Nat King Cole / March 17, 1919 - Feb 15, 1965

Some may view Nat King Cole as an apolitical jazz-gone-pop sell-out "Uncle Tom" (as he has been called by some radicals) who moved into the upper-crust white neighborhood and made a bunch of Christmas dreck and soft music. Or you could view him as a major black superstar who had his hand in a number of respectable endeavors with much success. Regardless, it is hard to deny his sweet voice and the immense popularity he found.

A talented pianist, he found that audiences started preferring his vocal numbers more than the instrumentals so he obliged with his smooth baritone. A star on the radio since the late '30s, he signed with Capitol in '43 and became their biggest seller. His trio set-up of piano/guitar/bass became the go-to standard. In the late '40s he started recording with strings. In '48 he took a chance on a composition given to him by a seemingly random Los Angeles street character (the proto-hippy Eden Ahbez), which became the huge hit "Nature Boy".

Still a jazzman at heart, he cut a disk in '51 in a super-trio with Lester Young and Buddy Rich. In '56 he became the first African-American to host a TV show and his first recording session in Cuba in '58 was the first of his albums to be sung in Español. He produced music for radio, stage and screen (even appearing in movies a few times himself).

Despite the criticisms of his middle-of-the-road proclivities, his skin still made him a target of hate as the KKK burned crosses on his front lawn. In 1965, in his birth city of Birmingham, Cole was physically assaulted in an attempted kidnapping (during one of his concerts!) by a white power group. After that incident he never played in the South again. It was then that he visibly joined the civil rights movement. He died of lung cancer at 45. His music covered jazz, classical, rock & roll and even country.

With Rich and Prez:

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