How Nat Became King: Hittin’ the Ramp with the King Cole Trio

I don’t remember the first time I heard the song “Nature Boy,” but I know I’ve been obsessed with it for a long time. There is something spooky about it, something haunted and haunting. Something very Pagan. I get from it the same feeling as I get from an Arthur Machen story. And when you learn the strange history of the song, written by a long-haired 1940s hippie who was living outside, under the letters of the Hollywoodland sign in the LA hills, the song becomes even stranger, and even more alluring. I was a Nat King Cole fan before that song, but it was always a casual kind of appreciation, the guy who sang some pretty good old songs and a great Christmas song. After “Nature Boy,” my appreciation of Cole became much more serious, and it continues still. Here was a man of incredible talent, as a singer, songwriter, and piano player, with impeccable style and a tragically premature death. He was a pioneer in jazz, one of the earliest performers to make the switch from big band to small group. If you’re looking to set a mood, Cole is the man. Smooth, sophisticated, sentimental, continental, and cool.

Before he was “King,” he was Nathaniel Adams Coles, born in Alabama in 1919 but raised in Chicago, where his father was a minister and his mother was the church organist. He learned music at her side, and began formal lessons when he was twelve. At night, he would sneak out and hang around outside of clubs where the likes of Louis Armstrong were performing. At fifteen, the siren song proved too tempting. He dropped out of school, teamed up with his brother (he had three, all musically inclined, as well as a half-sister), and formed Eddie Cole’s Swingsters in 1936. Among their accomplishments was performing in a revival of the musical Shuffle Along. The important of that play’s original run in 1921 cannot be overstated. Most everyone who was somebody (and many who were nobody) during the Harlem Renaissance named Shuffle Along as perhaps the defining event that kicked off the Renaissance, or at least kicked it into high gear. It was one of the very first all-black shows on Broadway and showcased modern musical styles and dancing rather than the minstrel show vaudeville. It enabled black entertainers to step into the limelight of the Great White Way in front of capacity crowds, and among the performers who appeared in the show, in one capacity or another, were Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, and Florence Mills.

In 1937, After the revival’s run, Cole married fellow cast-member Nadine Robinson and moved to Los Angeles. There, he teamed with bassist Wesley Prince (and later, Johnny Miller, after Prince was drafted in 1942) and guitarist Oscar Moore to form the King Cole Swingsters, pulling the “King” from the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole.” They soon changed their name to the King Cole Trio right before they began performing on radio and recording. In 1940, the group had their first hit, “Sweet Lorraine.” At the time the Trio formed, Cole was a piano player. Singing wasn’t really his bag. But a small group playing late night LA clubs has to be adaptable, so as the story goes, one night a drunk was hollering at them to sing “Sweet Lorraine,” a song written in 1928 and most recently made popular in 1935 by another pianist, Teddy Wilson, who had performed with (among others and deep breath) Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Wilson’s version was instrumental, but when the drunk a few years later demanded the King Cole Trio sing the song, and with the Trio having to designated vocalist, Nat took up the mic.

This story is not true. Nat himself admits it’s not true. But he also said it was a good story, so he was happy to have it out there. The truth, however, is not that far off. There was a member of the audience (whether drunk or not is unknown) who requested a song with vocals. Cole was willing but did not know the particular song requested, so he picked “Sweet Lorraine” out of his memory. It must have gone over all right. After that, Nat Cole vocals were a regular part of Trio.

If one is looking for recordings of the Trio, there are several to chose from, depending on just how deep one wants to dig and how much money one wants to spend. There’s also plenty to sample on Youtube. During this era, the Trio cranked out a lot of music for radio transcription services. Groups would get paid to come in and record as much as could be crammed into an hour session. Those recordings would then be sold nationally to subscribing radio stations in need of broadcast material. Although something of a factory style of working, the sessions provided Cole with money and near-constant practice, enabling to continually hone his playing and, as time went on, his singing. Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936 – 1943), released in November 2019 by Resonance Records is probably the very final word on these early years for Nat and the Trio. It’s not Trio exclusive, featuring Nat with some other line-ups in addition to his go-to, but it’s still the definitive place to go for a comprehensive look at Cole’s early days. The massive 7-disc (or 10-LP) collection includes radio transcriptions, studio sessions, and private recordings and shows off the nimble diversity of styles in which the Trio was able to work. You can hear songs that sound like pre-War vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley tunes, hot jazz, riffs, and more,some with vocals, some instrumental, some with someone other than Nat singing. There’s even examples of vocal harmony groups and a few songs that flirt with doo-wop. Most of it is playful (NPR described it as “scampering”), and for those familiar with the Nat King Cole that would emerge in the 1950s, known for lush, string-heavy tunes, this raw, stripped down, high-energy jazz is a pleasant surprise. Heads will bop, and fingers will snap.

