Before he became the “Unforgettable” star of both music and television, Nat King Cole was just a work-a-day pianist in Los Angeles, trying desperately to secure his next gig. This week, in honor of Cole’s centennial on March 17th, I’ll chronicle his rise to stardom throughout the 1940s, beginning with his work with The King Cole Trio on the Decca label, and moving through his success with Capitol Records, recording such hits as “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Nature Boy.”
The Trio Forms in L.A.
While Nat King Cole grew up in Chicago, his musical story really begins in Los Angeles. Cole and his wife at the time Nadine traveled from Chicago to L.A. in 1937, when he was performing as part of the traveling Shuffle Along variety show. Within the month, the show ran out of funds, so the Coles (with little money and the promise of a much nicer climate) decided to stay in the Golden State.
After gigging around as a pianist for years in seedy nightclubs, he finally settled on trio that could fit on any size stage: himself, guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince. When Cole began his trio in the late 1930s, they were mostly an instrumental ensemble. Cole’s piano style was unique: punchy, spare, articulate. Oscar Peterson, one of Cole’s biggest admirers, once said in an interview on the Dick Cavett show that Cole’s piano playing had the quality of human speech. Of course, Cole had his own influences too, notably the great Earl Hines, whose music he often performed.
By the time 1940 hit, the trio had developed a reputation as one of the tightest ensembles, known especially for their excellent sense of rhythm. They had recorded several discs solely for radio play (known as “transcriptions”) and a few other sides for smaller labels. But their first commercial recordings for a major label came with Decca in December of 1940.
Their first two vocal sides were “Sweet Lorraine” and their novelty wartime number “Gone With The Draft.” Having grown up with a lisp, Cole was a reluctant singer. The story goes that one night in the late 1930s at one of the many seedy bars where the King Cole Trio was playing, a drunk patron asked him to sing the lyrics to “Sweet Lorraine.” Nat King Cole the singer was born. “Gone With The Draft,” a light-hearted approach to the fears of war from 1940, was co-written by Cole and his trio bassist Wesley Prince. Ironically, two years later, Prince would have to leave the King Cole Trio because he was drafted.
The Trio Hits the Road
The several Decca recordings The King Cole Trio made at the end of 1940 were being given major airtime in California, and this allowed them to begin a small tour around the United States in 1941, hitting Cole’s hometown of Chicago, as well as New York City. While on the road, the trio was able to record songs in both of those cities, including the single “Slow Down,” recorded in Chicago in March, and “This Will Make You Laugh,” recorded in New York City in July.
1942 saw lots of touring and performing for Cole, including a session with saxophonist Lester Young, produced by Norman Granz, but very little recording. This was due to a musician strike and subsequent recording ban that year. The King Cole Trio did record two minor hits that year for the little known Excelsior label: “All For You” and “Vom Vim Veedle.” “All For You” was a race record that became a number 1 hit for Cole that year.
The Move to Capitol
1942 was also the year that Capitol Records was founded, in part by the songwriter and performer Johnny Mercer, and the promising King Cole Trio (with Johnny Miller replacing Wesley Prince on bass) was quickly signed. As an upstart label looking for fresh talent, they didn’t have all of the qualms of signing black artists that older companies like Victor or Columbia had.
The trio didn’t record together for Capitol until November of 1943, when the recording ban was lifted, but that first recording session made them superstars, even though the song they wrote for it, “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” didn’t make them much money. Cole composed “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” based on an old folktale, while on tour in Omaha in 1943. Needing to make a quick buck, he sold the tune for a flat fee of $50 to Duke Ellington’s publisher Irving Mills. When the song became a massive hit, Mills made a fortune, while Cole was left with only that initial 50 dollars.
Although, he had many more hits for Capitol Records on the horizon. In the forties, Cole became a major player at Capitol: “Straighten Up and Fly Right” was a top ten single in 1944, the King Cole Trio was voted as the best small combo in Down Beat magazine for four out of the next five years, and the trio would continue to churn out hits for Capitol, including “The Frim Fram Sauce,” “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” and the song “Save the Bones for Henry Jones” in 1947 with Capitol chairman himself Mr. Johnny Mercer .
Jazz Star to Pop Star
In the middle part of the decade, Cole was being groomed at Capitol as a pop recording artist, but that didn’t stop him from performing live as a jazz musician. Having worked with producer Norman Granz in 1942 in a concert with Lester Young, Cole was chosen to play piano in Granz’s very first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert event in L.A. in 1944. He would play in a few other events like this throughout the decade.
In September of 1946, he and the trio made a series of appearances at the Circle Room in Milwaukee. These were initially broadcast over the radio, and over 50 years later, released on CD by Capitol Records. These recordings showcase just what made the trio so attractive. Cole, bassist Johnny Miller, and guitarist Oscar Moore seemed to share the same brain. They could swing as hard as anyone else, and the whole thing was capped off with Cole’s effortlessly laid-back baritone.
The next few years saw big changes in Cole’s life. He began hosting a weekly radio show for NBC, even filling in as a summertime replacement for Bing Crosby on his Kraft Music Hall radio show. By 1948, he would be divorced, and then remarried to Marie Ellington, a singer in Duke Ellington’s band (although of no relation to Duke). The newly married couple would experience racism firsthand when they tried to move into an all-white neighborhood in L.A. Plus in 1947, guitarist Oscar Moore, who had been with Cole since the late 1930s, would end up leaving the trio, paving the way for Cole to branch out on his own as a true solo artist and singer.
After Cole’s success with a string-laden arrangement of Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” in the winter of 1946, Capitol began to market Cole as a pop crooner, adding strings to his arrangements. His next two hits were both unknown songs, but Cole’s performances would turn them into standards. The haunting, tempo-less ballad “Nature Boy,” written by the mysterious character Eden Ahbez, would be a chart topper for Cole in 1948. And his recording of Billy Strayhorn’s bar-room torch song “Lush Life,” would mark the beginning of a very fruitful relationship with veteran arranger Pete Rugolo.