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'The Nat King Cole TV Show' coming to iTunes on Feb. 15

February 12, 2011 | 10:12 pm

Nat King Cole-Capitol Archive 
Nat King Cole fans have a Valentine's week treat in store this year: His estate will begin posting episodes of his groundbreaking 1950s series “The Nat King Cole TV Show” for digital downloading on iTunes.

For a too-brief period in 1956-57, the always urbane and elegant singer-pianist hosted some of the most revered names in jazz and pop on his NBC series: Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mercer, Mel Tormé and Peggy Lee, among others.

The episodes have been remastered for the first time from the original black-and-white kinescopes, which sets them apart from a DVD release of highlights from the series released in 2002 without the cooperation of Cole’s family.

“It’s about time,” Cole’s widow, Maria Hawkins Cole,  88, said by phone from her home in Florida. “I don’t know what the first releases are—there’s one he did with the Mills Brothers, and they were terrific. This many years later, you hear them and there still isn’t a group around that sounds like them. Offhand, that’s probably my favorite one.”

“I have to tell you, in those days I didn’t realize how important some of those people were,” she said. “But as time went by it became clear what geniuses they were."

The same might be said of Cole himself. He often downplayed his own abilities both as a singer and as a pianist. But Maria Cole, who was five years younger than her husband, recalls, “Nat would talk like he wasn’t that good, but I did meet Art Tatum once. We weren’t married then. He said ‘I hope you know [Nat] is a genius.’ I met a few people with Nat. I met Billie Holiday like that.”

The Cole shows will go up on iTunes on Tuesday, the 46th anniversary of his death at age 45 from  cancer. The plan is to post four new episodes per month. Of the original 64 shows that Cole did, kinescopes of two to three dozen have survived, and it's estimated that iTunes will make 25 to 30 of them available to the public, a spokesman for the Cole estate said. Maria Cole said the tapes were donated for preservation and restoration to the Paley Center for Media about a decade ago.

Beyond the pure musical treasures it yielded, “The Nat King Cole TV Show” was a historical milestone as the first network TV show to star an African American.  Yet as popular as Cole was on the radio airwaves and in record stores of the time, advertisers balked at coming aboard. So NBC put the show on without national sponsors, a situation that led to its short lifespan.

It’s a facet of their life together that Maria Cole thinks successive generations aren’t fully aware of. 

“I went to the hospital with a friend to visit her mother, who knew my background," she said. "She brought that up and her daughter was there with her mouth hanging open. She said ‘I just didn’t know about the racial thing'.”

The “racial thing” also included a racially motivated attack on Cole in Birmingham, Ala., in 1956, a campaign to prevent him from buying a house in a white neighborhood in L.A.’s Hancock Park neighborhood in 1949 and frequent troubles checking into hotels when he was on tour.

“When we traveled on the road, a lot of it was by car, and when we went to hotels, he would never let me go in until he knew they had a room,” she said. “They were afraid of being refused. So I never experienced that directly.

“He was chastised a lot about the attack in Alabama because he didn’t go crazy about it,” she said. “But that wasn’t his nature. He did it his way—he didn’t yell and scream.

“We were opposite in personalities,” she added with a gentle laugh. “He was a very elegant man, and he’s very sorely missed, by his family and by his fans too. But I think we’ll be seeing more and more of him with the release of the television shows, and other projects.”

--Randy Lewis

Photo of Nat King Cole. Credit: Capitol Records Archive.

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