In 1956 the star singer and pianist Nat King Cole became the host of a weekly national TV program, stepping into the biggest spotlight an African-American performer had ever had in the still-young medium. Though it ran for only little more than a year, Cole's program established a milestone in the cultural struggle for civil rights, bringing him and many other talented artists, both black and white, into millions of Americans' living rooms.
In 1956 Nat King Cole was seemingly at the pinnacle of his success. Over the past 20 years the pianist and singer had followed a path to stardom first as the key component of the Nat King Cole Trio, and then increasingly as a stand-alone vocalist, scoring big hits with songs such as "Nature Boy" and "Mona Lisa." He was increasingly being tasked with singing the theme songs of major Hollywood movies.
But this particular year had not been an easy one for Cole in some respects. His singles continued to chart, but without hitting the high sales marks of previous releases. Rock 'n roll had stormed onto the music scene, unnerving popular-song artists. Worst of all, on April 10 Cole was assaulted onstage in his home state of Alabama by several white men who belonged to the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. As Cole biographer Daniel Mark Epstein has noted, the Birmingham incident actually added a civil-rights dimension to Cole's star profile, and may have helped pave the way for him to realize an ambition he'd harbored for several years. "No Negro has a TV show," he told Ebony Magazine. "I'm breaking that down." In the age of segregation, with the civil-rights movement just starting to take hold in the South, the premiere of "The Nat King Cole Show" in late 1956 was a big deal.
Cole was not the first African-American to host a TV program; pianist and singer Hazel Scott and vocalist Billy Daniels had each briefly hosted shows earlier in the 1950s. But Cole was certainly the most prominent black artist and celebrity to feature in such a vehicle, and his show was broadcast weekly on NBC. He was also not a stranger to the still-young medium, having appeared on Sid Caesar's "Your Show Of Shows" for 15 weeks in a row and on other programs as a guest artist. Cole and his manager had been lobbying for a chance to host his own show for several years, when the call finally came from NBC in the autumn of 1956, offering him a Monday-evening slot. Cole enlisted Bob Henry to produce, direct, and write the program; Henry would later go on to helm African-American Flip Wilson's successful 1970s TV variety show. The program's arranging and conducting duties were shared by Gordon Jenkins and Nelson Riddle, who both played important parts in Cole's 1950s Capitol recording career and kept the musical quality of the program at a high level.
Initially "The Nat King Cole Show" was 15 minutes long, which wasn't unusual in that age of television, and it aired on Monday nights, right before news at 7:45 from Chet Hunt and David Brinkley. Cole shared a weeknight rotation with comedian Jonathan Winters on Tuesday, singer Dinah Shore on Thursday, and vocalist and actor Eddie Fisher on Wednesdays and Fridays. In its first incarnation it relied primarily on musical numbers. Though Cole's image was now firmly that of a singer, he was in the midst of a recording stretch highlighting his abilities as an instrumentalist, recording The Piano Style Of Nat King Cole as well as After Midnight, an album that featured Cole in a small-group setting with a variety of jazz virtuosos. For those who loved the jazz-driven, piano-playing-in-the-foreground 1940s version of Cole, the TV show provided some extraordinary moments:
"The Nat King Cole Show" did well in the ratings, but it struggled to find a national sponsor, as corporations and advertising agencies were wary of linking products to a program spotlighting an African-American host. "Madison Avenue," Cole would later famously quip, "is afraid of the dark." That meant "The Nat King Cole Show" was what was called a "sustaining program," its expenses paid solely by the host network, NBC. The show operated on a shoestring; its decorating budget was $125 per episode. Carter Products, which made deodorant and shaving cream, was the one fleeting national sponsor the program ever had. NBC was able to sign some regional sponsors for the show, including Rheingold Beer in New York, Gallo and Thunderbird Wines in Los Angeles, Regal Beer in New Orleans, and Coca Cola in Houston.
To help the show get by, Cole also drew on the good will of friends and artists who were willing to appear on the show for far less than the fees they usually commanded for such appearances, either working for scale or for free, or compensated in some manner by Cole himself. One such star was singer Harry Belafonte, who was also an emerging civil-rights activist. Here they are doing a Belafonte novelty hit and making a brief run at "How High The Moon" on an August 1957 broadcast:
In addition to these music-and-light-comedy spots with guest stars, Cole also did something each week called "The Memory Song," in which he sang older numbers, often from his back catalogue of hits. Sometimes, though, they were songs that he had never recorded commercially, as was the case with this Hoagy Carmichael-Ned Washington standard:
The same grace and genuine quality that made Cole such an accessible singer made him an effective television host as well. Though the show continued in vain to try to find national sponsors, it also continued to enjoy a memorable run of guests, as well as good ratings, and in July 1957 NBC expanded it to 30 minutes and moved it to Tuesday evenings, albeit at a later time, 10 p.m. Newsweek reported that the show was being carried by 77 stations, "nearly half of them below the Mason-Dixon line." In black communities the program was must-see TV; African-American historian Henry Louis Gates noted its significance in his memoir Colored People. And it wasn't just a showcase for Cole; other African-American performers got to share the spotlight with him, including a memorable episode with actress and singer Eartha Kitt. The chemistry and flirtatious make-believe courtship between the two was so apparent that Cole felt compelled at the end of the show to deliver an aside to his wife, saying "Dear, we were only kidding."
