The Very Thought of Nat

MONTGOMERY—The college kid at Alabama State University’s front gate is greeting cars and giving directions to new incoming students.

“Hi!” she says to me. “Are you moving into the dorms?”

Moving in? I’m flattered she would say such a thing. But I’m a little long in the tooth to be moving into any dorms. I have tennis shoes older than this kid.

“No,” I say. “Just here to look around campus.”

“Okay, have a good one! Go Hornets!”

“Go Hornets,” says her friend.

It’s move-in day at the university. Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic these students are excited for the new semester. Their modern music blares from car stereos all over campus and sounds like a choir of tone deaf chainsaws.

You have to worry about America’s youth.

Classes begin Monday. Hundreds of freshmen in surgical masks are buzzing around this place like… Well. Hornets.

On the opposite side of ASU’s campus, over by Hornet Stadium, is the historic clapboard house I came to see. The university relocated the structure here from its original location on Saint Johns Street years ago, then renovated it. It looks roughly the same as it did in 1919 when Nathaniel Adams Coles was born here.

It’s a plain-looking home, painted lead-white, with a tiny porch, and a piano in the front room. Ironically, it looks like my grandmother’s house. Except, her den had a record player as its main centerpiece, not a piano.

Goodness knows that woman loved her music. She would smoke endless chains of Winstons, listening to Nat King Cole records, singing along in her hoarse voice until it was time to start supper.

I peek into the back bedrooms of the home. A great man was born in one of these rooms.

Nat “King” Cole was an easy going boy, an ardent baseball fan, and he had a great personality. He was the son of a Baptist preacher, and an all-around good kid.

Which is really exceptional because many preachers’ kids aren’t good. The preachers’ kids I grew up with were mainly good at doing two things: (a) knowing which adult Bible studies had pastries, and (b) smuggling illegal contraband.

Nat’s father was in charge of Beulah Baptist Church, on the other side of town. It was a groundbreaking church, and ahead of its time. The back rooms once served as college classrooms for one of Alabama’s first black universities. A school which later became State Normal College. Which eventually became the campus I’m on right now.

Go Hornets.

Nat’s mother sang in the church choir and played accompaniment for services. Her son was only four when she started teaching him to play scales on the church organ. By age 12 he was playing Rachmaninoff.

The family left Montgomery for Chicago when Nat was a toddler. The big city was a shock to the system, but a good one. Chicago was loud, fast, unruly, and people spoke with weird accents. There were Germans, Irish, Greek, and Italian immigrants on every corner, hanging from every apartment window.

The official soundstripe of Chicago’s heyday was a new music called “jazz.” And it was everywhere. Across the booming city were seedy nightclubs where young boys could get lost in the bebop melodies of a genre that was still wet behind its ears.

It wasn’t uncommon to see Fats Waller, Bud Freeman, or Earl Hines performing in some poorly lit tavern to a rowdy crowd.

In the middle of the night, teenage Nat would sneak out of the house, hike through the neon city, and sit outside the speakeasies to listen. He would hear stabbing trumpet calls, licorice-stick clarinets, and thumping rhythms from the best musicians on the American landscape.

One of his favorite acts was a coronet player from New Orleans named Louis.

When Nat turned 15 he dropped out of school to play music full time. His decision was irrational, impulsive, and shortsighted. But it worked. He took gigs wherever he could find them, lived on highways, and he played for mere peanuts. He performed in every alehouse, barroom, drinkery, juke joint, gin joint, beer joint, after-hours-joint, and whiskey mill from Des Moines, to L.A.

His name became a household name. A name everyone’s Winston-smoking granny loved.

Some don’t realize what a remarkable pianist he was. I once knew an elderly university music professor who said Nat was so good that Hollywood studio players would congregate outside his recording sessions, puffing cigarettes, just to hear him tear the keys off a Steinway.

He didn’t play the piano like a piano at all. His right hand played like a Tommy gun, his left hand was Debussy. And don’t even get me started on his singing.

When he sings “The Very Thought of You,” I turn into a bucket of saltwater.

He was 45 years old when he died. And you’ve never met a bigger Nat Cole fan than my granny.

Except for me of course.

Two university students pull into a parking space behind my vehicle. The young men tour the antique home along with me. And something tells me they are freshmen. I would bet money on it.

Their old model Toyota is filled with cardboard boxes and furniture. Their windows are rolled down. Electronic pop music plays on their stereo. Beneath their medical masks are the faces of pure adolescent excitement.

“Hey!” says one kid, peering into a bedroom. “Nat King Cole was born here!”

“No way!” says the other kid. “Man, he was SO GOOD!”

Then one kid sprints to his Toyota, fiddles with the radio, and in a few moments Nat King Cole’s voice is blasting from the car stereo for anyone who happens to be within earshot. And I can’t help but feel a little warm inside.

America’s youth is going to be just fine here at ASU.

Go Hornets.


  1. Sarah Hunt - August 14, 2020 7:00 am

    I love your stories Sean and especially your recent traveling ones. I love musicians and hearing their histories. Keep up the good work Sir and am hoping you will be visiting and talking about Satchmo’s past. I recently read a biography about him that blew my mind. He grew up in incredible poverty and became an ambassador of music to the world in a time when black people not treated well. Thank you again . Sarah

  2. Christina - August 14, 2020 7:02 am

    His voice is like a soothing balm. I could melt with “unforgettable”

  3. Wyman Pilcher-Marietta, Ga. - August 14, 2020 11:19 am

    I am so glad I found your stories online! They make me smile!

