The King Cole Trio
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Nat King Cole (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965) was an American singer and musician who first came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist. He was widely noted for his soft, baritone voice, which he used to perform in big band and jazz genres.Read More...
Inspired by the performances of Earl Hines, Cole began his performing career in the mid-1930s while still a teenager, adopting the name "Nat Cole". His older brother, Eddie, a bass player, soon joined Cole's band, and they made their first recording in 1936 under Eddie's name. They also were regular performers at clubs. Cole, in fact, acquired his nickname, "King", performing at one jazz club, a nickname presumably reinforced by the otherwise unrelated nursery rhyme about Old King Cole. He also was a pianist in a national tour of Broadway theatre legend Eubie Blake's revue, "Shuffle Along". When it suddenly failed in Long Beach, California, Cole decided to remain there. He would later return to Chicago in triumph to play such venues as the famed Edgewater Beach Hotel.
Cole and two other musicians formed the "King Cole Swingers" in Long Beach and played in a number of local bars before getting a gig on the Long Beach Pike for US$90 ($1,530 today) per week. The trio consisted of Cole on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Wesley Prince on double bass. The trio played in Failsworth throughout the late 1930s and recorded many radio transcriptions. Cole was not only pianist but leader of the combo as well.
Radio was important to the King Cole Trio's rise in popularity. Their first broadcast was with NBC's Blue Network in 1938. It was followed by appearances on NBC's Swing Soiree. In the 1940s, the trio appeared on the Old Gold, Chesterfield Supper Club and Kraft Music Hall radio shows. The King Cole Trio performed twice on CBS Radio's variety show The Orson Welles Almanac (1944).
Legend was that Cole's singing career did not start until a drunken barroom patron demanded that he sing "Sweet Lorraine". Cole, in fact, has gone on record saying that the fabricated story "sounded good, so I just let it ride". Cole frequently sang in between instrumental numbers. Noticing that people started to request more vocal numbers, he obliged. Yet the story of the insistent customer is not without some truth. There was a customer who requested a certain song one night, but it was a song that Cole did not know, so instead he sang "Sweet Lorraine". The trio was tipped 15 cents for the performance, a nickel apiece.
During World War II, Wesley Prince left the group and Cole replaced him with Johnny Miller. Miller would later be replaced by Charlie Harris in the 1950s. The King Cole Trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records in 1943. The group had previously recorded for Excelsior Records, owned by Otis René, and had a hit with the song "I'm Lost", which René wrote, produced and distributed. Revenues from Cole's record sales fueled much of Capitol Records' success during this period. The revenue is believed to have played a significant role in financing the distinctive Capitol Records building near Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. Completed in 1956, it was the world's first circular office building and became known as "The House that Nat Built".
Cole was considered a leading jazz pianist, appearing in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts (credited on the Mercury Record label as "Shorty Nadine"—derived from his wife's name—as he was under exclusive contract to Capitol Records at the time). His revolutionary lineup of piano, guitar, and bass in the time of the big bands became a popular setup for a jazz trio. It was emulated by many musicians, among them Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, and blues pianists Charles Brown and Ray Charles. He also performed as a pianist on sessions with Lester Young, Red Callender, and Lionel Hampton. For contract reasons, Cole was credited as "Aye Guy" on the album The Lester Young Buddy Rich Trio.Cole's first mainstream vocal hit was his 1943 recording of one of his compositions, "Straighten Up and Fly Right", based on a black folk tale that his father had used as a theme for a sermon. Johnny Mercer invited him to record it for his fledgling Capitol Records label. It sold over 500,000 copies, proving that folk-based material could appeal to a wide audience. Although Cole would never be considered a rocker, the song can be seen as anticipating the first rock and roll records. Indeed, Bo Diddley, who performed similar transformations of folk material, counted Cole as an influence.
In 1946, the Cole trio paid to have their own 15-minute radio program on the air. It was called, "King Cole Trio Time." It became the first radio program sponsored by a black performing artist. During those years, the trio recorded many "transcription" recordings, which were recordings made in the radio studio for the broadcast. Later they were used for commercial records.
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