Pianist/vocalist Nat King Cole made everything look easy. His warm and haunting tenor voice, suave demeanor, and elegant piano style influenced dozen of singers and instrumentalists, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Oscar Peterson, and Diana Krall. But as Daniel Mark Epstein unveils in this illuminating biography, it took years of dues-paying for Cole to reach superstardom. With prose that reads like Cole's lyrical phrasings, Epstein takes the reader through the eventful places and spaces of the artist's life: from his birth in Alabama in 1919, his family's turbulent move to Chicago, and his rise as an Earl Hines-influenced teen jazz sensation, to the formation of his famous piano-guitar-bass trio in the '40s.
Epstein doesn't shy away from the lows, describing the anguish Cole caused his preacher father, the failed first marriage, tax and health problems, sibling rivalry, and the jealousy that destroyed his combo when Cole made the transition from jazz artist to pop singer. But these are balanced with the highs, like the tremendous success of Cole's vocal hits "Straighten Up And Fly Right" "Route 66," "Mona Lisa," and "The Christmas Song," and his second marriage to Maria Ellington. Epstein also cites Cole's quiet battles on the Civil Rights front. He purchased a home in an exclusive, all white Los Angeles neighborhood; insisted on performing for integrated audiences in the south and heroically survived a vicious racial attack during a Birmingham concert in 1956. "Nat King Cole was not a political philosopher schooled in rhetoric or the dialectics of history," the author writes. "He was a clear thinker with sound instincts and compassion.... Where he had gone--to riches, fame, and honor--he hoped his brothers and sisters would soon follow." By he time died of lung cancer in 1965, his artistry had left its mark on the 20th century and on everyone who loved him. As Epstein summarizes, "[H]e paid attention to his friends, his children, his sideman, his audiences and most of all his music." --Eugene Holley, Jr.
From Publishers Weekly
Dulcet-toned Nat King Cole is remembered best today for ballads such as "Mona Lisa" and "Unforgettable," perhaps less so for his skills as a preeminent jazz pianist and composer. This respectful biography depicts a multitalented musician whoAwhether contending with racism, with black leaders criticizing his lack of activism or with jazz critics who believed he had "sold out"A maintained an implacable, dignified demeanor. Born Nathaniel Coles, he grew up in Chicago in the 1920s, when Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Gatemouth Earl Hines were helping to turn that city into a virtual mecca of jazz. Cole moved to Los Angeles in 1937, paying his dues as a struggling musician and eventually forming the original King Cole Trio. The fledgling Capitol Records recognized the commerce in Cole's liquid voice (a voice created in part, according to Epstein, by Cole's heavy cigarette habit) and exquisite style, making him a star as he and his trio moved away from jazz and embraced the pop ballads the public craved. At the height of his popularity, Cole became the first African-American to host his own television show, which, while a ratings success, fell victim to prejudice as it failed to secure a national sponsor. By the time Cole died in 1965 of lung cancer, he had become one of America's best-loved entertainers. Epstein (Sister Aimee) writes gracefully and possesses admirable musical knowledge; yet his sympathetic narrative is oddly flat. Whether because, as Epstein writes, Cole "was a master of the art of concealment" or because his personality differed little from his calm, genial and sophisticated facade, the portrait of Cole that emerges is less vibrant than his musicAthe man himself retains a regal distance. (Nov.)
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