Nat King Cole was an American jazz musician, singer and actor. He broke racial barriers through entertainment on account of his charisma and one-of-a-kind crooning. For more than two decades, Cole serenaded Black and white America at a time when the nation was more divided than ever. Before he died on Feb. 15, 1965, Cole made history in 1956 by becoming the first Black performer to host a TV series.
Born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, by his mother, a church choir director, Cole learned to play the piano at the age of four. Cole continued to hone his craft playing classical piano until his early teens, when he fell in love with jazz. By the age of 15, he dropped out of school and became a full-time jazz pianist -- laying the foundation for a professional career bigger than other artists of his time.
By 1950, he was a major pop vocalist with numerous hit songs such as "Nature Boy," "Mona Lisa," "Too Young" and "Unforgettable.” However, despite his great music, Cole was attacked by whites and abandoned by Blacks that felt he did not take a strong enough stance during the civil rights movement.
Cole’s career would recover by the mid 1950s. His year-long TV series, The Nat King Cole Show, which first aired in 1956, featured many of the leading performers of the day, including Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr.
Cole made his last appearance on the pop charts in 1964, with “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer." In 1964, he also discovered that he had lung cancer.
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(Photo: NBCU Photo Bank)