Nat King Cole was only 45 when he died of lung cancer in 1965. As his 100th birthday is celebrated on March 17, his music and legacy as a groundbreaking entertainer lives on. “He was a hell of a man,” younger brother Freddy Cole, who’s also a jazz singer and pianist, exclusively revealed to Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “He, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald — people like that seem to go on forever and ever.”
Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Nat moved with his family to Chicago when he was 4. His father became a Baptist preacher, and Nat soaked up the sounds of the church. “You can feel the religion in his music,” says Freddy, 87.
Nat started out as a jazz pianist and only began singing, legend has it, after a drunken bar patron demanded he perform “Sweet Lorraine.” In any case, he became wildly popular as a smooth crooner and crossed over to mainstream audiences as an actor (he played W.C. Handy in St. Louis Blues) and the first African American to host his own TV series, in 1956.
He got married when he was only 17 to Nadine Robinson, his costar in Broadway’s Shuffle Along, but they divorced after a decade. In 1948, Nat wed singer Maria Hawkins Ellington and they had five children, including pop singer Natalie Cole (who died at 65 in 2015).
Throughout his life, Nat faced racism; he was assaulted onstage during a 1956 concert in Birmingham, Alabama. But he never let hate get in the way of bringing people together with timeless hits like “Mona Lisa” and “The Christmas Song.”
“He had a way of delivering songs that made people feel good,” John Pizzarelli, whose new album is For Centennial Reasons: A 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole, tells Closer. “But he wasn’t just a great artist — he was a brave man and a great human being.”
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