Remnants of big band and swing can still be heard, if on a smaller scale, but by the 1940s, that style was starting to fade in favor of smaller combos playing modern jazz—quintets, quartets, and trios, the ensembles that would rise to prominence as big bands disappeared. During the war, the Trio recorded for the Armed Forces Network, which meant that Cole and his crew not only grew popular among Allied soldiers (both black and white) but also among liberated Europeans in places such as Paris, where Django Reinhardt (a major influence on King Cole Trio guitarist Oscar Moore) had been blazing a similar path with his guitar-led Quintette du Hot Club de France since 1934. The King Cole Trio didn’t play the kind of jazz where you sit and think about it (though if you do, there’s plenty to discover). They existed between the big bands and bebop, performing pleasant nightclub and radio songs that work as well in the foreground as they do the background, depending on your mood. The Trio is where we hear the transition from Harlem Stride style piano to modern jazz piano, from street corner vocal group to polished harmony. If it’s difficult to pick a particular song as a stand-out, it’s because it’s all so good without any one thing demanding special attention. It was commercial music, after all, often cranked out quickly but competently. But never is it anything less than enjoyable.

The appearance on some tracks of emerging modern jazz luminaries such as tenor saxophonist Lester Young hint that Cole’s career could have continued as a prominent pianist in jazz ensembles. But in 1943, fledgling Capitol Records came calling. Although it had only formed in 1942, Capitol went for the big time right out of the gate, the first west coast label to punch at the same weight as the established labels on the east coast. It became the home of Ella Mae Morris (whose “Cow Cow Boogie” was the label’s first gold record), Jo Stafford, Tex Ritter, and, in 1943, Nat King Cole. Billie Holiday recorded for Capitol in the 1940s, as did Peggy Lee, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Les Baxter, Billy May, Les Paul, and Sammy Davis., Jr. In fact, Capitol would become home to the entire Rat Pack, as both Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra would join the label and record some of their most enduring material while there. In 1957, Capitol collected recordings Miles Davis had made in 1949 and 1950 for his own label, nonet, and compiled them into the landmark release, The Birth of the Cool.

The Trio signed with Capitol and recorded for their transcription service, as well as releasing a series of hit singles and 10″ records (LPs were not yet a thing). Cole became the host of a national radio show in 1946—the first black man in America to do so. He would repeat this feat on TV in 1953, becoming the first black man in America to host a TV show when The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show debuted on NBC in November, 1956. At Capitol, Cole would eventually transition from part of a trio a solo artist, and his sound would evolve from the down ‘n’ dirty barroom sound of the King Cole Trio into the velvet smooth crooning that would become iconic. Even if you don’t want to shell out for something as massive as Hittin’ The Ramp, any collection of Trio recordings well worth the investment if you are looking for solid, no-nonsense, fun jazz. And although Cole’s fame in the 1950s would eclipse that early style, perhaps even cause it to be forgotten by most people, Cole himself didn’t forget.

Do any research on Nat King Cole in 1956, and one particular incident surfaces. By that year, Cole was one of the top hit makers in America, and he had moved from the jukebox jive sound of the early Trio to the smooth, romantic pop vocal sound for which he is most remembered. Truly he had become King. But in April, 1956, at a show in Alabama, where he’d been born, Cole was in the middle of his third song of the evening in front of a packed, all-white crowd of 4,000. Segregation laws would not permit a mixed-race audience, so another performance for an all-black audience was planned for later that evening, in the same venue—Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium, birthplace of the racist “Dixiecrat” branch of the Democratic party in 1948, led by segregationist Strom Thurmond. But Cole’s popularity meant that he could tour even the deeply racist, segregated part of America and still sell out the show, for both black and white audiences (if not together). However, on April 10, his position as one of the most beloved, most successful performers in the country attracted the attention of the Ku Klux Klan, who decided to make their disapproval of the concert known. It wasn’t Cole’s first encounter with the Klan scumbags.

