Learning to play the piano at an early age, Nathaniel Adams Coles secured a residency at Chicago’s Panama Club with his brother Eddie while still in his teens.
They recorded their first single as The Nat King Cole Trio and were soon offered a record deal by Capitol.
He would become their most successful recording artist – indeed, their headquarters on the corner of Hollywood and Vine would be later be referred to as “The house that Nat built”.
In 1947 alone, Cole recorded over 80 songs – and many became hits. His version of Nature Boy stayed at number one for two months in 1948.
His version of Mona Lisa hit the US charts in June 1950 and sold 3 million copies. His reputation then shifted from jazz pianist and songwriter to a stand-up singer and song interpreter.
Many other hit records followed, most memorably Stardust, Smile, Route 66 and Unforgettable. In 1955 he became the first singer to have six records in the charts at the same time.
His stylistic and audience shift caused some controversy among his old jazz colleagues, who considered his new pop career a sell-out.
Cole’s blend of personality and musicality was perfect for the intimate experience of television and, in 1956, he became the first African American to host his own variety show. The Nat King Cole Show was broadcast on NBC for just over a year.
In 1964 Cole began to lose weight for no apparent reason. Always a heavy smoker (up to 60 a day), he was informed he had a malignant tumour in his lung.
Cole succumbed to lung cancer on 15 February 1965, dying quietly in his sleep. He was just 48.