Even if you couldn’t pick out Nat King Cole from a crowd today, you’ve probably heard his voice—maybe in the background at a department store during the Christmas shopping season, or on an elevator, or while enjoying a tasty treat in your local Panera Bread. Cole was cutting edge, hot stuff at the time, even if now he’s been relegated to easy listening.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even “easy listening” has fascinating origins and a busload of talent behind it. Although his performance style is well known for being smooth, sweet, and charming, Cole’s career was anything but an easy ride.
Jazz fans attacked him for crossing over to pop, but he was a challenge to the pop world just by virtue of being black. His life as a working musician was also a continual struggle against racism, which included a principled insistence on never playing segregated spaces. At one point, a white supremacist group attacked him on stage. He also became the first black musician to be given his own TV variety show, only to have the show taken off the air in little over a year due to advertisers’ refusal to support a black man who had his own show. He was also hectored significantly for his choice to buy a house in cushy, all-white Beverley Hills. He refused to back down, though, becoming a one-man force for integration during a time of great racial adversity.
Cole of lung cancer in 1965 at only age 45, but he left behind a unique musical legacy spanning over twenty-five years of recording. Today we might not think much of a song like “Route 66”—it sounds sugary and old-timey, music our grandparents would like—, but in 1946, it marked a black musician’s entry into a world that hardly welcomed him. Luckily, the world was about to change drastically.