'The World of Nat King Cole'
Thursday, May 18, 2006; 2:00 PM
In 2005 -- 40 years after his untimely death -- Nat King Cole returned to Billboard's Top 50. Featuring the musical pioneer, the American Masters documentary "The World of Nat King Cole" examines Cole's appeal and achievements during a 30-year music and television career. It aired on PBS on Wednesday, May 17 at 9 p.m. ET. (Check local listings.)
Nat King Cole's daughter Carole Cole was online Thursday, May 18, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her father's life and career.
This American Masters film focuses not only on Cole's celebrity, but on the Civil Rights movement and how the singer of such popular songs as "Mona Lisa," "Too Young" and "Pretend" broke through major racial barriers in the entertainment industry as the first black American to have his own national radio show and the first black American to have his own television show.
The eldest of Nat King Cole's children, Carole Cole began her acting career in 1965 and signed to Columbia Pictures with her fellow actor, Harrison Ford. Her acting credits include the films The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (1974), The Mad Room (1969) and The Silencers (1967). She appeared on television in "Positively Black" (1975) and was a series costar on the NBC sitcom "Grady" (1975-6). On stage Cole appeared in Gore Vidal's Weekend (1968), the Lincoln Center/Public Theater production of Pericles (1974 New York Shakespeare Festival) and What If It Had Turned Up Heads (1972). As a writer, Cole's credits include features in On Stage, On Location Magazine and Christmas For Kids (CD).
Cole is currently CEO of King Cole Partners and King Cole Productions and sits on the Board of Directors with sisters Natalie Cole, Timolin Cole-Augustus and Casey Cole-Ray.
The transcript follows.
Carole Cole: Hi everybody, great to meet you in cyberspace!
Winterport, Maine: Ms. Cole:
Pure jazz fans have always admired Nat's prowess on the piano (I wish I could have sat around when he was just "doodling".)
What is your take on your father's keyboard skills and what did he like to play when relaxing at home?
Carole Cole: Interesting question. I also have a very real passion for my dad's piano prowess. I think it's great that so many people who are beginning to discover it, that really weren't aware that he was such an extraordinary pianist. As his original fans know, dad started on the piano, and never had a real interest in doing any kind of vocal work. When he put the trio together, what's interesting to me, it was at a time when the big bands were what was happening. And for him to come in with a trio was kind of unheard of there. And I think it was because it was this trio, these three instruments, piano, guitar and bass, you could hear them in a way, where they would often get obscured in a big, big band, so all those players were really spotlighted. But dad's love of the piano began early on when he was playing organ in his father's church. And his father wasn't enormously happy that his son was actually leaning more towards jazz rather than gospel music, but he and his brothers pursued their love for jazz, and the rest as they say is history.
I think "doodling" at home on the piano was a combination of him sort of improvising - I think again early in his career he did more songwriting when he was with the trio than he did in later years. And other doodling, interestingly enough, was done when he would get together with songwriters, and they would want to play whatever they'd written, obviously in the hopes that he would want to record what they had written. So often, there would be a jam on the piano between a songwriter like Jimmy McCue and him.
New York, N.Y.: Hello Ms. Cole,
I've often wondered how your father approached the contradiction of being a respected entertainer loved by many Americans on the one hand, and yet at the same time an African-American fully aware that he and his fellow African-Americans were viewed and treated as unequals by American society in general. Did your father ever talk openly with you or others about the civil rights struggle, what he viewed his role in it to be, and his opinions and hopes with respect to it, or politics in general?
Carole Cole: I'm not sure that my father perceived these issues as a contradiction necessarily. I think as an artist he saw through the limitations and the prejudices that existed in the world. I imagine part of the reason that he perceived these issues a little differently began with the way he was brought up, with a father that was a Baptist minister. So I think that part of his view of the world was, in a kind of real way, dictated from a spiritual point of view. On the other hand, he obviously realized what he was up against with other African Americans and people of color in this country and other places in the world. And I think he took it upon himself to break through those barriers in whatever way presented itself to him. So as is explored a bit in the documentary, he would - if it was a matter of moving into a neighborhood that a covenant or racial restrictions for those who lived there - his choice was to move in. I think that same approach was used when he would be touring and have to deal with where he would be staying in a hotel, or when he would be performing and there were restrictions with seating African Americans. So all of these kinds of things I think he approached on a case by case level. Overall, I think my father believed in making changes by, or leading by, example. He wasn't inclined to hold a press conference when he broke down a barrier or changed a policy. He did it in his own quiet way. But he was adamant about making those changes that would ultimately open doors for everybody else.
