By Ron Rodman
Nathanial Adams Coles was born in 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama. He first learned to play piano around the age of four with help from his mother, a church choir director, and by his early teens, was studying classical piano. He was drawn to the music of jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, and eventually abandoned classical for jazz, which became his lifelong passion. At 15, he dropped out of school to become a jazz pianist full-time, and developed an act with his brother Eddie for a time, which led to his first professional recordings in 1936. He later joined a national tour for the musical revue Shuffle Along, performing as a pianist.
In this blog last month, I wrote about Dr. Billy Taylor and his pioneering work on television as an advocate for jazz. To celebrate Black History Month, it is appropriate to mention another African American musician who was a pioneer on American television: Nat King Cole, jazz pianist and vocalist, was the first African American musician to host a nationally-broadcast musical variety show in the history of television.
In 1937, Cole started to put together what would become the “King Cole Trio,” the name being a play on the children’s nursery rhyme. As part of the trio, Cole expanded his own role in the group, both playing jazz piano and singing with his rich, velvety baritone voice. The trio toured extensively and finally landed on the charts in 1943 with Cole’s song, “That Ain’t Right.” His first big hit the following year was “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” a song reportedly inspired by one of his father’s sermons. The trio continued its rise to the top with such pop hits as the holiday classic “The Christmas Song” and the ballad “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.”
By the 1950s, Nat King Cole emerged as a popular solo performer. He scored numerous hits, with such songs as “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young, ” and “Unforgettable.” He worked with many of the greatest jazz artists in the country, like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, arranger Nelson Riddle, and others.
However, the 1950s was a difficult decade for African American entertainers. In his performances around the country, Cole had encountered racism firsthand, especially while touring in the South. He had been attacked by white supremacists during a mixed race performance in Alabama. Yet, he was also criticized by other African Americans for his less-than-supportive comments about racial integration, and for performances for segregated audiences. Cole considered himself an entertainer and not an activist, and often sought to assimilate with white audiences.
1956 proved to be a pivotal year for Nat King Cole, and he was to become not just an entertainer, but also a pioneer for equal rights. By the mid-1950s, he had achieved status as a mainstream performer and sought to pursue this career as other stars had done — to produce and star in his own television show. His bid for a TV show brought with it a sense of mission. “It could be a turning point,” he realized, “so that Negroes may be featured regularly on television.” Cole realized the stakes were high, and said, “If I try to make a big thing out of being the first and stir up a lot of talk, it might work adversely.” Cole and his agents negotiated with CBS for a show, but his own program never materialized. Cole’s manager then tried NBC, and they successfully reached an agreement for The Nat “King” Cole Show.
The Nat “King” Cole Show debuted on 5 November 1956. The show aired without a sponsor, but NBC agreed to pay for initial production costs; the network assumed that once the show actually aired and advertisers were able to see its sophistication, a national sponsor would emerge. Cole exuded his benign, soft-spoken persona on the set, chatting with the TV audience and singing Broadway and Tin Pan Alley tunes. But the show was innovative in that it also featured Cole in his original role as a jazz pianist, playing and singing with jazz notables such as Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. Cole also used his connections to bring other high caliber musicians to the show, many of whom voluntarily appeared with minimal compensation. Some of these included Harry Belafonte, Mel Tormé, Frankie Laine, and Peggy Lee (shown below).
Despite the high musical quality of the show, the race barrier seemed too much for the predominantly white TV audience of the 1950s to overcome. Many national companies balked at sponsorship, as they did not want to upset their white customers in the South who did not want to see a black man on TV shown in anything other than a subservient position. Although NBC agreed to fund the show until a sponsor could be found, Cole decided to cancel the show himself in its second season, disappointed with ratings and lack of sponsorship. Cole was quoted as saying of the doomed series, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” The last show was aired on 17 December 1957. After he cancelled his show, Nat King Cole continued to appear on other TV shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Garry Moore Show, and others.
Though short lived, The Nat “King” Cole Show paved the way for other black entertainers to find their way to television in the next decade. 1967 witnessed the premier of The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show on NBC, as a mid-season replacement that ran for 15 episodes.
In 1969, singer Leslie Uggams, hosted The Leslie Uggams Show, a musical comedy variety series that aired on CBS for one season in 1969.
Unfortunately, American audiences still seemed uncomfortable with TV shows hosted by sophisticated black musicians, and it finally took a comedian — Flip Wilson — to host a successful show, The Flip Wilson Show, which ran for four seasons on NBC from 1970-1974.
Ron Rodman is Dye Family Professor of Music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is the author of Tuning In: American Television Music, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Read his previous blog posts on music and television.
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Image credit: Publicity photo from the premiere of The Nat King Cole Show. NBC Television. Via Wikimedia Commons.