Kitt was just one of several stars who were currently making a film with Cole called St. Louis Blues, a biopic of blues composer W.C. Handy, with Cole playing the leading role. Others included Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, and Ella Fitzgerald, all of whom appeared on Cole's program with him in 1957. We'll hear a spirited duet between Fitzgerald and Cole in this next set, as well as this, Cole's performance of the movie's title song, written by its subject, W.C. Handy:
That autumn NBC had moved Cole's expanded half-hour program up earlier in the Tuesday night schedule, starting it at 7:30, but that meant it faced stronger competition against ABC's popular rotating Westerns, Cheyenne and Sugarfoot, as well as CBS' quiz show The $64,000 Question. The search for a national sponsor continued to be unsuccessful, and one day Cole vented when his manager, Carlos Gastel, informed him that Max Factor Cosmetics had turned down the show on the grounds that "no Negro can sell lipstick" for the company. "What do they think we use?" Cole fumed:
Chalk? Congo paint? And what about the telephone company? A man sees a Negro on a television show. What's he going to do, call up the company and tell them to take out his telephone? In Houston, Texas, we were sponsored by Coca-Cola, a southern company! Nobody stopped drinking Coca-Cola!
In the midst of such frustration, an October 15 gathering of jazz stars from Norman Granz's ongoing Jazz at the Philharmonic concert tours, which Cole had participated in in the 1940s, must have been a pleasant diversion. Among the episode's guests were saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and the Oscar Peterson Trio, who backed Cole on a song that had been one of the Nat King Cole Trio's earliest hits:
Interacting with jazz musicians was a breeze for Cole; white women artists presented a more challenging context. Recall that this was only two years after 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a store. When stars such as Peggy Lee appeared on "The Nat King Cole Show," Cole retained his natural ease, but initially care was taken to keep a small degree of physical separation in any scenes that brought the host and his guest together. As the show went on, however, Cole and his producer Bob Henry became more determined to showcase its element of integration. These efforts reached their zenith on the December 3, 1957 broadcast, in which Cole and guest star Betty Hutton did a light comedy sketch of singing each other's hits, then joined forces to sing a song they'd both recorded, "Orange Colored Sky." Not only that, they danced together-an African-American man and a white woman, an extraordinary event for national television in 1957. "We proved that a Negro star could play host to whites, including women, and we proved it in such good taste that no one was offended," Cole later said.
A similar comic trope of imitations had been used that summer on the show when Sammy Davis Jr. guest-starred. There had been tension between Davis and Cole after Cole's remarks following the onstage assault in Birmingham, in which he'd defended his choice to play before segregated audiences in the South. Davis had openly criticized Cole for this on Milton Berle's TV show. But that tension had clearly dissipated by the time the two performers exchanged mimicries on this July 30, 1957 episode:
Singer Billy Eckstine was another notable black artist who appeared on "The Nat King Cole Show." Surely he must have felt a special sympathy for Cole; Eckstine had faced his own challenges as an African-American performer whose charisma, talent, and good looks should have translated into cinematic stardom, and whose race kept Hollywood at a distance. The two of them did a song by pianist Earl Hines, who had played a key role in each artist's career, as a musical influence on Cole's piano-playing, and as a bandleader who hired Eckstine and helped make him into a star:
Eckstine appeared on the December 17.1957 broadcast-the show's final episode. Several weeks earlier NBC had told Cole that it wanted to move the program to Saturday evenings at 7, a slot that was the equivalent of the graveyard in that era for a TV show. Cole talked things over with Bob Henry, the show's producer, director and writer, and Henry advised him not to do it: "If we do, this whole thing we've been trying to build takes a step backward." In response, Cole said, "If we quit now, it's like Babe Ruth retiring in his prime, right?" So Cole gave notice, and after three more episodes, the ground-breaking "Nat King Cole Show" came to an end. In a post-mortem for Ebony Magazine titled "Why I Quit My TV Show," published in February 1958, Cole gave NBC credit for being so supportive of the show, called out Madison Avenue for its failure to back it, and touted the program's breakthroughs. He wrote that
For 13 months, I was the Jackie Robinson of television. I was the pioneer, the test case, the Negro first. I didn't plan it that way, but it was obvious to anyone with eyes to see that I was the only Negro on network television with his own show. On my show rode the hopes and fears and dreams of millions of people… After a trail-blazing year that shattered all the old bug-a-boos about Negroes on TV, I found myself standing there with the bat on my shoulder. The men who dictate what Americans see and hear didn't want to play ball.
On his final show, broadcast December 17, 1957, Cole performed a song that had been a hit for him in 1955, one that spoke of heartbreak and betrayal, accompanied by a montage of photographs featuring Cole and some of the guest stars who'd appeared on the program with him-a veritable who's-who of mid-1950s showbiz celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, and Sammy Davis Jr passing by in images that captured some of "The Nat King Cole Show's" most compelling moments. It was a poignant tribute for a program that broke barriers while providing performances that have proven to be timeless. Nat King Cole would live for only a few more years, dying at the age of 46 in 1965; but his legacy as one of America's most beloved artists and entertainers, and as a civil-rights pioneer, is an enduring inspiration.