By Diane Cameron
Some of the most gifted and talented people in the world were born in Alabama. Especially interesting is the number of accomplished musicians and singers from this Southern state. Mobile is the hometown of Fred Wesley, the trombonist who helped shape the signature sound of “Mr. Entertainer” himself James Brown. Dennis Edwards of the Temptations was from Tuscaloosa. Melvin Franklin of the same group hails from Montgomery. Lionel Hampton, the jazz vibraphonist was born in Birmingham. The city of Florence claims W.C. Handy as its native son. Prattville can boast as the birthplace of Wilson Pickett. The tiny town of Leighton, Alabama can thump its chest for having produced Percy Sledge and another 10 points to Tuscaloosa for giving us Dinah Washington. The cream always rises to the top and on March 17, 1919 in Montgomery by popular opinion, the best of the best was born. Velvet baritone voice and smooth as butter. His singing was like medicine to the ears and yet crooning was not his initial breakout talent. He gained musical notoriety as a jazz pianist but it was entirely by a fluke that we have countless vocal treasures to remember him by.
Nat’s family moved to Chicago, Illinois when he was a young boy and growing up there he was heavily influenced by the Windy City’s music scene. This included heavyweights such as Louis Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines. As he became a seasoned musician, Eubie Blake’s popular play “Ragtime” went on tour to California. Nat went along as the pianist and stayed in California even though the tour was unsuccessful. As the story goes, Nat was in a Los Angeles club working with his jazz combo when a regular customer of the club came in and requested the song Sweet Lorraine. Not as comfortable with singing as he was with playing piano, Nat refused when he was asked to sing the song. He was cajoled by the club owner to perform the song anyway for this loyal patron, and reluctantly obliged, but the rest is as we say “history”.
From 1940 to 1965, a treasure trove of Nat King Cole songs commanded the airwaves. Mona Lisa, Nature Boy, Too Young, A Nightingale Sang in Barkley Square, Rambling Rose and of course the unforgettable…Unforgettable.
As most of the African American entertainers of that era have experienced, Jim Crow reared it ugly head. In November of 1956 his television program “The Nat King Cole Show” premiered. Unfortunately 13 months later, the last episode aired. The producers, while capitalizing on Nat’s outstanding talent, were unable to obtain national sponsors and the show was subsequently canceled.
Being a heavy smoker, he succumbed to lung cancer February 15th 1965. Nat King Cole was a timeless Alabama Jewel that continues to live through memory and the catalog of his wonderful music. Thank you Mr. Cole, we think that you are……unforgettable…too.