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The Boston Phoenix Unforgettable

Nat King Cole's enduring life story

By Michael Freedberg

FEBRUARY 14, 2000: 

Nat King Cole: A Biography by Daniel Mark Epstein (Farrar Straus Giroux), 438 pages, $27.

Playwright and biographer Daniel Mark Epstein has written a new biography of Nat King Cole, a singer who to many may seem almost too famous to require yet another life history. In his time (roughly 1944, the time of his first hit single, until, 1964, the year before his death), Cole was by far the best-known singer who happened to be black. His music was as ubiquitous as that of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. He was inevitable and has remained so; his daughter Natalie (who became a singer despite herself) never reached so many ears as when she recorded a duet with her father's voice in his aptly titled "Unforgettable."

Not that it was always so for the boy who was born Nathaniel Coles in 1917 in Montgomery, Alabama -- the state Hank Williams Jr., Sun Ra, and Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations also called home. Nat was the son of a minister, the youngest of several children in a home both poor and resourceful, like the millions of homes of most Americans of that era, black or white. But Nat had ears for music, and the music was all around him then. Epstein says it was the best era for black music, and there is much to back him up. Nat was born at a time when Louis Armstrong, Earl "Gatemouth" Hines, Jimmy Noone, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton were all flourishing. It was the springtime of jazz -- and of gospel music, too, though Epstein hardly mentions that side of the black American musical mix.

Cole had ears in particular for Hines's piano playing. Following close behind his brother Eddie (who himself was an important jazz sideman for a time), Nat listened to jazz and to Hines's songs, learning them and the famous Hines stride technique of rhythm playing. By 1935 Cole, at age 18, already had his own local band of Chicago kids with enough of a local following to be booked into the Savoy Ballroom on the same bill with Hines himself.

In one of the most graphic pieces of jazz writing I've ever read, Epstein retells the story of that eventful clash of champion and challenger in exquisite musical detail. And though in the end Hines wins the contest -- just barely -- Cole the kid has made his point and his mark as a jazz cat. Epstein's story makes you want to hear more of Cole the jazz cat -- at a time when Count Basie was just making his rhythm mark, and only a short while before Lionel Hampton and then the bebop boys would break jazz free of all polish and decorum. It does not happen in Epstein's book because it did not happen in Cole's life. Soon thereafter Cole became a singer, a crooner, a "sepia Sinatra." He was no longer the jazz cat; he was now everybody's singer, and more devoted than ever to making music.

Music above all else. Epstein writes of Cole's music-only march through the era of civil-rights protests, racism, and violence. Of how Cole refused to be daunted by racists (even when, on stage in Birmingham, he was assaulted by three Ku Klux Klansmen from rural Alabama -- and protected by all the rest of the city's luminaries); of how he also refused to be drawn into political life. "I'm not a public speaker, I am a singer," he told the men around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Epstein does not belabor the point. After all, Cole had brought the sound of black American song to all corners of white America well before the civil-rights era, and in an important way he made -- for millions of Caucasians -- the American negro seem less a stranger than a friend.

The one racist enemy Cole could not defeat was in the North: Madison Avenue. Epstein writes dramatically of Cole's RCA television show, of how it won top ratings, of how CBS chief David Sarnoff himself became involved in finding it a national sponsor, only to fail. In the late 1950s, no national sponsor would risk alienating part of the South by committing to a show MC'd by a black man.

Finally, Cole had to face personal problems that had nothing to do with race: his womanizing, and throat cancer, which finally killed him at age 44. Almost to the end, Cole's mistress, Gunilla Hutton, fought with his wife, Maria, over who was closest to the dying man's heart. Cole gave peace of mind to millions, but only in death was he able to find peace for himself.

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