In August 1948, flush with cash and fame from his work at Capitol, Cole moved into the tony all-white LA neighborhood of Hancock Park. Cole discovered that even being one of the most beloved crossover artists in America, a man with no record of rowdy behavior, wasn’t enough to protect him from racist backlash. He awoke one night to find that the KKK, quite active in LA at the time, has placed a burning cross on his lawn. He was further assaulted by the local property-owners association, which told him they didn’t want “undesirables” in the neighborhood. Nat being Nat, and quite possibly the suavest cat in the country, responded, “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”

At the concert in 1956—the same year he was judged too dark-skinned to stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana—members of the Klan rushed the stage and attacked Cole and his band. Police had been anticipating trouble. As they would later discover, some 100 white men had been part of hatching the plan to assault and very possibly murder Cole, organized by speechwriter organized by Asa Carter, most famous for writing George Wallace’s deplorable “segregation now, segregation forever” speech. Prior to the concert, they had circulated inflammatory flyers depicting Nat with white women, warning that a black man was coming to steal away your white daughters. A mob of 150 vowed to show up at the concert to overpower the band and security. In the end, six showed up. Three were subdued shortly after they clambered onto the stage, but not before they got their hand son Nat, knocking him down and injuring his back. A car loaded with shotguns, brass knuckles, and other weapons was found outside. One of the men arrested, Kenneth Adams, was already linked to multiple cases involving the bombing of churches, the burning of a bus carrying Freedom Riders, and the murder of blue collar worker Willie Brewster (the murder was plotted at a gas station owned by Adams). White supremacist Hubert Damon Strange was eventually convicted for that murder and sentence to ten years by an all-white jury, a landmark decision. However, Strange never served his time; he was killed in a fight while his case was pending appeal.

After the incident, Cole returned to stage to announce that he was done for the night (he’d already been dealing with a front row heckler hurling racial slurs at him through the first two songs) and needed medical attention (though he did return for the all-black audience later than evening). Cole was perhaps more injured by comments he made after the fact, when he wondered in an interview, “I can’t understand it. I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?” This attracted the ire of a number of Civil Rights advocates, who were already sour on Nat for agreeing to play (and continue to play) segregated concerts in the first place. Even Thurgood Marshall took him to task. To Nat’s credit, he listened and learned and woke up, promptly changing his mind about segregated concerts and throwing his support behind the NAACP. The attack garnered national attention and condemnation. Even the normally apolitical industry magazine Billboard cracked its knuckles and joined the fray, publishing an impassioned editorial.

“The regrettable attack on Nat (King) Cole in Birmingham by a band of hoodlums redounds to the everlasting discredit of those who foster race prejudice. By an ironic twist, the incident will ultimately accomplish some good — for it has focused national publicity on the fact that a gentleman of outstanding character and talent may not travel with freedom and safety in prejudice-ridden areas of the country.

The magnitude and brazenness of the incident shocks decent people throughout the land — in the North and the South. It is to be hoped that the incident will not merely be deplored, but will trigger some logical thinking among governmental and community groups who have been apathetic for too long a period.”

Nat’s attackers were sentences to 180 days. As if the year wasn’t already a weird contradiction for Cole, he also played the 1956 Republican National Convention. Later, he would perform during John Kennedy’s inauguration (a lavish affair arranged by Frank Sinatra), making Nat one of the only men, in the span of a few years, to perform for Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, LBJ, and JFK. Also in that year, because the man was nothing if not busy, Nat took a moment to look back to the days when was just Nat Cole, pianist and occasional singer for a jazz trio. Inspired by that, and wanting to pay a little tribute to where he’d come from, Cole got the band back together to record After Midnight, an album released in 1957, featuring the original Trio as well as cast of storied jazz greats.