  4. Leia Lona - August 14, 2020 11:32 am

    There is hope for us.

  5. Alison - August 14, 2020 11:43 am

    Nat King Cole is my very favorite singer. My children grew up with his music and now I am introducing my young grandchildren to his songs.
    It made my day to find out he was a favorite of your family, too.

  6. Lou Ellen Dean - August 14, 2020 12:07 pm

    I am 78 years old and remember putting his record on and dancing around the dinning room to his “dance ballerina dance” I loved his voice and music.
    He was a treasure to our world. Still think he is one of the Best of the best!!! 👏😍🥰🙌

  7. Beverly King - August 14, 2020 12:20 pm

    Humor, insight and comfort are to be found on your blog, Sean. Living in southwest Georgia, I feel like I’m talking to a friendly neighbor when I read your stories. I’ve shared your blog with many others so that they might also experience your words and feel lighter in spirit afterward. With deepest thanks. 🙂

  8. Frank Shaffer - August 14, 2020 12:44 pm

    I love the idea that music can still be like a balm and bring people closer together. It has the ability to make people remember and forget. Music, like the kind Nat “King” Cole would sing, should last through every generation from now till the end of time. It’s a gift. as always, thank you for sharing and telling your beautiful stories.

  9. Jeannie Schweck - August 14, 2020 3:26 pm

    First of all, I cannot wait to go visit Nat King Cole’s home!!! Second, I worked with his niece, Freddy’s daughter. She had the family resemblance but said she could not sing a lick. Her father was Freddy Cole. He had that same beautiful voice as Nat and was popular all over Europe. My friend does not remember much of Nat except that once she was with him when a family was traveling and had a flat tire. He stopped, told them to wait there. He went and bought them 4 new tires and a TV set and returned it to them on the side of the road.She does have fond memories of family reunions. Unforgettable!!!!!

  10. Linda Moon - August 14, 2020 8:52 pm

    Water Heater and Cat challenges delayed my reading of and reply to this post today, plus a good bit of time spent online about an upcoming family wedding that’s a bit of a challenge with COVID-19 restrictions. So, I finally loved reading about Nat King Cole and the youth of ASU. Now that I’ve finished with my challenges (at least for now) I’ll be thinking less about them and more about Cole and the youth as a respite from the aforementioned challenges!

  11. Mary Ann Barrett - August 15, 2020 12:13 am

    “Too Young” was our theme song and my sweetheart and I proved them wrong. Still have lots of his sheet music.

  12. DiAn - August 15, 2020 3:52 am

    “Unforgettable, that’s what you are . . . ” And, THANK YOU, Sean, for a helping me escape the pressures of Covid for a few minutes to remember one of my favorite singers and pianists of all Time! Who knew those wonderful details about his early years and upbringing – one of the great things your column brings out, the details that make our lives memorable. – DiAn (Charlotte, NC ).

  13. allisvant - August 15, 2020 3:54 am

    Ramblin’ rose, ramblin’ rose
    Why you ramble, no one knows
    Wild and wind blown, that’s how you’ve grown
    Who can cling to a ramblin’ rose?
    Even as a 12 yr old when Nat recorded this, I already loved his voice!

  14. Barbara Barnes - August 15, 2020 4:36 am

    Loved this story, Sean. My mom loved Nat King Cole. We listened to his records when I was a kid back in the 50’s. Thanks for reminding me.

  15. Tammy O'Connor - August 15, 2020 3:46 pm

    I’m from Montgomery. I’ve always been ashamed of it and couldn’t get away fast enough after high school….i didn’t know about Nat being born there….thanks for helping me see the town a little differently..

  16. woodbill - August 16, 2020 3:41 am

    Just picking a nit — Louis played the cornet, not a coronet, which is a type of crown (as well as an old magazine similar to Readers Digest).

    Thanks for your writing, from a southern transplant.

  17. Alice L. - August 19, 2020 11:10 pm

    I too loved Nat. I remember when he had his tv show. Our family was so proud that a black man like us had a tv show! And then Dinah Shore kissed hip on the cheek and the sponsors pulled out. Years later we find out that Dinah had a black ancestor. And not a prejudiced bone in her body. I transferred all that love to his daughter Natalie who inherited her father’s chops. In 2007 in Fontana CA we had our cable installed by a very nice guy whose name tag said “Coles”. After I asked he admitted he was related and that the family name was Coles which was shortened so the tag “King Cole” would make sense. I miss Nat and Natalie. RIP.

  18. johnallenberry - August 20, 2020 8:20 pm

    I grew up listening to Nat King Cole. I loved him then, I love him now. it sure makes me proud that he’s from the great state of Alabama. Yes indeed. Thank you for this. It’s a wonderful tribute to the man and his music.

    Allen (Ph.Dude)

  19. Stephen - September 19, 2020 7:48 pm

    Another fine tale by the great Sean “King” Dietrich!


Leave a Comment