Nat King Cole

by Daniel Mark Epstein

Reviewed by Phillip D. Atteberry

This material is copyrighted and was originally published in The Mississippi Rag.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. $30.00

Since Nat King Cole died in 1965, three good biographies have been written about him. The first was by his wife, Maria, in 1971: Nat King Cole: An Intimate Biography. As one might imagine, Mrs. Cole leaves some unpleasant details tucked away in the closet. Nonetheless, her book really is an "intimate" biography and contains a lot of insight into Nat Cole's career choices and accomplishments.

Twenty years later, in 1991, Leslie Gourse published Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole. This book contains much more detail about Cole's early career and a more thorough analysis of his music. Gourse is an expert on popular vocalists, having previously written a good biography of Joe Williams and American jazz singing more generally. Her book is so informative and intelligent that I was surprised to see another one hit the book shelves so quickly.

I am familiar with Daniel Mark Epstein because, like me, he teaches college English. He is known primarily for his books of poetry, his translations of Greek and Latin plays, and his editing of college textbooks. He is an excellent writer and an intelligent man, but he seemed the least likely person to write a biography of Nat King Cole.

As it turns out, however, Epstein's biography is good. All of Cole's biographers agree on a fundamental point--Nat Cole's relaxed musical style emerged naturally from his relaxed personality. Epstein does duplicate much of the information in the two previous biographies, but he also contributes some new insights. Specifically, Epstein re-assesses Nat Cole's complex role in the emerging Civil Rights movement of the late 50's and early 60's. Like Louis Armstrong, Cole stayed out of the political arena, pursued his career, and protected his well-nurtured image. He was accused of being self-serving, and to some degree he was, but at the same time his enormous cross over appeal did much to improve the image of the African-American. Epstein's discussion of all this is extremely interesting.

Moreover, Epstein spends many pages discussing the celebrated "Nat King Cole Show," which ran for over a year on NBC television without a sponsor. This represented a pivotal moment in television history because Nat Cole was the first African-American to host a national program. The ratings were high, sometimes higher than the popular and well-financed Perry Como Show, but manufacturers were afraid of offending Southern viewers and, therefore, would not sponsor Nat Cole. Epstein is exceptionally good at explaining the political infighting between the national network and its affiliates as well as the constant tug of war that occurred in the NBC boardrooms. Though Maria Cole is critical of NBC for yanking the popular program, Epstein, looking at the issue through more contemporary eyes, gives NBC credit for keeping the show in prime time as long as it did.

Of even more interest is Epstein's discussing the specific episodes of "The Nat King Cole Show" to compare and contrast Nat Cole's style with other great performers-- Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. Epstein has a good eye for distinctions, and makes plenty of interesting and subtle observations.

Epstein is certainly not as good at analyzing Nat Cole's music as Leslie Gourse, for he comes at it too much like an academic. His analysis of "Straighten Up and Fly Right" is detailed and interesting, but in finding it to be a symbolic parable about "race relations in America" he takes the song too seriously. Similarly, his view that "Nature Boy" is a Jewish song that struck a chord with the American public's sympathy for Israel seems too grandiose. Epstein's musical analyses are always interesting but for me not always convincing.

Even so, this is a good book, and for those who haven't read Leslie Gourse's biography, I would read this one. Epstein's literary background enables him to write with considerable flair and narrative force. The opening chapter, which describes a young Nathaniel Coles in a cutting contest with the great Earl Hines in a Chicago ballroom is entertaining reading, as is much of the rest of the book.