Born in Montgomery, Alabama on March 17, 1919, this future musical legend began playing the piano at age 4 through lessons from his mother, a church choir director in the same congregation where his father served as pastor. By the time he was a teenager, he was taking formal lessons in classical music, which he soon set aside to pursue the music he truly loved—jazz.
By age 15, he dropped out of school and became a full-time jazz pianist. In 1937, he formed a jazz trio that began touring and recording music. They found success with hits such as “That Ain’t Right” in 1943, and “The Christmas Song,” which is now considered a holiday standard.
During the 1950s, he was performing as a solo artist, recording hits that included “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young,” and “Unforgettable,” while working with some of the country’s best musicians such as Nelson Riddle, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald.
As an African American performer, he encountered racism firsthand, especially while touring in the South, even being attacked by white supremacists during a show in Alabama. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing his dream of performing for audiences.
In fact, in 1956 he made history by becoming the first African American performer to host a TV series. It featured some of the biggest names in music such as Count Basie, Tony Bennett, and Sammy Davis, Jr. The show lasted only a year, but he appeared regularly on the Ed Sullivan Show and had roles in several movies.
Over his career, he recorded 28 Top 40 hits and earned his first Grammy at the second-ever Grammy Awards for Best Performance by A Top 40 Artist for “Midnight Flyer.” In 1990, he was awarded the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement award.
He was Nathaniel A. Cole, better known as Nat King Cole. He passed away on February 15, 1965, and was laid to rest in the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn-Glendale. His legacy of music lives on and includes a heartfelt duet version of his classic “Unforgettable” recorded in 1991 with his original vocals and those of his daughter, Natalie Cole.