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WHO’S AFRAID OF THE DARK?

 

By Mark Anthony Neal

 

Thursday, March 10, 2011.

 

The name Nat King Cole usually draws a reference to his famous daughter Natalie, who after launching her career in the mid-1970s as the heir-apparent to Aretha Franklin—a career threatened by drug addiction—later re-booted her career twenty years ago, with her cover of her father’s song “Unforgettable.” Many others might remember Cole for his signature Christmas carol “The Christmas Song” which is as synonymous with the holiday as is Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” But when Cole died forty-six years ago, Ebony Magazine described Cole as “the most celebrated Negro to die in world history.”

Nat King Cole’s career and legacy has been recalled with the recent release of four episodes of the groundbreaking Nat King Cole Show on iTunes, which plans to release 30 of the original 64 episodes of the show. The first national television show hosted by an African-American, the Nat King Cole Show ran from 1956-1957.

Though the show had a solid audience, it was never able to attract national sponsorship. With the post-Montgomery Civil Rights movement still in its embryonic stages, many national advertisers were fearful of backlash from Southern audiences. Indeed as one White station manager in the south admitted to Ebony Magazine in 1965, “they told me that if [Cole] came back on they would bomb my house and station.” Perhaps even more interesting than the reasons why the Nat King Cole Show was canceled after its year-and-a-half run, is Cole’s ascent to a status that allowed him to have a show in the first place.

Born Nathaniel Adams Coles in 1919, Cole was raised in Chicago in a religious household. Cole’s father was a preacher and the father and son regularly butted heads as the younger Coles was more attracted to the sounds coming from the Jazz clubs than the music he heard on Sunday mornings. Cole found a balance by playing the organ in his father’s church.

An accomplished pianist, Cole was influenced by the music of pianist
Earl “Fatha” Hines, and by his teenage years was fronting a band with his brother Eddie. After high school he headed out west with a traveling show, Shuffle Along, a musical which featured the music of the Black songwriting team Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The show closed in Long Beach when a stage hand ran off with the gate receipts, but Cole stayed out west working the chitlin circuit—LA’s Central Avenue—with his trio The King Cole trio (dropping the s from his name).

Though the band played instrumentals, as legend goes, one night a patron demanded that somebody sing “Sweet Lorraine.” Cole reluctantly complied and his a career as a vocalist was born. Signing a contract with Capitol Records in 1943 (the same label his daughter Natalie would later sign with in 1974), Cole’s first big hit was “Straighten Up and Fly Right” a song he wrote as a teenager after hearing one of his father’s sermons.

 

With songs like “Route 66,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Nature Boy,” Cole was one of the country’s most popular balladeers in the 1940s and 1950s, rivaled only by his label-mate, Frank Sinatra. But whereas Sinatra could imagine a future that was limitless—movies, the biggest and most lucrative venues, headlining in Vegas—Cole would always be challenged by the realities of race.

 

These challenges were as personal as they were professional; when Cole and his family moved into an exclusive Los Angeles neighborhood, racist signs were often left on their lawn. When a neighbor complained about not wanting undesirables in the neighborhood, Cole famously replied “neither do I, and if I see anybody undesirable coming into this neighborhood, I’ll be the first to complain.”

Though Cole was a lifetime member of the NAACP and in the years before his death performed benefits for Civil Rights organizations, some Blacks were critical of him for his willingness to perform in the South in front of segregated audiences. Cole often remarked—like Michael Jordan would decades later—that those audiences in the South were also fans of his music.

No doubt Cole believed that his willingness to perform in front of Southern audiences would help humanize Blacks to those audiences. Such was not the case when Cole was attacked on stage in 1956 while performing in Birmingham, AL, in what was later revealed as a (terrorist) plot by one-hundred and fifty men to kidnap Cole.

Yet publically Cole remained the very definition of cool and restraint becoming the epitome of crossover Blackness for the generation just prior to the watershed moments of the Civil Rights Movement. Standing six feet tall, dark-skinned, and with a deep baritone voice (think a better singing Brian McKnight), Cole would have been a major sex symbol had he emerged 30 years later. Indeed one could imagine that Cole was many of the Black male role models that Barack Obama studied to find his own pitch as the most well known living Black man in the contemporary world.

A chain-smoker (Phillip Morris was his cigarette of choice), Cole kept many of the professional and personal sleights directed towards him, to himself. When he suffered an ulcer in 1953 that led to doctors to remove half of his stomach, it was clear that the pressures of crossing over were taking a significant toll on him. It is part of the reason he took the lack of advertising support of his show in stride, though he was clear-eyed when he suggested that “the ad agencies are afraid of the dark.” He was prescient, when he told Ebony Magazine in 1959, “I realize what TV is doing. I know they are freezing the Negro out.”

Ironically Nat King Cole, was midway through a thee-year, $ one million dollar contract with the Sands hotel in Las Vegas, when he was diagnosed with the lung cancer that he would succumb to at the young age of forty-five. Cole died two months after Sam Cooke (his professional heir apparent) and six days before Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik el Shabazz) was murdered in Harlem. The stature of both Cooke and Malcolm X increased exponentially after their deaths, as Nat King Cole seems the forgotten man. Cole was content working from the inside, so its not surprising that his legacy doesn’t shine as bright forty-six years after his death.

Nevertheless, Cole was a model for Motown founder Berry Gordy as he sought to break the label’s flagship acts on the supper club circuit. Marvin Gaye, for example, recorded a
tribute album to Cole for Motown, nine months after his death, beginning what would be a career like fixation with recording a classic pop balladeer recording that Cole did in his prime. The Vulnerable Sessions, released after Gaye’s death was the product of that labor.

 

Thanks to iTunes, audiences can now see one of the great Black crossover stars at his peak—a man who in so many ways set the pace for the Michael Jacksons, Oprah Winfreys and Lebron James that would emerge after his death.

***


With thanks to New Black Man.

***


Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press). He is the host of the weekly webcast, Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University.

 

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