U.S. Musical Variety

The Nat "King" Cole Show, premiered on NBC as a fifteen-minute weekly musical variety show in November 1956. Cole, an international star as a jazz pianist and uniquely gifted vocalist, became the first major black performer to host a network variety series. It was a bruising experience for him, however, and an episode in television history that illuminates the state of race relations in the United States at the dawn of the modern civil rights movement.

Cole's first hit record, "Straighten Up and Fly Right," was recorded with his Nat "King" Cole Trio in 1944. By the mid-1950s he was a solo act--a top night-club performer with several million-selling records, including "Nature Boy," "Mona Lisa," and "Too Young." A frequent guest on variety programs such as those hosted by Perry Como, Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, Jackie Gleason, and Red Skelton, Cole was in the mainstream of American show business. His performances delighted audiences and he seemed to be a natural for his own TV show, which he very much wanted.

Although he had experienced virulent racism in his life and career, Cole was reluctant to take on the role of a crusader. He was criticized by some for regularly performing in segregated-audience venues in the South, for instance. His bid for a TV show, however, brought with it a sense of mission. "It could be a turning point," he realized, "so that Negroes may be featured regularly on television." Yet, Cole understood, "If I try to make a big thing out of being the first and stir up a lot of talk, it might work adversely."

Cole originally signed a contract with CBS in 1956, but the promise of his own program never materialized on that network. Later in the year NBC reached an agreement with Cole's manager and agency, who packaged The Nat "King" Cole Show. The first broadcast, on 5 November 1956, aired without commercial sponsorship. NBC agreed to foot the bill for the program with the hope that advertisers would soon be attracted to the series. Cole felt confident a national sponsor would emerge, but his optimism was misplaced.

Advertising agencies were unable to convince national clients to buy time on The Nat "King Cole" Show. Advertisers were fearful that white Southern audiences would boycott their products. A representative of Max Factor cosmetics, a logical sponsor for the program, claimed that a "negro" couldn't sell lipstick for them. Cole was angered by the comment. "What do they think we use?" he asked. "Chalk? Congo paint?" "And what about a corporation like the telephone company?" Cole wondered. "A man sees a Negro on a television show. What's he going to do--call up the telephone company and tell them to take out the phone?" Occasionally, the show was purchased by Arrid deodorant and Rise shaving cream, but was most often sustained by NBC without sponsorship.

Despite the musical excellence of the program, which featured orchestra leader Nelson Riddle when the show was broadcast from Hollywood and Gordon Jenkins on weeks it originated from New York, The Nat "King" Cole Show suffered from anemic Nielsen ratings. Nonetheless, NBC decided to experiment. The network revamped the show in the summer of 1957 by expanding it to thirty minutes and increasing the production budget. Cole's many friends and admirers in the music industry joined him in a determined effort to keep the series alive. Performers who could command enormous fees, including Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Pearl Bailey, Mahailia Jackson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, and Harry Belafonte, appeared on The Nat "King" Cole Show for the minimum wage allowed by the union.

Ratings improved, but still no sponsors were interested in a permanent relationship with the series. Some advertisers purchased airtime in particular markets. For instance, in San Francisco, Italian Swiss Colony wine was an underwriter. In New York, it was Rheingold beer; in Los Angeles, Gallo wine and Colgate toothpaste; and Coca-Cola in Houston.

This arrangement, though, was not as lucrative to the network as single national sponsorship. So, when the Singer Sewing Machine Company wanted to underwrite an adult western called The Californians, NBC turned over the time slot held by The Nat "King" Cole Show. The network offered to move Cole's program to a less expensive and less desirable place in the schedule--Saturdays at 7:00 P.M., but Cole declined the downgrade.

In the inevitable postmortem on the show, Cole praised NBC for its efforts. "The network supported this show from the beginning," he said. "From Mr. Sarnoff on down, they tried to sell it to agencies. They could have dropped it after the first thirteen weeks." The star placed the blame squarely on the advertising industry. "Madison Avenue," Cole said, "is afraid of the dark."

In an Ebony magazine article entitled "Why I Quit My TV Show," Cole expressed his frustration: "For 13 months I was the Jackie Robinson of television. I was the pioneer, the test case, the Negro first....On my show rode the hopes and tears and dreams of millions of people....Once a week for 64 consecutive weeks I went to bat for these people. I sacrificed and drove myself. I plowed part of my salary back into the show. I turned down $500,000 in dates in order to be on the scene. I did everything I could to make the show a success. And what happened? After a trailblazing year that shattered all the old bugaboos about Negroes on TV, I found myself standing there with the bat on my shoulder. The men who dictate what Americans see and hear didn't want to play ball."


The Nat "King" Cole Show

Singer and actress Eartha Kitt, one of the program's guest stars, reflected many years later on the puzzling lack of success of The Nat "King" Cole Show. "At that time I think it was dangerous," she said referring to Cole's sophisticated image in an era when the only blacks appearing on television regularly were those on the Amos 'n' Andy show, the Beulah show, and Jack Benny's manservant, Rochester. Nat King Cole's elegance and interaction with white performers as equals stood in stark contrast. "I think it was too early," Kitt said, "to show ourselves off as intelligent people."

-Mary Ann Watson


Nat "King" Cole
The Boataneers (1953)
The Herman McCoy Singers
The Randy Van Horne Singers (1957)
The Jerry Graft Singers (1957)
The Cheerleaders (1957)
Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra

PRODUCER    Bob Henry


November 1956-June 1957                   Monday 7:30-7:45 July 1957-September 1957               Tuesday 10:00-10:30 September 1957-December 1957         Tuesday 7:30-8:00


Cole, Nat "King" (as told to Lerone Bennett, Jr.). "Why I Quit My TV Show." Ebony (Chicago), February 1958.

Gourse, Leslie. Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1992.


See also Racism, Ethnicity, and Television