By: Norman “Otis” Richmond
Saturday, July 06, 1985
While James Haskins and Kathleen Benson’s book “Nat King Cole” purports to be a personal and professional biography of a man as unforgettable as his music, it really points out the racial contradictions in American society.
It also reveals the conflicts that exist between upper-class and lower- class African-Americans. Haskins and Benson vividly describe how Cole triumphed over all these obstacles to become a pop superstar, only to succumb at the age of 45 to lung cancer on Feb. 15, 1965.
Cole was already a legendary figure in the music industry when he died 20 years ago. His rendition of songs such as Unforgettable, Mona Lisa and Nature Boy have sold millions of records and his renditions – in the famous velvet voice – are as familiar today on easy-listening stations as they were when he was alive.
Born Nathaniel Adams Coles (he changed his name in the thirties) in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1919, he was brought up in
Chicago, and made his name as a major jazz pianist by his late teens. It is not mentioned in the book, but Cole and the great Afro-Canadian pianist, Oscar Peterson, reached a friendly “accord” on who would play piano and who would sing. Says Peterson about Cole, “He was always one of my idols. But we used to kibbitz about my singing. He said he’d stop playing the piano as long as I’d stop singing.” Despite the fact that Cole’s vocals ultimately overshadowed his piano playing, he is still considered to have been one of the most influential jazz instrumentalists.
Cole’s career in this regard resembles George Benson’s. While Benson conquered the jazz world with his guitar playing, like Cole he made his fame and fortune as a singer. Cole made the decision to sing because of his sense of responsibility to his family, as well as his own need for acceptance by a wider audience. Ironically, Cole’s success prevented him from enjoying the family life that he had sacrificed his instrumental career to build.
Haskins and Benson capture the complexities of Cole as a black pop star in racist America. He experienced racism in Chicago and in Alabama. He watched as fear of Southern opinion kept Madison Avenue from sponsoring his television show. From the fall of 1956 until December, 1957, NBC aired the show without a sponsor, hoping that his performance on television would attract advertisers. After the demise of the show, Cole didn’t blame show business, he blamed advertisers.
“Sponsors don’t have any guts,” he said. “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” Cole was physically attacked by a group of white racists while performing on stage in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1956. “Onstage, Cole had been introduced as the starring act,” write Haskins and Benson, “and was launching into his third song, Little Girl, when suddenly four men rushed the stage. A woman screamed, but Cole, blinded by the bright lights, could see nothing. Then a microphone hit him in the face, and he fell backward over his piano bench.” Before leaving Birmingham, Cole told reporters that he was not “mad with anyone” in the South.
Geri Branton, a friend who knew Cole for 20 years, was furious with him. His statement to reporters that he was not “mad with anyone” in the South rankled her. “You’re not mad with anyone,” she said. “I’m mad with you.” She wasn’t alone. Many blacks in show business felt that Cole should not have performed for segregated audiences in the first place (Cole had agreed to do one show for whites and another for blacks). Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel for the NAACP, remarked that all Cole needed to complete his role as an Uncle Tom was a banjo.
While Cole had problems with racism, he also suffered at the hands of other blacks. Some black Chicagoans, especially the self-styled professionals, looked down on the poor and unschooled black migrants from the South. Cole had his experiences with the black bourgeoisie in Chicago. He told a friend, “Once in Chicago, I sat down on a bus next to this light-skinned lady, and she turned to me and said, ‘You are black and you stink, and you can never wash it off.’ ”
Though Cole was profoundly saddened by life, he never grew embittered. And despite the “Uncle Tom” label, he supported Lena Horne and Paul Robeson during the McCarthy era, when Horne was blacklisted and Robeson was denied a passport and forced to become an expatriate for eight years. “He was always loyal to Paul Robeson,” says Geri Branton. “Unlike many people, he remained friendly and kind to him. He went out of his way to visit Paul in a clinic in England.”
Norman Richmond is president of the Black Music Association, Toronto Chapter.