Nat “King” Cole – TV Pioneer

The Nat King Cole Show premiered November 5, 1956 on the NBC television network. Cole’s popularity as a singer—he had sold millions of records—would have seemed to assure success as host of the eponymous variety show.

The fifteen-minute variety show, later expanded to a half hour, featured the suave and personable Cole hosting A-list guests such as Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte. Nat Cole himself had performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, Cavalcade of Stars, and other popular TV variety programs.

Cole’s was the first nationally-broadcast program hosted by an African American. The Nat King Cole Show was canceled after thirteen months, unable to attract a national sponsor.

Nathaniel Adams Coles quit school in 1934 and became a professional entertainer at age fifteen. (He dropped the “s” from his surname.) He soon received notice as a jazz pianist. Within a few years he gained fame with his Nat King Cole Trio and began singing as well as playing piano. (The “King” came from the children’s nursery rhyme “Old King Cole was a merry old soul.”) His jazz recordings were hits on Billboard magazine’s “Harlem Hit Parade.” “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” were hits on the pop charts also.

Nat King Cole created controversy in the jazz world when he focussed on pop vocals. Like Sam Cooke later when he gave up gospel singing for pop or when Bob Dylan went electric, Cole’s jazz following felt betrayed.

Cole’s recordings of “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” became his first number one pop single in 1946. “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire)” went to number three the same year. The Trio had its own nationally-broadcast radio show.

By 1951 Cole was billed as a solo act. He had hits with “Mona Lisa,” “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” and “Unforgettable.” He was a star of such magnitude that a network television program was a logical step, although there had not been a successful show featuring an African American.

NBC broadcast the weekly variety program without a major sponsor. A few deals were worked out for local sponsorship: Rheingold beer in New York City and Hartford Connecticut; Coca-Cola in Houston; Colgate toothpaste in Los Angeles.
Guests on the show, out of friendship for Cole, often performed at union-scale pay, far below what top stars were usually paid.

With no national sponsor in sight, Cole and NBC finally agreed in December 1957 to pull the plug. They speculated about its revival if a national sponsor could be found, but none was.

The next African American to host a network program was Sammy Davis Jr. in 1966. Sponsors were found, but the show lasted only four months, done in by low ratings.

The Flip Wilson Show debuted in 1970 on NBC. It was the first variety show hosted by a black entertainer to become an unqualified success. It aired for four seasons.

Nat King Cole returned to the Top Ten in 1962 with “Ramblin’ Rose.” His album of the same name was a certified platinum seller. “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” became his last Top Ten hit in the summer of 1963.
Nat King Cole died early in 1964 at age forty-four, a victim of lung cancer.

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