Nat King Cole’s legacy and impact is timeless. Born in Alabama in 1919, but raised in Chicago, Cole is one of the greatest entertainers of all-time. At age 15, he began pursuing music and reached some of the highest heights for any Black musicians during the Jim Crow era. In the 30-year-span of his career, from 1934 until his untimely death at age 45 in 1965, Cole, known for such classics as “The Christmas Song,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Unforgettable,” set a standard of class and elegance in both music and style, that begged to be documented in grand fashion. And now it has been, with the ultimate collector’s dream Nat King Cole: Stardust—a magnificent coffee-table book from Nailor Wills Publishing, done with the blessing of Cole’s twin daughters Timolin and Casey, that is as gigantic as the legend’s career and impact.
The book's launch this fall comes at a timely moment. Pieces of the larger-than-life entertainer can be found everywhere. There is the This Is Nat King Cole exhibit at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on display until December 31. Back in October, Capitol Records, the entertainer's longtime label released A Sentimental Christmas with Nat “King” Cole and Friends: Cole Classics Reimagined celebrating his imprint on the season. (On it, John Legend sings along with the legend for one of his most memorable recordings, “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on An Open Fire).”) And, in Atlanta in November and at Harvard in December, Grammy-winning jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington paid tribute to the legend with the concert Nat King Cole Christmas.
Stardust's curator David Wills, whose other tomes include Marilyn Monroe: Metamorphosis and The Cinematic Legacy of Frank Sinatra, tells EBONY that it took three years to complete. “This is really the first book of its kind,” he says. “So, I wanted to make sure it was done in a very big way.”
And it absolutely has been. Named for Cole’s 1957 rendition of the classic jazz tune, “Stardust,” the limited-edition volume, with only 1,000 copies available, itself is 14 by 18 inches, with a crush, cashmere lining [and] gold leafing. With over 200 photographs, it was essential to Wills that “the quality was spectacular.” To achieve that, he worked with numerous archives, going back to the original negatives, and even had some images digitally restored. Most of the book’s standout images actually come from the covers and pages of EBONY, which featured Cole and his family, including wife Maria (who sculpted his elegant image), children Natalie (who became an amazing singer in her own right), Carole, and Nat Kelly Cole, in addition to Casey and Timolin, who were three when their father died.
“He was a big family man. He had to travel a lot, but on many occasions, he brought his family with him. Family was definitely at the core of his being,” says Wills. And EBONY was there to capture what a lot of mainstream publications of the day would not.
The EBONY 1963 cover of “exclusive photos of the King Cole Twins” accompanies Casey and Timolin’s forward to the book, plus more images from the issue pop up later in the visual archive. Other stunning EBONY moments include a 1948 cover of the Coles on their honeymoon in Mexico; a family cover from 1956 with Nat, Maria, Carole, and Natalie in which the family sits by a pool, shoots pool, plays miniature golf, and rides bicycles; and a 1960 “Why We Adopted Kelly” cover with the Coles and their son at a piano.
“The classic photos EBONY took over the years are just so wonderful,” says Casey, noting how the iconic magazine covered her father and family throughout his career up until his death. “We’re so grateful to the publication for making us so much a part of it all these years.”
But Stardust is not just a visual feast for the eyes, it also spotlights the critical role the magnificent entertainer played in race relations. A Black man reaching the heights Cole did back then—including scoring his own TV talker and variety showcase with The Nat King Cole Show— was not celebrated by all. Consequently, Cole suffered some horrible racial attacks, physical and verbal. In one quote from JET, EBONY's sister publication, Cole speaks on his appeal to Black and white audiences in the South and its potential.
And while race is a big part of the Nat King Cole story, it is not the only story. Celebrating Cole is the book’s focus, and it is a treasure trove of history. “Unforgettable,” the visual volume shows, is more than one of his most well-known songs; it is also a description that still applies to him—there was hardly anyone he did not know or who did not know him, including presidents, celebrities, and civil rights icons.
“His legacy is just so rich, so deep,” shares Carrington. “He paved the way for so many of us and so many of us are standing on his shoulders. He was, of course, an amazing vocalist, but he was also really an amazing pianist. . . . He was a pioneer in almost everything that he did.”