20/20: Nat "King" Cole, An American Legend

ByABC News
December 15, 2000, 7:05 PM

Dec. 15 -- Even at the height of his fame, when his songs were adored across the country, singer Nat King Cole was not protected from the rampant racism and hypocrisy that existed in America.

He hid his tensions and frustrations with a cool, confident outward manner, but the racism in everyday life took its toll. Coles damaged health may have been the side effect of the pressures the musician felt during his career.

Coles wife Maria, daughter Natalie, close friends and a biographer talk with ABCNEWS correspondent Joel Siegel about the beloved entertainers strengths and weaknesses and life in America in the 40s, 50s and 60s.

Top of the Charts

In 1946, Cole recorded The Christmas Song, his first hit as a balladeer. It was a happy time personally and professionally.

Nat was in love when he recorded it, says biographer Daniel Mark Epstein.Maybe some of the warmth and sentiment that comes through in those great recordings has something to do with his being in love with Maria [his future wife].

Cole was at the top of the American pop charts, second only to Frank Sinatra. And his ballad Nature Boy had made him a huge international star as well.

Undesirable Neighbors

Although he rode the top of the music charts, the prejudice Cole faced was blatant and sometimes scary. In 1948, for example, the Waldorf Astoria in New York refused to allow him to get married at the hotel.

When Cole moved his family into an exclusive area of Los Angeles, he was told at a community meeting that an undesirable neighbors committee had been formed. Some people expressed their displeasure by firing shots through the windows and poisoning one of the familys dogs.

Life on the road could also be humiliating. Cole was sometimes not allowed to sleep in the same place where he performed. Natalie Cole remembers a trip with her father to Las Vegas when the two had to stay at a motel instead of the hotel where Cole was singing.