Cover image for Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole
Epstein, Daniel Mark.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Physical Description:
viii, 437 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML420.C63 E67 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
ML420.C63 E67 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Non circulating
ML420.C63 E67 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
ML420.C63 E67 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
ML420.C63 E67 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Black History Non-Circ
ML420.C63 E67 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



The first major biography of the great jazz pianist and singer, written with the full cooperation of his family. When he died in 1965, at age forty-five, Nat King Cole was already a musical legend. As famous as Frank Sinatra, he had sold more records than anyone but Bing Crosby. Written with the narrative pacing of a novel, this absorbing biography traces Cole's rise to fame, from boy-wonder jazz genius to megastar in a racist society. Daniel Mark Epstein brings Cole and his times to vivid life: his precocious entrance onto the vibrant jazz scene of his hometown, Chicago; the creation of his trio and their rise to fame; the crossover success of such songs as "Straighten Up and Fly Right"; and his years as a pop singer and television star, the first African American to have his own show. Epstein examines Cole's insistence on changing society through his art rather than political activism, the romantic love story of Cole and Maria Ellington, and Cole's famous and influential image of calm, poise, and elegance, which concealed the personal turmoil and anxiety that undermined his health.

Author Notes

Daniel Mark Epstein is an award-winning essayist, poet, playwright, translator, biographer, and musician. He's won the Prix de Rome, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and been anthologized in several collections of essays and poetry. His books include biographies of Aimee Semple McPherson and Nat King Cole, and seven volumes of poetry. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

In the heroic days of the civil rights movement, Nat King Cole (1919^-65) was a giant. He was the most popular singer between Sinatra and Elvis, selling more records than anyone else except Bing Crosby. He used his celebrity well, memorably integrating the L.A. community in which he and his second wife settled and becoming the first African American TV star. Both achievements cost him in racial harassment and vandalism at home and racist refusal to sponsor the TV show, despite high viewership and critics' raves (he put his own money into the program--it was that important to him and to the cause). He had paid his dues, of course, beginning as a professional pianist and bandleader at age 15 in Chicago, migrating to better opportunities in L.A. at 17, gigging constantly for low pay, and creating one of the great small groups in jazz with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Johnny Miller. The trio proved Cole's ticket to success and jazz immortality, the latter because he and Moore were adventurous musicians who anticipated some technical advances of bebop. Epstein is never better than when writing about Cole's music, and his thorough accounting for the other parts of Cole's life is massively documented--he seems to have read everything else ever written about Cole and to have interviewed everyone still alive who knew him. Because Epstein is a very fine poet, it is odd that he so frequently lapses into boilerplate prose. But when he writes about music, he makes you want to hear it--now! For that, much can be forgiven. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

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 whoÄwhether contending with racism, with black leaders criticizing his lack of activism or with jazz critics who believed he had "sold out"Ä 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 musicÄthe man himself retains a regal distance. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Epstein (Sister Aimee) offers a breezy, balanced, and well-researched biography of singer/pianist Nat King Cole (1919-65). After introducing Cole's main musical influence, Earl Hines, he describes the budding musician's Chicago childhood and his initial success on the Chicago jazz scene, including his brush with Louis Armstrong. Epstein continues with Cole's move to Los Angeles and his rising jazz stardom as one of the Trio during the late 1930s and 1940s. He ends with Cole's transition from a respected, poll-winning jazz artist to a 1950s Newsweek-friendly pop star (the first African American to host a TV show) before he died of cancer at age 45. Using material from dozens of interviews and mountains of articles and books, Epstein characterizes Cole as a talented, ambitious genius who changed musical styles and wives as shifting times demanded. Though it seldom places Cole within a social context, this engaging, substantive, and intimate account of Cole serves as the best introduction to this musical giant yet available. Recommended to anyone interested in popular culture and music.ÄDavid Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Epstein based this sensitive, warts-and-all biography of popular singer and musician Nat King Cole on numerous interviews. Taking a chronological approach, the author begins with Cole's growing up in black Chicago during the 1920s, where he early mastered the jazz piano. Soon after settling in Los Angeles in 1937 he organized the King Cole Trio, which quickly developed a local, then national, reputation. Within a decade Cole had begun to concentrate on singing pop tunes, and he developed a wide following and numerous hit recordings until his death in 1965. Epstein devotes considerable attention to Cole's private as well as public life, including his family, friends, and collaborators. He also provides much information on the changing nature of the music industry, the crippling aspects of racism and segregation, and much else. Photographs, notes, and an extensive bibliography enhance the text. A fitting addition to the literature on Cole and popular music, this title joins Maria Cole's Nat King Cole: An Intimate Biography (1971 ), Leslie Gourse's Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole (1991), and Klaus Teubig's Straighten Up and Fly Right: A Chronology and Discography of Nat "King" Cole (1994). Recommended for all academic and public libraries. R. D. Cohen; Indiana University Northwest

Table of Contents

Part 1 Chicago
The Kid--Chicago, 1935p. 3
Gatemouthp. 6
Flight Out of Egyptp. 14
Schoolboysp. 18
Bud Billiken Daysp. 28
On the Townp. 36
The Savoy Ballroom--September 8, 1935p. 47
Brothersp. 52
Nadinep. 56
Part 2 Los Angeles
Sunshine and Shadowp. 65
The Triop. 73
A Year on the Roadp. 89
Fly Rightp. 96
Carlos, and Capitol Recordsp. 104
The Big Moneyp. 115
Changesp. 128
Mariap. 136
Engagedp. 147