A so-called “biopic” of the blues composer W.C. Handy’s life, this 1958 movie was Cole’s only role as a leading man, and it also included Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, and Eartha Kitt in its all-black cast, along with the underrated Juano Hernandez (who had portrayed the trumpeter Art Hazard in the 1950 jazz film Young Man With a Horn) as Handy’s father. Coming on the heels of Cole’s legendary but unsponsored and ultimately cancelled TV show, this film went out with high hopes on the part of its makers and stars, but it failed at the box office and is rarely mentioned in media accounts of Cole’s career. We’ll hear selections from the soundtrack album that Cole recorded with arranger Nelson Riddle, as well as music from Kitt and Ella Fitzgerald, who makes a brief appearance as herself late in the movie.
Mahalia Jackson appeared in the movie as Bessie May. Here she is with Cole on his TV show performing “Steal Away,” which she also sang in the film itself:
W.C. Handy was portrayed in the movie as a child by the young Billy Preston. Watch Preston and Nat King Cole performing together on Nat’s TV show: