John Birchard writes from Washington, DC.
Reading TT’s disgusted remarks about the American Masters Nat King Cole show brought to mind the only time I saw Cole in person.
It was 1956. I was in Uncle Sam’s Air Force, stationed at Craig AFB outside Selma, Alabama. A jazz fan friend of mine and I learned that Cole would be coming to Birmingham as headliner of a tour that included June Christy, the Four Freshmen, Ted Heath’s British band and comedian Gary Morton, who later would become more widely known as Lucille Ball’s husband. We got tickets and drove to Birmingham, eagerly anticipating a show that turned out to be both more and less than we bargained for.
Alabama in ’56 was still very much a Jim Crow state. The audience for the Cole concert was divided by race—whites for the early show, blacks to attend the late one. The evening started enjoyably enough. The artists went through their tunes and jokes until it was time for Cole to appear. The curtain went up on the Trio, with Nat seated at the piano, turned half-way toward the audience, floor mic between his knees. The audience greeted him warmly and he began to sing. Suddenly, there was noise from the rear of the hall, quickly followed by four men, two in each aisle of the Auditorium, racing toward the stage. They leaped onto the stage, one of them tackling Cole, knocking him off the piano bench onto the floor.
There was instant chaos. the audience on its feet, screaming. Before you could blink, there were what seemed like a hundred cops onstage, grappling with the four white men, dragging them away. Now, the audience was shouting, cursing. My friend and I were, of course, stunned at what had happened and now, a couple of Yankees in a strange land, we were scared that the all-white audience might be calling for Cole’s blood. But no, they were angry at what had just taken place, calling for the scalps of the rednecks who had attacked Cole and ruined the evening.
In the midst of the confusion, the curtain had come down, Nat and his guys had disappeared and the crowd was milling about when the curtain rose again, this time on a scene of musicians from the Ted Heath band scrambling into their chairs. Amidst the chaos, someone had ordered Heath to play the national anthem and, to add to the bizarre quality of the night, the Brits launched into “God Save the Queen”.
That was the end of the show. Cole was slightly injured in the fracas and considerably shaken up by this ugly homecoming to his native state. There was a second show for the black audience, but Cole did not sing. He appeared on stage to apologize for not performing, but of course his fans understood. Later, we learned from newspaper accounts that the four racists who launched the attack were local Klan members who cooked up this plan. They did some jail time for assault abd battery or some such minor charge. The Birmingham police apparently had been tipped off that there might be trouble at the concert and were stationed backstage. Cole’s biography includes more details for anyone interested.
I have long regretted that it was my only chance to enjoy Nat Cole live, but on the other hand it was a bit of history.
Mr. Birchard is a news broadcaster for the Voice of America.