Nat King Cole is mostly remembered as the man with the velvety voice who sang hits like “Unforgettable” or “Too Young.”
Less perhaps is known about the racism he endured while his fame rocketed.
In 1956, a group of racists rushed a Birmingham stage and physically attacked him. According to a 1965 issue of Jet magazine, when Cole purchased a home in an exclusive all-white area of Los Angeles, residents banded together to try and kick him out, saying they didn’t want any “undesirables” in the neighborhood.
Cole reportedly responded, “As soon as I see any undesirable people, I’ll be the first to complain.” He refused to move.
“He walked right through amazing things that would have broken lesser people,” said Maurice Jacox, who performs as lead vocal in the upcoming production of “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” a tribute show to Nat King Cole, on April 7 at the Lakeville Area Arts Center.
“He would go out on tour and wouldn’t be able to stay in the same hotel with the group,” said Paul Thompson, the show’s tour manager and producer.
The 90-minute show intersperses songs like “Orange-Colored Sky” and “Ramblin’ Rose” with information about Cole’s evolution from jazz pianist to vocalist, his contributions to the success of Capitol Records, his television show and other stories about his life.
The show originated in 2005, when longtime area musician Bob Pontious proposed the idea to Jacox when they were both playing with Soul Tight Committee.
“I thought, ‘Who? Nat King Cole?’” Jacox said. “I’d grown up with the music, but I was more into singing R&B.”
Jacox, who played with Butane Soul Review and soul/R&B outfit Willie and the Bees, said he had thought of Cole’s music as “kind of old and corny,” but “said ‘Sure’ and then promptly forgot about it.”
He didn’t hear about it again until nine months later, when Pontious told him he was ready to start rehearsing. “I had less than three months to learn 21 songs,” Jacox said. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
Once Jacox started learning the script and music, he said he started appreciating Cole’s “jewel-like arrangements… that were so beautiful,” he said. “I just came back saying, ‘What a masterful guy.’ He was one of the greatest piano players of his generation.”
Jacox said he also admired Cole’s ability to take songs like “Nature Boy” or “Mona Lisa” that other singers passed on and make them into huge hits.
Pontious died two years ago from throat cancer, and was so dedicated to the show he “did six shows on the road while he was dying,” Jacox said. “He was an amazing man.”
The group decided to carry on the show, which features five instrumentalists and two backup singers and brings in a string section for larger shows.
“I’m just trying to keep his dreams alive the best I can,” said Terri Pontious, the wife of the show’s originator. She said her husband spent about a year listening to the music and re-creating the arrangements as Cole played them. “You can’t just go to the music store and buy ‘Mona Lisa,’ ” she said, “because it wouldn’t sound the way it was played.
“He wanted to do it exactly the way Nat did it,” Jacox said. “There was no easy way to do that. He did it note for note. It took him hundreds of hours.”
“He had a great ear,” said Reuben Ristrom, the show’s musical director and guitar player. “It was a labor of love.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.