"I didn't bend over backwards, but I didn't go out of my way to offend anyone." Nat King Cole was writing about "The Nat King Cole Show," the first network TV program hosted by an African-American.
When the groundbreaking program premiered on Nov. 5, 1956 as a 15 minute variety show, Cole - renowned for his smooth and well-articulated vocal style - was one of the highest paid blacks in the nation and one of the most successful entertainers in the world.
"The Nat King Cole Show" would become a defining moment for Cole - and for America - as racial tensions intensified during the start of the civil rights movement. "I was the pioneer, the test case, the Black first," he wrote. "I didn't plan it that way, but it was obvious to anyone with eyes to see that I was the only Black man or woman on network television with his own show. On my show rode the hopes and fears and dreams of millions of people."
Nat King Cole originally signed a contract with CBS in 1956, but the promise of his own program never materialized on that network, according to published
reports. Later in the year, NBC reached an agreement with Cole's manager and agency, who packaged "The Nat King Cole Show."
The first broadcast aired without
commercial sponsorship; NBC agreed to pay for the program with the hope that advertisers would soon sign on. The network even expanded it to 30 minutes and increased its budget.
"The Nat King Cole Show" featured excellent musical performances, with orchestra leaders Nelson Riddle and Gordan Jenkins and guests that included Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Pearl Bailey, Mahailia Jackson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte. But potential advertisers were reluctant to embrace the show for fear that it would be boycotted by radical, racist white Southerners.
"The Nat King Cole Show" was cancelled by NBC after Cole refused to accept a less desirable time slot - and after he had grown disgusted by the racism in the advertising business. "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark " said Mr. Cole.
The program's last episode aired on Dec. 17, 1957. Cole spoke out in Ebony two months later. The name of the article: "Why I Quit My TV Show." "For 13 months, I was the Jackie Robinson of television," Cole wrote. "After a trail-blazing year that shattered all the old bug-a-boos about Blacks 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."