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Nat King Cole grew up in Chicago

Note: This is part of our monthlong series profiling prominent African Americans.

Nathaniel Adams Cole (1919-1965) was born in Montgomery, Ala., but as a very small child moved with his family to Chicago and grew up in the South Side Bronzeville neighborhood and attended Du Sable High School.

He started lessons in classical piano at the age of 12, but by 15 he’d left school to become a jazz pianist.

Cole’s initial success as a musician came from his skills as a pianist, but he was famous for his elegant voice. In 1937, he was dubbed “King” Cole by a Los Angeles Club owner and by 1940 the King Cole Trio recorded its first sides for Decca.

Less than three years later, Capitol Records came calling, and in his first session he laid down “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”

Primarily performing as a singer in the 1950s with songs like “Unforgettable,” his popularity led to the debut of “The Nat King Cole Show” in 1956, with Cole becoming the first African American to host a network television variety show.

The show was short-lived, unable to find a national sponsor. Cole continued to tour with his act to great success.

In 1965, Cole died of lung cancer in California. 

Sources: A&E, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Pbs.org, NatKingCole.com

Matt Wilhalme



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