A royal legacy enjoys a revival

Long live the King. Forty-one years have passed since the death of Nat King Cole, but a new documentary as well as a new, career-surveying CD are amplifying his singular voice in the 21st century.

The Very Best of Nat King Cole hit stores this year with 28 of the singer's signature songs, and American Masters on PBS premiered a British documentary titled The World of Nat King Cole in May. It has recently gone to DVD along with the CD as a retail package.


The legend's daughter, Carole Cole, said the documentary is an especially powerful portrait of a hit maker who also sparked changes in American culture.

Perhaps the most dramatic change came Nov. 5, 1956, when Cole made television history by launching The Nat King Cole Show on NBC. In that era, it was unthinkable to many Americans that a black man could walk into their living rooms, even if it was only via television.


"The fact that Dad took that step into the void to become the first black man with his own truly national television show was huge. ... The documentary not only looks at his music but the impact he had on culture and society. He was certainly a pioneer in many ways," his daughter said.

The documentary studies the behind-the-scenes turmoil that surrounded the short-lived show before its cancellation in 1957. Cole famously said of the show's problems with sponsors that "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark." Cole was also a target of racial fury - in 1956, he was attacked on stage in Alabama by a group called the White Citizens' Council.

But of course, Cole is most famous for "Unforgettable," "Mona Lisa," "The Christmas Song" and many other hits, each delivered with a smooth and unmistakable voice. The documentary has archival footage of Cole performances and plenty of people singing his praises, among them Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett, Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte, Harry Connick Jr. and Andre 3000 of OutKast.

The career-spanning CD, The Very Best of Nat King Cole, includes remastered versions of his 1940s recordings with his trio and runs through his '60s solo singles. The anthology includes a previously unreleased version of "Morning Star," as it was originally recorded for the film St. Louis Blues.

Carole Cole said the success of Ray and Walk the Line, biopics of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, respectively, raises the prospect that Cole's life and times may lend themselves to a silver-screen project. She said that if it does, she can't imagine an actor handling the singing himself, as Joaquin Phoenix did in his portrayal of Cash.

"This is a prejudiced view and a subjective one, but it's just too hard to imagine someone in that role and singing. Dad was very special. It would have to be a brilliant lip-sync to do it right."

Geoff Boucher writes for the Los Angeles Times.