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The Icon: Nat King Cole


The short-lived Nat King Cole show arrived on iTunes yesterday and, along with a classic example of mid-50s tailoring, it offered us a reminder of one of the great class acts of the era. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Nat King Cole…

Perfectly Embodied: In his early years, Mr. Cole dressed the part of a jazzbo—think wide ties and high waists—but in his prime he was a perfect example of a dapper post-war gent, right down to the trademark trilby hat. It was practically the dress code for the crooners of the day, but he pulled it off better than most. On stage, he favored flashy tuxes and extremely roomy pants, which came off as both elegant and oddly relaxed.

Words of Wisdom: As soon as you start to make money in the popular field, they scream about how good you were in the old days, and what a bum you are now.

The Backstory: Cole broke into the business as a jazz piano player—part of the playing style that prefigured bebop—but he moved into crooning once he realized what a gift he had in those pipes. Not coincidentally, there was a lot more money in ballads than jazz combos. With it came a switch from zoot suits to tuxedos and checkered blazers. He’d dip back into jazz at various points in his career (and booked greats like Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald for his show), but the critics never forgave him for moving on.

The Gutsy Move: As a black performer at segregated hotel and venues, Cole dealt with racism daily, but one story is beyond the pale: Onstage at a concert in Birmingham in 1956, Cole was tackled by members of a White Citizens’ Council, slamming him to the ground and snapping his piano bench in half. The council members tried to forcibly drag him offstage before being subdued by local police. Cole’s band responded by playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The Takeaway: Never let them see you sweat. Trying and failing to sell the first black variety show to Madison Avenue will damage anyone’s confidence, but there was never a crack in Cole’s public image—even when he was moving through the uglier corners of 1950s America. It’s a kind of poker-faced grace that’s rare among modern stars and modern people—but it’s never too late to try.

And just because we can…