If you’re not careful, you can have this nice, cozy, romanticized view of Nat “King” Cole as the smooth balladeer warbling classics like “Mona Lisa,” Unforgettable,” and “The Christmas Song.” His famously short-lived television show, “The Nat “King” Cole Show” was known for it’s high ratings, high profile guests and the lack of sponsorship from advertisers who refused to financially back a show hosted by elegant Black man. When he learned a representative of Max Factor cosmetics stated “a negro couldn’t sell lipstick for them,” Cole retorted, “What do they think we use? Chalk? Congo paint?” He had equally scathing criticism for other sponsors who shied away. “And what about a corporation like the telephone company? A man sees a Negro on a television show. What’s he going to do call up the telephone company and tell them to take out the phone?”
“I may applaud the courage of those entertainers who go to Alabama, but the suggestion that every prominent Negro entertainer who does not get on the first plane South is turning his back on his people is obviously stupid and ridiculous.”
Despite well-known battles with racial prejudice in his career and life, especially the April 10, 1956 attack he suffered on stage in Birmingham, Alabama at the hands of four members of the White Citizens Council as he played a whites-only show, he was criticized for not being more vocal as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. He told JET in May 1963, “If I truly believed that my appearance in the south would help cure or even arrest —the cancerous evil of prejudice, I would not hesitate to go. I do not happen to believe this, and I presume that I am still permitted that privilege. I may applaud the courage of those entertainers who go to Alabama, but the suggestion that every prominent Negro entertainer who does not get on the first plane South is turning his back on his people is obviously stupid and ridiculous.” Cole would go on to raise thousands of dollars for various civil rights organizations for the rest of his life as he had been prior to the criticism.
Although he once signed formal contracts creating Cole-Belafonte Enterprises with his friend Harry Belafonte to produce projects for the stage and screen, the partnership never got off the ground. He would continue to produce his own projects and was starring in his own Kell-Cole production, “Sights and Sounds” when he learned he had lung cancer in late 1964. He died in Los Angeles at age 45 on February 15, 1965.
Despite what many considered a golden voice, Cole always considered himself more of a musician, especially considering the fact that he began his career as a jazz pianist. He once told his wife Maria, “I sound like a frog.” An avid baseball fan, he also once told his friend, the actor Ricardo Montalban, that he would have preferred being a Major League baseball star over his music stardom. But, perhaps his most interesting choice for an alternative career is one that still doesn’t exist. He once told President Dwight Eisenhower at a White House Correspondents dinner in 1956, “There is nothing more controversial and I’d take the job in a minute.” The position? “Secretary of Music”. Sounds like it would have been a perfect match.
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