Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The Nat King Cole Show

Nat King Cole was one of the most successful recording artists of the 20th Century. He began his career as a jazz pianist and vocalist with the Nat King Cole Trio. The Nat King Cole Trio saw a good deal of success, producing several hit records and appearing on their own radio show. Nat King Cole would shift from jazz towards traditional pop music and strike out on his own in the late Forties, but he continued to have phenomenal success. He set a record at Capitol Records for having 150 singles reach the Billboard Pop, R&B, and Country charts, a record that has never been broken. During his career he sold 50 million records. In fact, Nat King Cole was so successful that the Capitol Records Tower at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles has been called, "the House that Nat Built".

Given Nat King Cole's success, it would perhaps be no surprise that he would make the move into television.  In 1956 Nat King Cole signed a contract with CBS to host a show of his own. Unfortunately plans for a show starring Nat King Cole never moved forward at CBS. It was later in the year that Nat King Cole signed a contract with NBC. This time around a show did emerge. The Nat King Cole Show debuted as a 15 minute programme on Monday night, November 5 1956 at 7:30 Eastern/6:30 Central.

While The Nat King Cole Show was definitely a major milestone for black performers on television, contrary to popular belief, it was not the first variety show to be hosted by a black person. In 1950 singer Hazel Scott hosted the short-lived Hazel Scott Show on the ill-fated Dumont Television Network. In 1952 singer Billy Daniels hosted the short lived Billy Daniels Show on ABC. Since Hazel Scott was from Trinidad, Billy Daneils was then the first African American to host a variety show. That having been said, The Nat King Cole Show was the first time that a variety show was hosted by an African American as successful as Nat King Cole. In fact, Nat King Cole was more successful than many of the white singers who hosted variety shows.

Unfortunately, Nat King Cole's success as a recording artist would not guarantee the success of The Nat King Cole Show.  NBC had agreed to finance the show in the hope that a national sponsor would pick it up. Sadly NBC found it difficult to find national sponsors for the show. Many advertisers were fearful of the reaction the South might have if a company sponsored a show hosted by an African American. An individual representing the cosmetics company Max Factor even insisted that an African American could not sell lipstick for them. Carter Products (who manufactured  Carter's Little Liver Pills and Arrid deodorant) bought time on The Nat King Cole Show occasionally, but it was not enough to support the show. To help support the show NBC sought out local sponsors, so that Coca-Cola sponsored the show in Houston, Rheingold Beer sponsored the show in New York City, and so on.

In addition to NBC's problems in finding a regular sponsor for The Nat King Cole Show, the programme also suffered from low ratings. That having been said, the network still believed in the show and in July 1957 they revamped the programme. The Nat King Cole Show was given a bigger budget and expanded to a half hour. It was also moved to Tuesday night at 10:00 Eastern/9:00 Central. In the fall of 1957 it would remain on Tuesday night, but it was moved to 7:30 Eastern/6:30 Central. At the same time Nat King Cole's fellow performers worked for industry scale or even nothing at all in order to save the show. Such legendary performers as Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Frankie Laine, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, and Mel Tormé all appeared on the show.

Sadly, expanding the show to a half hour and high profile guests were not enough for The Nat King Cole Show get a national sponsor or improve dramatically in the ratings. Unwilling to give up on the show entirely, NBC offered to move The Nat King Cole Show to 7:30 PM  Eastern/6:30 PM Central on Saturdays. Nat King Cole declined the network's offer of a new time slot and decided to end the show.  The Nat King Cole Show ended its run on December 17 1957.

Ultimately Nat King Cole said of the failure of The Nat King Cole Show, "The network supported this show from the beginning. From Mr. Sarnoff on down, they tried to sell it to agencies. They could have dropped it after the first thirteen weeks" As to the advertising agencies and sponsors who were too nervous about supporting the show, Nat King Cole said, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."

While The Nat King Cole Show ended its network run in 1957, it would not disappear entirely. The show would later air on PBS stations in the Eighties and Nineties (I remember watching it on our local PBS station, KMOS). It would eventually be available as a digital download on iTunes and editions of the show have popped up on YouTube. In 2002 White Star released the DVD The Incomparable Nat King Cole, Vols. 1 & 2, which included clips from the show. Sadly, an official DVD release for the entire Nat King Cole Show has not yet emerged.

While The Nat King Cole Show only aired for a little over a year, the show would have a lasting impact. The show paved the way for further variety shows hosted by African Americans, including The Sammy Davis Jr. Show on NBC in 1967 and The Flip Wilson Show on NBC in 1970. Ultimately African Americans would become increasingly visible on American television in the Sixties, with black actors in major roles on such shows as Star Trek, I Spy, Mission: Impossible, and Julia. While blacks are still under-represented on American network broadcast television (particularly in lead roles), there has been a vast improvement since the Fifties when the vast majority of actors in dramas and comedies were white. The Nat King Cole Show then proved to a be a pioneering effort with regards to blacks on television.


Hal Horn said...

At least Nat "King" Cole got a great opportunity on the big screen right after the show's cancellation, heading the impressive cast of 1958's ST. LOUIS BLUES: Eartha Kitt, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey and young Billy Preston, for starters. As you mention, Kitt, Fitzgerald and Bailey all appeared with him on his TV show.

Dwayne Hickman, who worked with Cole on one of the singer's last projects, CAT BALLOU, has a great story about him in his autobiography.

So sad that Hazel Scott's TV career was abruptly halted by her courageous stand on HUAC. Incredibly beautiful and talented.

Terence Towles Canote said...

It was so sad about Hazel Court. I think she could have had a fantastic career otherwise.

I love St. Louis Blues. And Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye were two of the best things about Cat Ballou. Anyway, I often thought that if Nat King Cole had not died of lung cancer when he did, perhaps he could have had another go at a variety show in the Sixties or Seventies. I can only think that it would have been a success.