Happy 98th Birthday, Nat “King” Cole!

Nat “King” Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles 98 years ago today in Montgomery, Alabama. One of the true giants of American music, Cole, as well-regarded as he still is, does not, in our opinion, get sufficient credit for his talents, accomplishments and contributions. Here are 10 NKC Did-You-Knows:

  • Cole was the second of five children born to Edward and Perlina Coles. The family moved to Chicago when Cole was four, where his father entered the ministry. Cole’s mother was a church organist who gave young Nat his first keyboard instruction. He began to take formal lessons at 12 and learned to play pop, jazz and even classical music.
  • Cole attended Wendel Phillips High School, where gospel and R&B legend Sam Cooke also attended some years later. Cole began performing professionally as a teenager, dropping the S from Coles and shortening his first name to Nat. His older brother, Eddie, a bass player, was a member of Cole’s first band.
  • The two siblings cut their first record, under Eddie’s name (probably because Nat was still a minor), in 1936. It was during this time that Nat was given his “King” nickname, said to be a play on the Old King Cole nursery rhyme.
  • Cole found his first success as part of a trio (though they weren’t yet the King Cole Trio, as they would come to be known, but the King Cole Swingsters). Radio was key to their rise in popularity, and they became a popular act in the Los Angeles area. Nat’s piano playing was his claim to fame, but he had started to add vocals to a number of the tunes in the trio’s repertoire.
  • In 1943, Nat “King” Cole and the trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records, and their success financed the company’s growth. To this day, the round structure that is the company’s headquarters, built in Hollywood in 1956, is referred to as “the house that Nat built.”
  • That same year, Cole notched his first mainstream vocal hit with Straighten Up and Fly Right, one of his own compositions. The song based on an African-American folk tale that his father had used in his sermons.
  • In 1944, Cole became a Freemason, joining Southern California’s Thomas Waller Lodge No. 49, which was named in honor of jazz legend “Fats” Waller.
  • Cole’s popularity in the 1950s was unprecedented for an African-American performer. In that decade, though it’s not well remembered today, Cole’s records outsold Frank Sinatra‘s by a wide margin. Cole even recorded a trio of albums in Spanish (phonetic only—he didn’t hablan español). His Spanish was reportedly pretty bad, but many Spanish-speaking listeners found his clumsy efforts charming and his popularity only increased.
  • Cole became so popular that on November 5, 1956, he began hosting his own television show, The Nat “King” Cole Show,” on NBC; he was the first African-American artist to host such a show. The show did fine in the ratings, but no sponsor for the program was ever found, a must in those days. Just over a year after it hit the airwaves, Cole pulled the plug on the show. The strain of operating a show without a sponsor’s backing was too much. After the show’s demise, Cole was quoted as having quipped, with a mix of good humor and bitterness, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
  • In 1964, Nat “King” Cole began to experience fatigue and back pain until finally, some time after collapsing during a show at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, he was convinced to consult with a doctor while performing in San Francisco. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and given just a few months to live, but he kept working, recording his final sessions in early December. He died, aged 45, in Los Angeles on February 15, 1965, less than three months after his diagnosis. The severity of his condition had been largely hidden from the public, so the news of his passing proved a shock to his fans across the country and around the world. It’s painful to think of all the wonderful music he could have created had he lived as long as some of contemporaries, like Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

Happy birthday, Nat “King” Cole, wherever you may be!