Melbourne, Australia: Did your Dad speak Spanish?, I fondly remember a song called "Adelita". When will this special be screened in Australia?I'll be 50 next year, my dad loved your Dad's music and because it reminds me of my dad, I love it as well. Thank you.--Dalila
Carole Cole: Well Dalila, no, my father didn't actually speak Spanish. But as you and your dad may know, he recorded three albums in Spanish which he learned phonetically. He certainly had a deep admiration for Latin culture. And a number of friends from Mexico, Brazil and Cuba. In fact his manager, Caroles Gastel, was Cuban. I wish I could tell you when the documentary airs in Australia...But either check your local listings, or go online to the American Masters Web site.
washingtonpost.com: American Masters
Dallas, Tex.: My parents, from Latin America, love Nat King Cole. They always played his Spanish albums. I have spoken to other Hispanics who say the same thing. He was the first to attempt this and the people loved him for it. More artists today should try this approach.
Carole Cole: I agree. I think it's interesting to me that this was another area in which I believe my father was a pioneer. You might be interested to know that in his travels throughout Latin America he was received with opened arms and an enormous amount of affection. For instance, when he first toured Brazil it seemed the population of Rio de Janeiro turned out en masse throwing roses at his feet to walk on, and he and my mother were asked to stay with the then-president of Brazil in the Brazilian palace. It's also interesting that he attempted to record in a number of other languages which needless to say, further endeared him to other cultures. He recorded Autumn Leaves in Japanese, which you can see in the documentary. I believe he recorded a tune here or there in Italian, French. And I imagine he would have done more in this area if he'd had the time.
Clinton, Md.: I read somewhere that Nat smoked three packs a day, believing smoking kept his voice low. Did he have any other daily rituals that he felt encouraged his art?
Carole Cole: I don't know how many packs a day he smoked, and I certainly don't believe he thought it enhanced his vocal chops. Although I do believe he was quoted as saying that, I believe it was a misquote. Daily rituals - I know there were some throat lozenges that he used at times, especially when he was on the road and had to perform 2 or 3 shows back to back. But other than that I don't think he paid much attention to caring for his voice in that sense.
Louisville, Ky.: I love your father's music, and so do my kids!
Did your father ever sing you songs at bedtime?
Carole Cole: Well, Ben, I wish he would have sung at bed time! But, he and my mother were usually on the road touring. He did, however, record two children's albums that are absolutely delightful. And my sister Natalie and I have a favorite tune from those albums that's called Ke-mo Ki-mo. This is one of the coolest songs for kids and adults! It's also called The Magic Song. And Ke-mo Ki-mo kind of translates to "I love you."
Washington, D.C.: Will there be a movie made about his life and if so are there any actors that you would want to portray Nat King Cole.
Carole Cole: That's a good question! We certainly would love to see a biography of Nat's life on the big screen. Almost every other month we get approached by someone who would like to see this film made. Certainly after the success of Walk the Line and the Ray Charles film, there's been an additional amount of interest. A number of actors have expressed their desire to play dad, and lately we've been thinking that Dennis Haysberg - currently in The Unit - has something in his physical presence and his stature that reminds us of our father. And of course, he's a wonderful actor. Should a film be made we agree that the tracks of dad's music would be used instead of someone having the daunting task of trying to imitate his voice. So, yes, maybe one day, a film will be done.
Raphael Cristy, Albuquerque, N.M.: Did Nat Cole enjoy and continue to play the piano after he stopped including the piano in his performances?
