The Nat King Cole Show: First Black-Hosted TV Variety Show
Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he. But in December of 1957 his namesake, Nat King Cole, was anything but merry.
Nat was a superstar singer whose records were selling in the millions all around the world. That stardom had landed him his own television variety program, which had been broadcast nationwide for the past thirteen months on the NBC network. Now the show had been canceled, leaving Nat disappointed, sad, and somewhat angry.
A top quality TV show that could never find a sponsor
The program had seemed to have all the ingredients necessary for success. It had top notch production values, booked the very best musical and variety talent in the land as guests, and in Nat had a host who was one of the most popular and personable singers in the world. But the one thing it did not have, and was never able to get, was a national sponsor.
A few local advertisers signed on to sponsor the program in their cities. These included Rheingold beer in Hartford, CT and New York City; Coca-Cola in Houston; Regal beer in New Orleans; and Gallo wine and Colgate toothpaste in Los Angeles. But no sponsors were ever found who where willing to associate their brand with the show on a national basis.
Nat Cole felt he knew precisely why that was. He was an African American man starring in his own show, not in a subservient or obsequious role à la “Amos and Andy,” but as the host, the equal of all the great talents, black and white, who appeared on the program. And to most potential advertisers, fearful about how their sales in the South might be impacted, that was reason enough to avoid the show.
Not unnaturally, Nat had believed that his stature as an international celebrity, and the acceptability he had demonstrated in his numerous appearances on other shows, would be enough to overcome the “whites only” traditions of network TV. By the time the Nat King Cole Show went on the air in November of 1956, Nat was a household name around the world, and wildly popular as a singer throughout the nation.
From jazz pianist to million-selling singer
Born in Montgomery, Alabama on March 17, 1919, Nathaniel Adams Coles was the son of a Baptist pastor. He started learning to play the piano at the age of 4, taught by his mother, the choir director at his father’s First Baptist Church.
Nat quickly revealed an extraordinary talent on the keyboard. He was so good that he left school at the age of 15 to become a professional jazz pianist. In 1939 he formed the King Cole Trio, and earned wide fame as a jazz piano virtuoso. In 1943 Nat turned one of his father’s sermons into the trio’s first hit record, “Straighten Up And Fly Right.” Then, in 1946, the trio recorded what has become one of the most beloved Christmas songs of all time. Appropriately titled “The Christmas Song," the tune is popularly known by its first line, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire."
Nat singing The Christmas Song on his show
It is this song, which Nat recorded four separate times, that marked his transition from being known primarily as a jazz pianist to becoming perhaps the smoothest, most velvet-voiced popular singer of all time. After recording it with his trio in 1946, later that year he made a second recording, but this time with strings added. It became a huge hit. Additional recordings of that arrangement followed, in 1953 and 1961. The latter version, recorded in stereo, is the one you now hear every Christmas season.
By the mid 1950s Nat King Cole was a worldwide superstar due to a string of hits, such as "Mona Lisa," "Nature Boy," "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66," and "Unforgettable." He was a frequent guest star on a number of TV variety programs of the time, including "The Ed Sullivan Show," “The Jackie Gleason Show,” “The Red Skelton Hour,” “Cavalcade of Stars,” and “The Milton Berle Show.”
With his very positive reception on these shows, by 1954 it seemed natural to give Nat King Cole a show of his own. CBS signed him that year to ten guest appearances on other programs, giving rise to rumors that the network was preparing the ground for Nat to have his own program. But somehow that CBS show never materialized. It was NBC that finally decided to take the plunge in 1956.
Nat King Cole hosting a 1963 BBC-TV show
The Nat King Cole Show goes on the air
“The Nat King Cole Show” premiered on NBC on November 5, 1956. Initially it was a 15-minute program broadcast on Mondays from 7:30 to 7:45 pm. That was a prime timeslot, indicating that NBC had high hopes for the show. But there was a major problem from the very beginning. When that first broadcast of Nat’s show hit the airwaves, it did so without any sponsor. It is a measure of NBC’s commitment to making the show succeed that they were willing to eat the costs of those initial broadcasts in the expectation that once potential sponsors saw the quality of the shows, they would eventually get on board.
And the shows were of high quality. First of all, there was Nat himself. Suave and sophisticated, he carried out his hosting duties with aplomb. And as a singer he was at the very top of his career.
The guests who lined up to appear with him on the show were the cream of the entertainment crop: Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mercer, Mel Torme, Mahalia Jackson, Robert Mitchum, Pearl Bailey, and Julius LaRosa, among others. As the sponsorship drought continued, many of these great stars appeared for the union minimum because of their dedication to seeing the show succeed.
A high quality show gets even better
NBC was just as dedicated. In the absence of a national sponsor, they were able to cobble together a group of around 30 local advertisers who provided some revenue. When the initial ratings for the show were mediocre, instead of backing away, NBC actually increased it from a 15-minute to a half hour broadcast, and gave it a bigger production budget to bring it to an even higher level of excellence.
And these improvements bore fruit. Ratings improved to the point where they were often on par with, and sometimes ahead of, the competition. During the summer of 1957, the show was the top rated program in New York City.
Nat King Cole Show Timeline
Day and Time
Monday 7:30-7:45 pm
Tuesday 10:00-10:30 pm
Tuesday 7:30-8:00 pm
The impact of racial prejudice
Nat and his production team were committed to removing every obstacle they could to the show’s acceptance. Well aware of the prevailing racial prejudices of the time, Nat was very careful about how he interacted with his guest stars – particularly white females.
