For Black History Month this year, Near west Side partners would like to highlight historical moments that transpired right here in our very own neighborhood. These moments in time helped shape the society that we live in today, and were key to advancements for the civil rights of African-Americans in this country. Today our focus will be on The Nat King Cole Trio’s visit to Milwaukee.
Born March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, Cole was raised in a musical family. After his family relocated to Chicago where his father became a Baptist Minister, Cole learned to play the Organ from his mother who was the church organist at the age of four. Cole would not receive formal lessons until the age of 12, but when he did begin lessons he was trained in formal classical piano. By his mid teens however Cole abandoned classical music in favor of his other musical passion, Jazz. At the age of 15 Cole left school to become a full time Jazz Pianist, and for a time he collaborated with his brother Eddie which led to his first professional recordings in 1936.
Before he became the famous award winning, chart topping Jazz pianist known across the world today, Nat King Cole toured across the country with his group, the Nat King Cole Trio. Forming in 1937 after Cole’s relocation to Los Angeles, the trio consisted originally of Cole on the piano, Oscar Moore on the guitar, and Wesley Prince on bass. The absence of a drummer gave the trio a unique sound among other jazz and swing groups at the time, and soon the trio became popular throughout Los Angeles. The trio found their first chart success in 1943 with the release of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and was quickly followed with other hits such as “Sweet Loraine” and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons”. By 1945, Nat King Cole and his trio were a household name across Post WWII America.
Following the success of these songs the trio began touring around the country in the mid 1940s, and eventually found their way to Milwaukee. Booked for September 20, 1946 at the Circle Lounge at the old LaSalle Hotel on 11th and Wells, the trio played an intimate gig which was broadcast live on WEMP at 10:30 that night. The recording was eventually released in 1999 and can be listened to here. The LaSalle hotel still stands today, however it is now owned by Marquette and is named Cobeen Hall, preserving the footprint that The Nat King Cole trio left on Milwaukee.
Cole is perhaps presently more known for his vocals than his ability on the piano. During the latter half of the 1940s, Cole’s piano playing took a backseat to his singing career and by the 1950s Cole worked almost exclusively as a singer. His popularity allowed him to become the first African-American to host a network variety television show, The Nat King Cole Show, which debuted on NBC in 1956. However, due to the bigotry of the era few sponsors were willing to associate themselves with the show and it was canceled after its first season. Cole would continue with his music career and in the 1960s Cole had switched mostly to mainstream pop until his early death in 1965.