Carole Cole: Absolutely. The piano I believe was his first love. Dad had such a deep regard for musicians. And I think he clearly understood that special instrumental language that musicians have in communicating. I was always amazed by the moment in dad's performances when he would smile at the audience and say, "now for you music lovers" ... And then he would sit at the piano stool, and with his rhythm section and the orchestra play a medley of instrumental tunes.
Falls Church, Va.: I think your Dad's version of Stardust is the single most sublime piece of pop music of the 20th century.
He brought great artistry and feeling to his singing. While listening to the song SMILE a few years back I couldn't help think it was his personal response to racial oppression. Or was he more confrontational about that issue? What do you think?
Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though its breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You'll see the sun come shining through for you
Carole Cole: It's interesting that you've made this kind of connection to the song and racial tensions or obstacles. In the documentary there's actual a segue that's made between the incident when Nat is attacked on stage in Birmingham, Alabama and the song, "Smile". However, that was an editing choice. And this beautiful song, "Smile", was actually written by Charlie Chaplin, who was a friend of my dad's. And I believe it was in the film Modern Times when Chaplin's little tramp character is walking away from the camera, that song is used.
Redondo Beach, Calif.: As a fourteen year old in 1958, I met two daughters of Nat Cole, who he introduced as "Cookie" and "Sweetie", at a home Nat owned in the Hancock Park section of Los Angeles. Are you one of those two girls? We went to a Dodger game together.
Peter, Redondo Beach
Carole Cole: Peter in Redando Beach - yeah, I'm Cookie! Nice hearing from you. I wish I could remember. We want to so many Dodger games, as both of my parents were huge baseball fans.
Washington, D.C.: What an honor to speak with you. I've always loved and admired the music your family creates --including your uncle, Freddy Cole (I'm Not My Brother, I'm Me).
I was wondering if you or your brother are singers/musicians and if we can ever expect the family to perform together in public?
Carole Cole: Well interestingly enough, our uncle Freddy Cole has performed with my sister Natalie. Every now and again they do some gigs at like the Blue Note in Japan, and the Blue Note in New York. And all of my uncles were musicians, all very talented. Freddy Cole's son is a musician/songwriter, that would be my cousin Lionel. My youngest son Harleigh is a musician, composer. Plays keyboard and congas. So who knows, maybe one day, all these talents in the family will perform together. Time will tell.
Forestville, Md.: I would like to tell you that even though I was a little girl when your Dad died, I do remember him and my parents were avid Nat King Cole fans and I grew up listening to his incredible voice, What God given talent the likes will never be in any other person. Thank you Mr. Cole.
Carole Cole: Thanks so much for your thoughts. I'm always stunned by people who even, like yourself, as children, felt some connection to this man. Really he touched a lot of hearts across racial and generational lines. It's rather extraordinary to me.
Matawan, N.J.: Hi Carole, I'm a new fan of your Dad's music thanks to this PBS documentary...he's in my iPod this morning! Do you have a favorite song of his?
Carole Cole: Wow, how cool is that?!? And he's in your iPod too! That is wonderful. You might log onto the hollywoodandvine.com Web site to discover lots of great tracks and CD's in his catalogue. As for my favorite song, obviously I have many, but here are three that are at the top of my personal list. One would be Nature Boy, two would be Stardust. And three would be When I Fall In Love.
Trenton, Mich.: Do you think that your father would have continued performing well into his golden years? Anything he wanted to do professionally that fate didn't allow?
Carole Cole: Yes I do think he would have continued performing, at least for as long as he felt he would be at the top of his game musically. Based on some of the things he was doing prior to his passing, I also believe he would have started producing. Dad was very adept at recognizing and appreciating new talent. So I think he would have been interested in helping young people get their start. And advising them and perhaps recording them. Dad also loved the theater and film. And I imagine he would have considered developing his acting chops if there had been roles, or if there had been more roles available. Because of his experiences and pioneering efforts in the world of television I think he recognized the importance of African Americans being characterized in film in ways that were not promoting stereotypes.
Washington, D.C.: Dear Ms. Cole. The comment made by the person from Falls Church, VA is very interesting. The song "SMILE" reminds me of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "We wear the mask".
