Born in Montgomery, Alabama and raised in Chicago, by age 12 Nat was singing and playing the organ in his father’s church. At 17 he formed his first jazz group, and by 20 he had formed The King Cole Trio and was playing clubs in Los Angeles. The Trio made several instrumental recordings, but it wasn’t until Nat began to sing and people heard his remarkable voice that the group started to have hits, including “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.” Very soon, Nat was a huge singing star known for his dulcet tone and perfect phrasing. No one else on earth sounded like Nat “King” Cole!
During The Ed Sullivan Show’s 23-year run, Cole became one of Ed’s favorites, appearing 13 times. During that period, Cole showcased his huge hits like “Nature Boy” and “Mona Lisa”, along with other memorable songs like, “Calypso Blues,” “Little Girl,” and “Just One of Those Things.” While Cole’s likeable style, deep baritone voice and melodic tones transformed him into a superstar, his appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show revolutionized the way African-Americans were seen on television.
Always a supporter of civil rights, Sullivan continuously invited Cole and other African-American artists onto his show. Upset with Ed’s bookings, many conservative CBS affiliate stations threatened the endorsement deal The Ed Sullivan Show enjoyed with Lincoln-Mercury dealers. Some dealers complained when Ed dared to kiss Pearl Bailey or shake Nat “King” Cole’s hand. The home viewers also expressed discomfort when both black and white performers shared the stage together, as was the case during Cole’s renditions of “Calypso Blues,” where he was backed by a group of white dancers. But Sullivan continued to push the envelope, and he wouldn’t back down to this kind of pressure whether it came in the form of letters or calls from his sponsors.
During Cole’s May 16th, 1954 appearance, Ed brought Nat on stage and said: “Just before Nat went to Europe, we had him on our stage here, and I told him then – very sincerely – it’s always a great thrill to have him on our stage because I’ve never met a finer artist or a finer human being. Here, Nat is a plaque from the Board of Managers of the Harlem Branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association of the City of New York. I love the first line on this: ‘Because he is a king who has not lost the common touch.’”
Ed Sullivan’s constant support of Cole helped him to land his own variety series in 1956. Eponymously titled, The Nat King Cole Show, Cole was the first African- American performer in the history of television to host a network variety series. With a lack of sponsors willing to support a show hosted by a black entertainer, The Nat King Cole Show had difficulty staying on the air. After its cancellation, Cole placed the blame on advertisers. “Madison Avenue,” he said, “is afraid of the dark.” Still, Ed Sullivan remained loyal to Cole and continued to book him on his show after his series went off the air. And after Nat’s untimely passing in 1965 at the age of 45, Ed showed lasting support by inviting Cole’s widow Maria (also a singer) to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. Cole’s talented and famous daughter Natalie, also achieved great success, making the Billboard charts 12 times. In 1991, she charted with her father, singing a duet with his original recording of “Unforgettable.”
Check out our Nat King Cole playlist to see full performances from The Ed Sullivan Show!