Nat King Cole, 1950 (NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Nat King Cole's first public performance, at age 4, was a rendition of "Yes! We Have No Bananas," which he learned from his mother, herself a church organist. By age 12, Cole was taking formal lessons in jazz, gospel and classical music while doing everything he could to hear what was going on in the clubs near his home in Chicago, listening to the likes of Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone. Before long, he was embarking on his own career, one that would vault him to the top of the charts and make him the first African-American to host a variety show on American network television. We remember his remarkable life today and the lives of other notable people who died on this day in history.
2012: Charles Anthony, U.S. opera tenor who appeared in more performances at the Metropolitan Opera than any other performer, dies at 82.
2007: Ray Evans, U.S. songwriter who wrote many songs for movies, including the Academy Award-winning "Mona Lisa," dies at 92.
2007: Walker Edmiston, U.S. actor who played the voice of "Ernie the Keebler Elf" in the well known TV commercials, dies at 82.
In the 1960s and 1970s, he voiced many characters on shows created by Sid and Marty Krofft, including Dr. Blinkey and Orson the Vulture on H.R. Pufnstuf and Sparky the Firefly on Bugaloos. Edmiston also had acting roles in episodes of such TV series as Gunsmoke, Mission: Impossible and The Dukes of Hazzard, and performed for nearly 20 years on Adventures in Odyssey, a radio series produced by the nonprofit group Focus on the Family. Read more
2004: Jan Miner, U.S. actress who played the wisecracking manicurist Madge in the long-running Palmolive dish-detergent commercials, dies at 86.
2002: Kevin Smith, New Zealand actor who starred as Ares in the TV series Hercules and also in Xena: Warrior Princess, dies at 38.
2002: Howard K. Smith, U.S. journalist who worked for CBS and then ABC, dies at 87.
1999: Big L, popular U.S. rapper, is killed in a drive-by shooting at 24.
1998: Martha Gelhorn, U.S. journalist who was considered one of the great war correspondents of the 20th century and was married at one time to Ernest Hemingway, dies at 89.
1996: Tommy Rettig, U.S. actor known best for his role as Jeff Miller in the Lassie television series, dies at 54.
1996: McLean Stevenson, U.S. actor well-known for playing Lt. Colonel Henry Blake on the TV series M*A*S*H, dies of a heart attack at 68.
1992: William H. Schuman, U.S. composer who won a Pulitzer Prize, dies at 81.
1990: Henry Brandon, U.S. character actor who had a 60-year career, dies at 77.
1988: Richard P. Feynman, U.S. theoretical physicist who was one of the members of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb, dies at 69.
Feynman was a giant of science, a physicist who worked on the atomic bomb, quantum mechanics, particle physics and other projects and concepts that the majority of us can't begin to comprehend. But when we didn't understand Feynman's work, it wasn't for his lack of trying: one of his missions was to make difficult scientific concepts more understandable for everyday people. It's not every day that we want to listen to a science lecture … but Feynman made it fun. Read more
1987: Jimmy Holiday, U.S. singer who co-wrote the hit song "Put a Little Love in Your Heart", dies at 52.
1984: Ethel Merman, U.S. singer and actress whose signature song was "There's No Business Like Show Business," dies at 76.
That big voice didn’t come from years of lessons, working and studying to increase her range and power. No, it was all natural – Merman never had a singing lesson in her life. And yet her powerful voice could reach every corner of a Broadway theater, right to the back row, without amplification. And her enunciation was so crystal clear that every word could be heard and understood by the folks in that back row. Composer George Gershwin was so impressed that he begged her never to work with a vocal teacher. Read more
1984: Avon Long, Tony Award-nominated U.S. dancer and actor, dies at 73.
1978: Ilka Chase, U.S. actress and novelist, dies at 72.
1973: Wally Cox, U.S. actor who starred in the TV series Mr. Peepers and provided the voice for the animated superhero Underdog, dies of a heart attack at 48.
1965: Nat King Cole, U.S. singer who had hit songs with "Unforgettable" and "Mona Lisa," dies of lung cancer at 45.
Cole has been credited with being among the first bandleaders to use a trio of piano, guitar and bass at a time when big bands held sway. This combo would also be used by jazz heavyweights like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson as well as blues artists like Ray Charles. His first popular hit came in 1943 with "Straighten Up and Fly Right," a song based on an African-American folktale Cole’s preacher father often referred to in his sermons. The recording is often considered a precursor to rock 'n' roll. Read more
1905: Lewis Wallace, U.S. Union Civil War general and governor of the New Mexico Territory who wrote the book Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, dies at 77.