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Series / The Nat King Cole Show

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In the evenings may I come and sing to you?
All the songs I'd like to bring to you...

Shot in the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, The Nat King Cole Show was a Variety Show starring jazz musician Nat King Cole which aired on NBC in 1956-57. The first show of it's type starring an African American, and one of the earliest shows starring an African American in a non-stereotypical role in general, the show featured appearances by a wide array of guests from music, television and the movies.

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The show's format was fairly straightforward, if more focused on the performances than interviews or guest spots than others of its type. The focus was often on Nat as he sang a variety of contemporary songs and smoothly gave the audience fun tidbits about the entertainment industry — giving shout outs to his own writing and composing staff, as well as bite-sized info about movie-making and music development. After a intro song or two, he would introduce his guest for that day and sing a few songs with them as well. Unlike some other variety shows, the show would often feature but one or two guests who would stick around for the whole episode, performing and having conversations with Nat, as well as doing a few skits along the way. At the end, Nat would sing a "memory song" to the audience, sometimes at fan request and/or with the help of today's guests, and close out with the whole orchestra.

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To say this show was groundbreaking would be an understatement. In the mid-50's this show didn't just star a dark-skinned African American on a national network, it presented Nat King Cole in as grand terms as other variety stars of his day. Nat would often interact with guests of many types — white or black — and would not only speak and interact with the white guests on equal terms, but would treat the black guests with the same respect as white guests, all of which fully defied the deeply racist environment of its day. Nat had white background singers, would perform alongside white stars — including white women, which was especially taboo at the time; he had to be careful not to touch them! — and in essence portrayed himself as no less a household name as other variety show stars. What's more, never at any point did the show ever present this respect as anything but justified and normal.

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Unfortunately, being before its time is what ultimately did this show in. Despite a great deal of support from colleagues in the entertainment industry, both black and white, this show could find no network sponsors willing to support a show that featured a black star note  and ultimately was forced to cancel after only just over a year — ultimately at the decision of Nat King Cole himself.

While it lasted, however, this show featured a great many guests who might not have found the same opportunities otherwise (like a very young Billy Preston) as well as big stars (like Sammy Davis Jr. note  or Tony Martin), and a ton of great music along the way.


Tropes featured include:

  • Adam Westing: Nat or his guests sometimes did skits featuring comical versions of themselves. For example, when he had Harry Belafonte on the show they did a skit about their first meeting, featuring Harry as an overly Shakespearean Large Ham fresh out of drama school and Nat as a golfing dandy who mistakes his diploma for a golf club.
  • Homage: When featuring Sammy Davis Jr., the show did a skit dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, right down to the toothbrush mustache.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Nat would often give a quip right before a break. For example, at one point he announced that their next number would be "a story told in 60 seconds." Cut to commercial.
  • Product Placement: Not for any commercial product, but for other entertainment media. Nat would often make a point of singing songs featured in productions either himself or more often his sponsors were affiliated with.
  • Short-Lived Big Impact: This show, while not surviving more than a couple of years, is often remembered as a great achievement for African Americans in the entertainment industry.
  • Variety Show: While fairly standard issue as far as variety shows of the era went (outside of the host's skin color), it did focus more on musical numbers and a restrained number of guests per episode than other variety shows of the era like The Ed Sullivan Show.
  • The World Is Not Ready: Nat's comment after having to close down the show:
    "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."
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