Nat King Cole

Gloria DeHaven: Goodbye to Another Glorious Gal

Here’s a fond farewell to actress Gloria DeHaven, who passed away this weekend just a few days after her 91st birthday. There aren’t many stars still with us who debuted in pictures as far back as 1936, as she did. Here are 10 GDH Did-You-Knows:

  • DeHaven’s first film appearance was at age 11 in Charlie Chaplin‘s Modern Times.
  • During her film career, she dabbled in a number of genres, from romantic comedy to film noir, but she was best known for her work in musicals.
  • In the film Three Little Words (1950), DeHaven played the role of her own mother, actress Flora Parker DeHaven.
  • She was the recipient of Frank Sinatra‘s first screen kiss, in Step Lively (1944).
  • In addition to her film career, DeHaven worked in nightclubs and the theater, and she would go on to enjoy a long and successful career on television.
  • Early in her career, she was a girl singer with the orchestras of Jan Savitt and Bob Crosby.
  • She was a regular on two popular soap operas—Ryan’s Hope and As the World Turns—and one takeoff on soaps, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
  • In 1975, DeHaven appeared as a panelist on five episodes of The Match Game.
  • Her Broadway debut came in the 1955 musical adaptation of Seventh Heaven.
  • DeHaven was married four times to three different men, and had two children each with two of them.

Godspeed and rest in peace, Gloria DeHaven…

Gloria DeHaven

Happy 97th Birthday, Nat ‘King’ Cole!

Today Nat ‘King’ Cole, born Nathaniel Adams Coles 97 years ago today in Montgomery, Alabama, is widely associated with his pop hits of the 1950s and ’60s, but his musical career extends much further back, well into the Cladrite Era. He began performing as a jazz pianist during his teen years in the mid-1930s in Chicago. His older brother, Eddie, a bass player, joined his band and the two siblings cut their first record, under Eddie’s name, in 1936. It was during this time that Nat was given his ‘King’ nickname, said to be a play on the Old King Cole nursery rhyme.

Cole hit the road as the pianist in a national tour of Eubie Blake‘s revue Shuffle Along (currently being revived on Broadway), and when the show unexpectedly closed in Los Angeles, Nat decided that Southern California suited him and remained there.

Nat 'King' Cole

Nat ‘King’ Cole found his first success as part of a trio (though they weren’t yet the King Cole Trio, as they would come to be known, but the King Cole Swingsters). Radio was key to their rise in popularity, and they became a popular act in the Los Angeles area. Nat’s piano playing was his claim to fame, but he had started to add vocals to a number of the tunes in the trio’s repertoire.

In 1943, Nat and the trio signed with the fledging Capitol Records, and their success financed the company’s growth. To this day, the round structure that is the company’s headquarters, built in Hollywood in 1956, is referred to as “the house that Nat built.”

Cole is to this day considered one of jazz’s greatest pianists, but eventually, the popularity of his vocals overtook the acclaim his playing garnered, and his flair for crooning a pop song made him one of the most popular recording artists in the world (it’s not widely remembered today, but in the 1950s, Cole outsold Frank Sinatra by a wide margin).

Cole became so popular that on November 5, 1956, he began hosting his own television show, The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show, on NBC; he was the first African-American artist to host such a show. The show did fine in the ratings, but no sponsor for the program was ever found, a must in those days. Just over a year after it hit the airwaves, Cole pulled the plug on the show. The strain of operating a show without a sponsor’s backing was too much. After the show’s demise, Cole was quoted as having quipped, with a mix of good humor and bitterness, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”

The program’s failure proved a negligible setback, as the hits kept coming. Cole even recorded a trio of albums in Spanish (phonetic only—he didn’t hablan español). His Spanish was reportedly pretty bad, but many Spanish-speaking listeners found his clumsy efforts charming and his popularity only increased.

A favorite story of ours tells of the time that Cole moved his family into Hancock Park, a all-white Los Angeles neighborhood that was a bastion of old money (by L.A. standards, anyway). The Coles were not made to feel welcome—a burning cross was even placed on their lawn. But when members of the neighborhood property-owners association paid Cole a visit, telling him they didn’t want to see any undesirables in the neighborhood, he is said to have told them, “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”

That, our friends, was a perfect response.

