had one hit after another, and its leader became wildly popular. In 1946, the King Cole Trio landed a national radio show – the first of its kind to be hosted by an African-American musician. Soon, Cole began to play less jazz and sing more ballads .