As is common in show business, Nat was used to exchanging hugs and kisses with other performers. But on the Nat King Cole television show, you never saw the star even touch a white woman. When he would sing a duet with a Peggy Lee, for example, there would usually be a stool or chair or some other physical object between them, a barrier not to be crossed.
As ludicrous as such precautions may seem today, they were deemed absolutely necessary at the time. In 1955, only a year before Nat’s program went on the air, 14-year old Emmet Till, a youngster from Chicago who didn’t comprehend the utter viciousness of racial hatred, was murdered in Mississippi for simply speaking to a white woman. And in April of the very year his TV program began its run, Nat himself, performing in an integrated show, was injured when he was attacked on stage in Birmingham, Alabama by members of the White Citizens Council. He never again played a venue in the South.
So, Nat King Cole was well aware of the tightrope he had to walk on his show. In a February 1958 article in Ebony magazine, Nat shared how he approached these realities:
We proved that a Negro star could play host to whites, including women, and we proved it in such good taste that no one was offended… I didn't bend over backwards, but I didn't go out of my way to offend anyone.
Advertisers remain unimpressed
None of this made any difference to advertising agencies terrified of Southern reaction to a black man hosting his own television show, and being shown as equal to whites in the process. Even though none of the 30 local sponsors ever reported any problems, trepidation among the advertising executives of Madison Avenue kept them from even attempting to persuade their clients to sponsor the show. A representative of Max Factor cosmetics reportedly said that a Negro couldn't sell lipstick for them. The show business newspaper, Variety, reported that "At one major agency the word has gone out: 'No Negro performers allowed.'"
These were the people Nat King Cole blamed for the inability of his show to ever find a sponsor. He would later famously, and somewhat bitterly, say of them, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."
The Jackie Robinson of television
Part of Nat’s bitterness at the ad men’s timidity arose because he was well aware of the importance of his history-making effort. In his Ebony magazine article, which was entitled "Why I Quit My TV Show," he spoke of how he viewed the significance of his pioneering program.
For 13 months I was the Jackie Robinson of television. I was the pioneer, the test case, the Negro first. I didn't plan it that way, but it was obvious to anyone with eyes to see that I was the only Negro on network television with his own show. On my show rode the hopes and tears and dreams of millions of people... Once a week for 64 consecutive weeks I went to bat for these people. I sacrificed and drove myself. I plowed part of my salary back into the show. I turned down $500,000 in dates in order to be on the scene. I did everything I could to make the show a success. And what happened? After a trailblazing year that shattered all the old bugaboos about Negroes on TV, I found myself standing there with the bat on my shoulder. The men who dictate what Americans see and hear didn't want to play ball.
He went on to note that:
When we went on the air last summer, two big companies were on the verge of buying. But, at the last moment, somebody said, “No, we won't take a chance.” Two other sponsors turned us down cold. I won't call their names, but they were big, very big. They turned us down and then lost money on inferior shows."
Decades later, Nat’s widow spoke of his disappointment at his show’s inability to find a sponsor. "He really thought he could change things," Maria Cole said. "He just really thought the show was going to change things."
The Nat King Cole Show is canceled – by Nat King Cole
Nat never blamed NBC for the demise of his show. For that network he had only words of praise. "The network supported this show from the beginning," he said. "From Mr. Sarnoff on down, they tried to sell it to agencies. They could have dropped it after the first thirteen weeks."
Neither did Nat ever blame viewers, not even those in the South. His ire was reserved for what he considered to be gutless advertising executives. "After all,” he said, “Madison Avenue is in the North."
Ironically, it was Nat himself who pulled the plug on his show. With the continuing lack of national sponsorship, NBC reached a point where it could no longer keep the show in its prime time slot. They were willing to continue with the program, but when the Singer Sewing Machine Company wanted that time for an adult western called "The Californians" (you remember that program, don’t you?), the network felt they had to move Nat’s show to a less prominent spot on their schedule. They offered to put it on at 7:00 pm on Saturdays, a much less desirable time. Nat said, no.
"It was hard for him, very hard," Maria Cole recalls. "He said 'No, I can't do it anymore. I won't do it.'"
The last episode of The Nat King Cole Show was broadcast on December 17, 1957.
Nat sings "Unforgettable" on his show
Was it worth it?
A lot of people sacrificed a lot in the attempt to make The Nat King Cole Show a success. Did its cancellation signal that their efforts had been in vain? Not at all. Today, the show is celebrated as a pioneer that opened the door for later African American entertainers on network television. Nat King Cole in 1956-57 paved the way for Flip Wilson in 1970, who became the first African American to host a network TV show that was an unqualified hit.
And the Cole show itself has never been forgotten. Maria Cole, recognizing not only the show’s place in history, but also the quality of the programs themselves, preserved kinescope recordings of the broadcasts. (Kinescope technology, in the days before video tape, recorded television programs by filming them off a TV monitor). These have now been digitally remastered, and made available on Apple’s iTunes.
Nat King Cole died of throat cancer in 1965 at the age of 45. But his legacy, not only as a singer, but as a pioneer for racial justice and reconciliation, lives on.
© 2013 Ronald E. Franklin
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