We once attended an afternoon question-and-answer session with Debbie Reynolds in Las Vegas, and she mentioned Nat ‘King’ Cole as one of her favorites. We asked her if she had known him well and did she have any remembrances to share? She recalled Cole as exceedingly gentle and kind, widely respected as performer and as a man. She said he wasn’t bitter at the racial prejudice and rancor he’d encountered over the years. “It’ll pass,” she quoted him as saying. “The years will go by and it will all go away.” We wish he’d lived to see the day; we hope we will.

In 1964, Cole began to experience fatigue and back pain until finally, some time after collapsing during a show at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, he was convinced to consult with a doctor while performing in San Francisco. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and given just a few months to live, but he kept working, recording his final sessions in early December. He died, aged 45, in Los Angeles on February 15, 1965, less than three months after his diagnosis. The severity of his condition had been largely hidden from the public, so the news of his passing proved a shock to his fans across the country and around the world.

We were not quite seven years of age when news came of Cole’s passing, and our beloved mother was one of those grieving fans. She loved Nat ‘King’ Cole’s music, and she passed that love on to us. He remains one of our favorites, and it pains us to think of all the wonderful music we’d have gotten to enjoy if he’d lived to his 70s or 80s, as other singers of the era, such as Sinatra and Tony Bennett, have done. But his musical legacy remains virtually unmatched. He excelled as a pianist and a singer, in jazz and in pop, and even managed to acquit himself reasonably well in recording a few country and R&B songs.

Thanks for all the wonderful music, Nat, and happy birthday, wherever you may be.

Life Without Lapels

We love us some vintage clothing; easily 80% of the clothes we wear on a daily basis are older than we are (we made our debut in 1958, in case you’re wondering).

So whenever we watch old movies (which, as longtime readers know, we do often), we spend as much time and energy focusing on the garments the actors are sporting as on the plot, performances and photography.

We especially like it when we encounter a garment, an accessory, a look unlike any we’ve seen before, and we came across an example of just that recently when we watched the Cold War noir, The Woman On Pier 13 (1949), starring Robert Ryan, Laraine Day, and John Agar.

William Talman, perhaps best remembered as Hamilton Burger, the DA Raymond Burr mopped the floor with week after week on “Perry Mason,” also appears in a supporting role as a bad guy (it was his motion picture debut). And in one scene that finds him squiring Day around from one seedy nightspot to the next, he wears a plaid jacket like none we’d ever seen.

And while we can’t honestly say we liked the look, it was at least interesting.

We are familiar, as perhaps you are, too, with several varieties of lapels on men’s sports, suit and formal jackets—notch, peak, shawl—but outside of the Nehru jackets that enjoyed their brief moment in the sun in the 1960s, we’d never before seen a man, on the silver screen or on the street, sporting a plaid sportscoat that had no lapels at all.

We turned to Marc Chevalier, easily the most knowledgeable person we’re acquainted with when it comes to vintage menswear. Here’s what he had to offer:

“Jackets like this one were briefly popular in the early to mid-1940s. The style originated in California, and was probably first designed by Clinton Stoner. Frank Sinatra was the most famous wearer of this type of jacket, back in the early ’40s.

“I seem to recall that it was called a “cardigan sportcoat” or some such thing.”

There you have it. A Google search yielded no mention of the term “cardigan jacket,” but Marc’s word is certainly good enough for us. However, we also couldn’t find any info about Clinton Stoner, and our curiosity got the better of us. Thankfully, Marc, bless his heart, had the full scoop (we knew he would):

A label from a Clinton Stoner garment“Clinton Stoner was a freelance men’s suit and sportswear designer whose merchant clients included Macintosh Studio Clothes and Saks Fifth Avenue. In the late 1940s, he opened his own custom sportswear shop—named “Clinton Stoner”—on the east end of the Sunset Strip. Stoner’s shop was a favorite of gangster Mickey Cohen, actor Robert Mitchum, etc. Stoner’s daughter, Beverly, achieved some notoriety of her own as a much-married, much abused nightclub singer.”

You won’t see us adopting Stoner’s (and Sinatra’s) lapel-free style anytime soon, but we are intrigued by the look.