All you people “of a certain age” reading this (by which I mean everyone older than myself, of course!) will have at least one Nat King Cole favourite that you can hum to, or even know the lyrics to, or perhaps it’s “your song.”
I have more than a few, from “Unforgettable”, to “Mona Lisa”, “A Blossom Fell”, “Ramblin’ Rose”, “Stardust”, and who could not love “Those Lazy, Hazy Crazy Days of Summer?” Perfectly sums up our barmy political climate in our own scorching summer.
In an age where the US and indeed the rest of the world was teeming with staggering vocal talent that quite rightly are legends today, the distinctive gravelly yet silky-smooth timbre of his voice stands out among that formidable lot. I’m sure that if you hear him on the radio, you’ll recognize him at once, while you might have a job distinguishing many of his contemporaries from one another.
But beneath the devil-may-care jauntiness of so many of his songs (“Get Out and Get Under The Moon” comes to mind)
he concealed a ton of racist abuse he suffered in the Jim Crow era, and the alienation he felt from the black community who felt betrayed that he was not more outspoken and active in the civil rights movement.
It was his birth centenary last month, 17 March. Nathaniel Adams Cole was born in the deep South, in Montgomery, Alabama. He had three brothers, one older (Eddie) and two younger (Ike and Freddie), all of whom also pursued careers in music; and a half-sister, Joyce. His mother was a church organist, which explained the immersion of the whole family in music. He learnt to play the instrument from her, with his first “public performance” of a novelty song at the age of four, and formal keyboard lessons at age twelve.
Having grown up in Alabama, the Cole family would have certainly experienced racism, perhaps regarded so commonplace that much of it isn’t even documented. But even the little that is known reveals how traumatic it must have been.
Nat King Cole was already a celebrity when he and his family purchased a house in the upmarket, all-white Hancock Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles. But they were the first black people to move into Hancock Park, which was considered unacceptable by his neighbours.
The harassment began with the Hancock Park Property Owners Association going to court in a bid to prevent the Coles from buying the house. Members of the association told Cole they did not want any “undesirables” moving into the neighborhood. Cole responded, “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”
His wife Maria Cole recalled the unpleasant episode in one of her last interviews before she died in 2012: “They really just didn’t want any ‘undesirable’ people in there. I don’t know how they had the guts to say it.”
Apparently, the property-owners association did have “legal” grounds: a covenant for the property reveals that the home was for whites only and not for “any person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race”. The only exception for “persons not of the Caucasian race” was if they were there in “the capacity of servants”. Very fortunately for the Coles, a timely US Supreme Court ruling that same year banned racially restrictive property covenants.
When moving the courts led nowhere, the association tried unsuccessfully to buy back the house from Cole.
The harassment then began in earnest, with his dog being poisoned, and the Ku Klux Klan, alive and kicking in 1950s Los Angeles, placed a burning cross on his front lawn, and burned the N-word into the grass.
“It was not an easy time for him or his family,” said Cole’s friend Harry Belafonte with much understatement, in an interview. “Nobody wanted him.”
Cole faced discrimination elsewhere too. In 1956, on a gig in Havana he was prevented from staying at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba on account of its “colour bar.” The same hotel had also turned away boxing champion Joe Louis and singer Marian Anderson among many others. Today, the hotel pays tribute to Nat King Cole with a bust of him and a jukebox in its foyer.
Also in 1956, Cole was the victim of a racially-motivated attack while performing at a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, suffering an injury to his back. He stoically tried to downplay the incident. The assault mystified him, as he had until then kept out of the civil rights movement, and had continued to play for segregated audiences, arguing that one “couldn’t change the situation in a day.” Indeed, he was criticized by the black community for not being outspoken.
After the Birmingham attack, Cole received a telegram from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People): “You have not been a crusader or engaged in an effort to change the customs or laws of the South. That responsibility, newspapers quote you as saying, you leave to the other guys. That attack upon you clearly indicates that organized bigotry makes no distinction between those who do not actively challenge racial discrimination and those who do. This is a fight which none of us can escape. We invite you to join us in a crusade against racism.” He was similarly castigated by others
But Cole had challenged racism, although not as openly. He donated money to the Montgomery Bus Boycott (a political and social protest campaign against the policy of racial segregation on the public transit system of Montgomery, Alabama); and he sued hotels that hired him but refused to serve him.
However, Cole was chastened by the criticism in the black press, and emphasizing his opposition to racial segregation “in any form”, he agreed to join other entertainers in boycotting segregated venues. He became a lifetime member of the NAACP. Until his death in 1965, Cole was an active and visible participant in the civil rights movement, playing an important role in planning the March on Washington (made famous by Martin Luther King Jr with his “I Have A Dream” speech) in 1963.
A documentary on Cole’s harassment by Hancock Park was released in 2014. His daughter Natalie Cole found it hard to watch. In an interview to the Independent, she stated “For us, it was very emotional.”
She added that the racism had not disappeared. “It is still there, it’s very quiet, it’s very subtle and it’s in so many different fields…. We have a way to go.”
There are strong parallels between the story of Cole and the way Dalits, minorities, tribals and Adivasis have been, and continue to be discriminated against in our country. We too have a long way to go.
(An edited version of this article was published on 14 April 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)