Nat "King" Cole
The Early Years: 1936-1942


Nat King Cole publicity shot for Capitol Records.  Image courtesy of the Dave Dexter, Jr. Collection.Before his international acclaim as a pop vocalist, Nathaniel Adams Coles built an indelible reputation as a jazz pianist in the groundbreaking combo, The King Cole Trio. Born into a musical family, young Nat Coles (later changed to Cole) recorded with his older brother, Edward, in 1936 for the Decca label. The four sides cut by Eddie Cole's Solid Swingers gave the general public its first glimpse of Nat's gentle yet lively piano riffs. After touring with a revival show of Eubie Blake's revue Shuffle Along, Cole settled in Los Angeles, playing various nightclubs as a soloist. In 1937, club owner Bob Lewis suggested that Cole assemble a small band to work at his Swanee Inn on North La Brea. The group's unorthodox instrumentation and size - they had no drummer and, at the time, big bands were the rage - featured Wesley Prince on bass and the innovative phrasings of electric guitarist Oscar Moore. The Trio's blend of jump blues and jazzy instrumentals with bouncy vocal stylings was a collective effort, while Cole occasionally took the lead on standard ballads. After an uneventful 1939 session for the Davis & Schwegler recording company in Hollywood, The Trio accompanied Lionel Hampton on two recording dates the following summer. Their association with Hampton helped, and that winter The Trio signed with Decca. Their 1940-41 sessions for the label yielded sixteen songs and captured the attention of fellow musicians, fans and a handful of critics. Later that fall, The Trio sounded right at home with drummer Lee Young on a four-song session for the Ammor label. In 1942, Cole recorded with Red Callender and saxophonist Lester Young for the Philo/Aladdin label, Oscar Moore with Cole at the piano.  Image courtesy of the Dave Dexter, Jr. Collection.producing a handful of recordings that became benchmarks in their individual careers. Signing with Capitol Records in 1943, The Trio consisted of Cole, Moore, and Johnny Miller, who had settled in as the permanent bassist. Moore left the fold in 1947 and Irving Ashby replaced him. Capitol Records featured The Trio less and less after that, while Cole was singled out as a vocalist often backed by lush string orchestras. By the 1950's, Cole's reputation as a singer had reached a wide pop audience and, upon his death in 1965, his place in music history was forever cemented. His fellow jazz peers, however, never forgot his equally unique touch on the piano and the influence his early trio work had on later performers such as Oscar Peterson, Red Garland, and Tommy Flanagan.

Above left photo: Cole Publicity shot for Capitol Records.
Above right photo: Oscar Moore with Cole at the piano.
Photos courtesy of the Dave Dexter, Jr. Collection - Miller Nichols Library - Dept. of Special Collections.

(Digitized at the Marr Sound Archives. Click on the record label or song title to listen - you will need the RealAudio player.)

Jack The Bellboy
Jack The Bellboy
Hit That Jive Jack
Hit That Jive Jack
Gone With The Draft
Gone With The Draft
Sweet Lorraine
Sweet Lorraine
Stompin' At The Panama
Stompin' At The Panama
Stop! The Red Light's On
Stop! The Red Light's On
Hit The Ramp
Hit The Ramp
I Like To Riff (note the incorrect label title!)
I Like To Riff

Original 78 rpm recordings can be found in the Marr Sound Archives. Note: Sound clip for "I Like to Riff" taken from Decca label (8592) recording, New York: July 16, 1941.

Below: from Nat King Cole: An Intimate Biography (New York: W. Morrow, 1971) by Maria Cole, describing how the Trio was formed and how Nat Cole became a singer.

Image of two pages from the book Nat King Cole: An Intimate Biography

Below: Decca reissued twelve of The Trio's sixteen recordings on this long-playing record in 1956.

Album cover for Nat

Suggested Listening:

From The Very Beginning. / Nat King Cole. MCA Records: MCA2-4020.
This double LP set contains the complete King Cole Trio recordings for the Decca label, plus the four sides Cole recorded with his brother, Eddie Cole.

Nat King Cole: Early 1940's. Mark56 Records: 739.
This double LP set contains rare radio broadcasts of the King Cole Trio dating 1940-44.

The Complete Lionel Hampton: 1937-1941. RCA Records: AXM6-5536.
Side J of this six-LP set of Hampton's complete recordings for the Victor label features the King Cole Trio with Hampton.

Nat King Cole & Lester Young. Crown Records: CST 412.
This LP contains the exciting sides that Cole made with Young during a historic 1942 session.

Suggested Reading:

Nat King Cole; an intimate biography, / Maria Cole, with Louie Robinson.
(New York, W. Morrow, 1971.)

Nat King Cole / James Haskins, with Kathleen Benson.
(New York : Stein and Day, 1984.)

Nat King Cole : a personal and professional biography / James Haskins with Kathleen Benson.
(Chelsea, MI : Scarborough House ; Chicago, IL : Distributed by Independent Publishers Group, 1990.)

Unforgettable : the life and mystique of Nat King Cole / Leslie Gourse.
(New York : St. Martin's Press, 1991.)
Straighten up and fly right : a chronology and discography of Nat "King" Cole / compiled by Klaus Teubig.
(Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1994.)

Nat King Cole / Daniel Mark Epstein.
(New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.)

This exhibit is the Web companion to an exhibit written and developed by Kelly McEniry of the Marr Sound Archives. Many thanks to Scott Middleton, Marr Sound Archives Broadcast Engineer, for his assistance with the audio portion of this exhibit.

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May 16, 2002