By 1957, Nat King Cole had been at the top of the American pop game for a decade. His style had developed from the rough and tumble jazz of the early Trio days to the velvet crooning backed by lush orchestration for which he is remembered still. In between the two styles, Cole had proven himself more than willing to experiment a little. Like his contemporary, Eartha Kitt, he recorded songs and indeed entire albums in different languages—most famously Spanish, though years later it was discovered he’d even recorded songs in Japanese—and adapted influences such as conga, easy listening, and even a bit of rock into his repertoire. He’d done so much and accomplished so much that most casual listeners had forgotten that at one time he was playing peppy, poppy hot jazz. Also within that decade, the big band sound that had been ushered out by the likes of the original King Cole Trio had come back in style thanks to the influence of guys like Frank Sinatra and arrangers/composers like Les Baxter, Nelson Riddle, and Billy May.

At the same time, jazz had undergone another major shift. The sound that had defined the Trio was a thing of the past. That sort of charming but disposable jazz had given way to more demanding, more experimental jazz, first in the form of bebop and then as post-bop and, ascendant in the later 1950s, the cool jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. When he decided to reassemble the Trio, Nat didn’t ignore the two decades of change that had occured since they first stepped on a stage in LA during the 1930s. Nor was he going to ignore his own ascendancy as one of the top pop vocalists of the decade. After Midnight showcases a wide variety of styles, sometimes working together, sometimes apart. Nat sings much more often than he did in the past, but he also plays the piano a lot more than he had been doing in the present. There’s even a good many instrumentals. The Trio reworks some of Nat’s more recent hits as jazzier numbers, and they rework some of their own old hits for the more modern jazz sound.

Joining the regular line-up of Cole, Miller, and Moore are guest musicians Stuff Smith, Willie Smith, Juan Tizol, and Sweets Edison. When Stuff picks up his violin, the Trio is at its most “vintage” hot jazz sounding. Smith was born in Ohio but made his name playing first in Texas, and then in New York, during the 1920s. He had his own thing going at the Onyx Club with Stuff Smith and His Onyx Club Boys and scored a big hit in 1936 with “I’se a Muggin’,” which sounds like a bunch of slightly tipsy musicians gathering at an after-after-hours club to cut loose. Smith is the link that connects the Trio to that early blues-meets-rural-meets-city Prohibition-era sound, when a jazz band could be anything from a massive orchestra in a ritzy nightclub to a quartet in the basement of a Harlem speakeasy to a couple of guys in ragged suits and crooked top hats (one of Smith’s signature performance ensemble sin the early days of his career) on the street corner. Like many of the greats of the era, Smith loved to adapt and experiment. Later in his career, he would play with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole of course, and even the otherworldly Sun Ra.

For the most part, the group keeps things mellow. Though the party goes from sophisticated to wild from time to time. “Sometimes I’m Happy” transports the listener back to Hot Club de France, and “I Know that You Know” keeps a speedy tempo that really lets Stuff Smith cut loose. Even Nat gets crazy on the piano during that one. The Trio revisits “Sweet Lorraine,” the song that helped make them, with trumpet player Sweets Edison giving it a modern jazz twist. They do a fantastic percussion-driven version of easy listening/exotica standard “Caravan” and a properly swinging version of “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”

Even when they tip their hat deeper toward Nat’s current sound, as on “The Lonely One,” they mix it up, making it sound less like Nat King Cole in concert and more like Nat Cole, after a concert, taking the stage unannounced and unplanned late at night in some small club full mostly of fellow musicians and nodding cool cats. After Midnight was Nat’s last real hurrah as a piano player, and he misses no opportunity to remind people (or surprise them for the first time) at how adept he is on the keys. The entire album is a joy, one you can sit and listen to with a serious ear or one you can simply put on to enjoy and maybe have a dance to. I love pop vocalist Nat King Cole, but there is something especially charming about this throwback. Nat had already achieved more than most by 1957, and somehow he would go on to achieve even great things in the brief time he had remaining. There’s no one song here I go to as much as I go to “Nature Boy” and some other Cole hits. But it’s the Nat King Cole album I listen to in its entirety most often. It’s pretty perfect. It is a smoky club, a steamy tryst, a perfect cocktail, a shot of whiskey, a wild party, an elegant evening, and an unforgettable night all in one.