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The Nat King Cole Harvest Is In

Resonance Records’ latest deluxe archival set presents a hidden early history of the great pianist and singer in captivating fashion

Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole (photo: Charlie Mihn/courtesy of LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries)
The Nat King Cole Trio. (photo: Frank Driggs)
The King Cole Trio—Johnny Miller (left), Nat Cole, and Oscar Moore at NBC’s Radio City West, Los Angeles, 1945 (photo: courtesy of the Frank Driggs Collection at Jazz at Lincoln Center)

Birth of the Trio

He was born Nathanael Adams Coles on March 17, 1919, in Montgomery, Alabama, the second of five children. The family moved to Chicago when young Nat was four. By the time he was 10, he had begun taking piano and organ lessons (from his mother Perlina) and seen his elder brother Eddie begin a music career in earnest, first forming his own band and then going out on the road as the bassist/tubist with Noble Sissle’s Sizzling Syncopators.

Nat followed quickly in Eddie’s footsteps: At 15, he created a quintet to play the venues of Chicago’s South Side, gradually abandoning his high-school classes. When he wasn’t working, he snuck into clubs and ballrooms to hear Earl “Fatha” Hines, Chicago’s greatest jazz star, play piano.

In autumn 1935, Nat’s brother returned from the road and joined the band as Eddie Cole (Nat having already dropped the “s” from his stage name). In March 1936, they took a job at the Panama Café to solid notices; it led to Decca Records contracting them for a recording session, where they cut four sides under the name of Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers.

“Now, that was Nat’s band,” Friedwald stresses. “Eddie’s name was bigger than Nat’s at the time, so those Decca records came out under Eddie’s name. But it was the same band that Nat had been leading for two or three years.” Indeed, it was the last time in his recording career that Nat Cole would yield billing to anyone else.

Later that same year, the pianist went on tour with Eubie Blake’s Broadway musical Shuffle Along. When the tour derailed in Los Angeles in May 1937, 18-year-old Cole found himself stranded but made the most of it, forming a big band with the other musicians from the show. Then, at the end of that summer, the owner of the Swanee Inn nightclub offered Cole the spot as leader of its house band … if Cole could provide the band.

He enlisted Oscar Moore, a guitarist from Texas whom he had met earlier in the summer, and Wesley Prince, a local bassist who had worked with Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. Three was all that could fit on the nightclub’s stage; when the configuration reminded Prince of the nursery rhyme about Old King Cole and “his fiddlers three,” the band had its moniker. Cole, too, had a new nickname.

The King Cole Trio’s group chemistry, musical prowess, and lighthearted swing made them a quick success. The three players also sang together, sometimes in harmony but often in unison. By and large it was a lark, another layer to add to their swing and appeal to their audience. “He only became a singer gradually,” Friedwald says. “At that point, he would have described himself primarily as a jazz musician and a piano player.”

Originally Published

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.