Sunday 18 February 2018

Maria Cole

Jazz singer who put her successful career on hold in 1948 to marry the legendary Nat 'King' Cole

Maria Cole, who died on July 10, aged 89, was the widow of the crooner and jazz pianist Nat 'King' Cole and mother of the singer Natalie Cole.

Maria and Nat Cole, the intimate voice on such hits as Unforgettable and Ramblin' Rose, were married for 17 years until his death in 1965.

As a singer in the 1940s, Maria Cole enjoyed a successful jazz career with big bands led by Benny Carter, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. She was performing at Club Zanzibar in New York as the opening act for a cabaret show starring The Mills Brothers, when she was introduced to Cole.

She was born Maria Hawkins on August 1, 1922, in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of a postal worker. When she was two, her mother died in childbirth leaving her father to care for her and her two sisters.

Maria and a sister soon moved to North Carolina to live with an aunt. As a child, she took voice and piano lessons, and after graduating in 1938 from the Palmer Memorial Institute, one of America's most distinguished African-American schools, she returned to Boston, attending a clerical college by day and singing with a jazz orchestra at night. She moved to New York to pursue a career with Benny Carter's band.

In 1943, she married Spurgeon Ellington, a wartime flyer with the Tuskegee Airmen. He was killed two years later during a training flight.

After performing briefly with Count Basie, Maria's big break came when Duke Ellington signed her as a vocalist. She stayed with him until 1946, when she broke away to work as a solo singer at Club Zanzibar. Nat Cole, who had divorced his first wife that year, was also on the bill with his jazz trio.

The couple married on Easter Sunday, 1948, at a lavish ceremony in Harlem. Cole was already a national star, having had his first hit five years earlier with his song Straighten Up And Fly Right.

But when the newlyweds bought a mansion in the fashionable all-white Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, other local residents staged a protest about the property being sold to a black couple. A Supreme Court ruling that covenants barring racial groups from owning property were legally unenforcable, meant that the Coles could keep the house.

Although the property was seized by the US government in 1951 for alleged non-payment of income tax, the claim was settled and the family continued to live there.

In 1950, Maria Cole resumed her singing career, recording several songs with her husband for Capitol Records, and the couple travelled widely in Europe. She appeared with him in October 1955 on Ed Sullivan's television show Toast Of The Town. The following year his musical-variety series The Nat 'King' Cole Show became the first on American television to be hosted by an African-American.

After Cole's death from lung cancer in 1965, Maria Cole established the Cole Cancer Foundation and again returned to her singing career, beginning at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in late 1966 followed by a television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. She also produced a play written by James Baldwin and was active in charity work.

In 1969, she married a television writer and producer, Gary Devore. They were divorced in 1978. She had five children with Nat Cole through birth and adoption. She is survived by Natalie and her twin sisters, Timolin and Casey.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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