I am a 20 year-old-actor/piano player and enjoy Nat King Cole's Music. What other artist's work did Nat King Cole enjoy?
Carole Cole: It's always nice to hear from someone who reads and embraces poetry. The short list of other artists Nat enjoyed would be as follows: Nancy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, John Coltrane, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, Peggy Lee, Quincy Jones, the list goes on. But again, my father was always inclined to celebrate other artists and their work. I think he would have enjoyed being an audience member more than he had the time to do.
Similar artist: I noticed Bryan McKnight singing to your mom on a TV show. Could you name, in your opinion any current artist that have the same flavor as your dad's music and style. Class act.
D. Bennaugh (Nat reminds me of my late father)
Carole Cole: You know I think there are a number of contemporary artists who have something in their tone, or their presentation or their phrasing that suggests Nat was an influence. We now know that there were a number of artists during Nat's lifetime that emulated his sound. Two that immediately come to mind are Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. I actually have an early Marvin Gaye retrospective in which he's singing a number of signature tunes of dads with the same arrangement. I also think that Stevie Wonder carries that Cole energy as well.
Washington, D.C.: Can you tell us a little a bit about your father's relationship with Sinatra?
Carole Cole: Frank and Nat were great friends. I think they had a kind of mutual admiration society going on between them. Clearly they respected each other and occasionally collaborated. So throughout their lives I think there was a good, solid friendship.
Jersey City, N.J.: Hi Carole,You're an accomplished performer in your own right. How much help or hindrance was being Nat's daughter along your way?
Carole Cole: It's hard to say in some ways how much of a help or hindrance it was. I think in getting into the business of show I really wanted to "make it on my own", to the extent that at one point I seriously considered changing my name. I think that because I went into the field of acting there were some issues I didn't have to deal with. But I think that because Natalie became a singer, she was always up against comparisons being made when she began. So I think Natalie and I are always sympathetic to the children of icons whose image and life and work is bigger than life - it's hard to follow in those footsteps. But sometimes follow you must. And it comes with the territory that you're going to be judged in this kind of comparative way, rightly or wrongly.
Philadelphia, Pa.: What do you think your Dad would have thought about the Unforgettable duet Natalie conjured years back? It's a beautiful song, but I really wonder if he would have liked it or felt he was being taken advantage of?
Carole Cole: I certainly don't think he would have thought he was being taken advantage of. In fact, I think he would have championed the concept and if he had been alive, I think he would have done the duet with her.
Boston, Mass.: We all admired Nat as a singer, I know I did. Like was said on the program, Nat could sing anything. But, I often wondered what he thought about his piano being a part of his persona as his acclaim grew as a singer? That 'Round Midnight ' recording was a blessing to all of us who admired his piano playing. Do you think if he had lived longer he would have returned to his roots. He was GREAT!
Carole Cole: I'm so glad to hear that you admire the 'Round Midnight recording. It's a classic and considering all the things going on in music today, I think dad would have been involved in almost all of it. I say this because he was truly a music lover and to my knowledge, there was really no genre of music that he didn't give time to, or take into consideration. If he were alive today I think, not only would he revisit his jazz roots, I think he would have been working with some of the young talent today who are experimenting and sampling and discovering ways to juxtapose different sounds. I think dad would be a fan of Kanye West, Andre 3000, Missy Elliot, and there's a long list of that. I think he would be thrilled to see that, with all these new technologies, we have, everyone in the world has access to the music that's being played everywhere in the world. I think he would be delighted to hear Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Alicia Keys and John Legend, you name it. I think he'd just find it all good!
Carole Cole: Thank you everyone for getting in touch. For those of you that enjoyed the documentary, you might want to check out the DVD which is actually a 90 plus minute version of what was broadcast. There are all kinds of extras and goodies and footage that you couldn't see in the 60 minute version. So thanks to all. And thank you, thank you for helping to keep my father's music and spirit alive.
washingtonpost.com: Thank you for joining today's discussion.
Next week on Wednesday, May 24, American Masters continues its 20th anniversary season with "Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul" at 9 p.m. ET and "Waters: Can't Be Satisfied" at 10 p.m. ET. (Check local listings.)
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