“Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark”………Nat “King” Cole, 1957.
When I was a kid, Nat “King” Cole was one of my favorite singers; especially before Rock and Roll took off in the 1950s. His string of hits earned him a 15 minute TV show on NBC in November of 1956, the same type of show as headliners like Perry Como (Chesterfield Supper Club) and Eddie Fisher (Coke Time) had.
Since a 15 minute format only allowed a couple songs to be sung, Nat’s show stayed on until July of 1957 when NBC decided to move it to Tuesdays and put it in a 30 minute format. This allowed Nat to have more guests and variety which at the time made perfect sense: Nat Cole had a string of popular songs, had a smooth and likable personality, and wasn’t the least bit offensive. Surely his show would be a hit.
Unfortunately, the show had problems from the start. Remember: I’m talking about 1957 and Nat Cole was the first black entertainer to headline a network musical variety program on national TV. Apparently, being a successful recording artist was not enough to draw a large audience on TV which meant that notable sponsors weren’t interested. During 1956-1957 he only averaged 19 percent of the viewing audience compared to 50 percent who were watching Robin Hood at the same time on CBS.
Nat "King" Cole, 1919-1965
NBC tried its best to keep the show on the air but by December of 1957, Nat canceled it before they did. Many great guest stars from the black community like Count Basie, Pearl Bailey, Billy Eckstein, Cab Calloway, and Ella Fitzgerald had appeared for gratis or minimum fees. The same applied to white stars like Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Tony Martin and Peggy Lee. It was to no avail as the audience just wasn’t there.
Nat “King” Cole’s experience was a sad one but he wasn’t alone in his rejection. Black stars like Lena Horne faced similar treatment. Lena was a beautiful woman who was forced into “insert parts” in some major MGM films like “The Duchess of Idaho” (1950). By inserting her doing a number which had nothing to do with the story, MGM could edit her out of showings in the South because of her being considered black.
The beautiful Lena Horne
It was a different world then even though slavery had been abolished almost 100 years previously. That didn’t mean that black stars like Cole were singled out for failure as Frank Sinatra and Julie Andrews, among many other white stars, also had failed with variety shows. It also didn’t help him any.
Nat Cole died in 1965 at the age of 45 from lung cancer probably not knowing that Bill Cosby would soon break the color barrier on TV with a starring role in the “I Spy” series which ran from 1965 to 1968. The ice was broken and the late 60s became known as the golden age of blacks in television. That era saw more than two dozen shows with black actors starring as leading characters or in prominent leading supporting roles. In 1970 comedian Flip Wilson became the first black entertainer to have a successful variety show. It ran from 1970-1974.
Nat had a lot of success but also had the misfortune of being a talented black entertainer who was probably born about ten years too soon.