Mary Dixon: When it was first recorded in 1946, Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" was an instant success. It remains one of the most beloved American holiday songs. Cole was raised in Chicago and was part of a generation of exceptional south siders who would go on to dominate in their fields. Urban historian Sherman "Dilla" Thomas joins WBEZ producer Cianna Greaves with more.
Cianna Greaves: So Nathaniel Adams Coal grew up in Chicago. How did those early years in Chicago shape him as an artist?
Sherman “Dilla” Thomas: Because of the restrictive racial covenants at the time, if you were black, you probably lived and what we referred to as Bronzeville. And so that's where he lived and he had access to the Bud Billiken Parade and the Bud Billiken Band, right? He went to Wendell Philips High School and DuSable high school and so both of those places was filled with a lot of musical talent. His teacher or his mentor is probably the biggest influence. There's a school on 51st Street that's named after Walter Dyett and that is the first musical director of both those schools. He certainly had a lot to do with the grooming of Nat King Cole. He ended up dropping out of school really early and went on to LA to become the Nat King Cole we know.
Cianna Greaves: He was so talented and that really was the foundation for his global appeal. In the 40s and 50s. He was popular with black and white audiences alike. What are some of his career milestones?
Sherman “Dilla” Thomas: He's certainly a barrier breaker, right? He's the first to perform, the first African American to perform on a lot of stages, right? Some of those stages, albeit segregated at that moment, right? Maybe they didn't allow for black audiences, but you know, big places like the Copa and everything out in LA, right? He had his own radio show, the Nat King Cole Trio Time, and he also was the first black dude to kind of have his own tv show, right? The first black pop star.
Cianna Greaves: But there was sort of a dark side to that universal appeal. Right? Tell us about some of those fraught moments.
Sherman “Dilla” Thomas: I always say when you're the first dude over the hill, you're going to catch some arrows. And so because of that, society wasn't ready for what he was bringing in a lot of instances, right? The KKK attacked his home in California when he would perform in the south. One time, particularly in Alabama, there was a plot to kidnap him. And then, you know sometimes you will be told that you're not black enough, right? Maybe wasn't as vocal as others would like as it relates to black issues. Kind of reminds me of that movie, The Butler and - where Dr. King admonishes the son of a Butler, he says its the quiet dignity of African Americans that often pushed the lines and spaces where you know, being rough and tumble and revolutionary would get you in the door, right? So you know, it'd be absolutely tragic to not consider him a black activist.
Cianna Greaves: So despite those obstacles, his ability to reach broad audiences persists. The best example of that being "The Christmas Song." How did he land that?
Sherman “Dilla” Thomas: Well, that's another excellent question Cianna. First off, the song was written in 1945 by a very dope Chicagoan, Mel Tormé. Nat King Cole certainly owns the song when he records it. And he first records in 1946, he records his different version in 1953. Uh, Nat King Cole finally lands on the version, the one we all know and love, right about 1960. The song would become an instant classic. The really tragic part about all of that though he didn't really live long enough to see how his legacy would stand the test of time. He was a smoker and as I understand it, since the age of about 14, and he died of lung cancer at 45.
Cianna Greaves: You know, I agree with you, "The Christmas Song" is definitely one of my favorites and growing up the music of Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong would fill my home and it's a tradition that I continue today. Why do you think that music endures?
Sherman “Dilla” Thomas: For one reason, all three of those people have some very strong Chicago connections and when it comes from Chicago, it's going to last a lifetime. But no, I just think it's the, the originality, I think originality even today is a moniker and a marker that will always stand the test of time, right? And no one at all sounds like Nat King Cole.
Cianna Greaves: Sherman "Dilla" Thomas is an urban historian and WBEZ contributor. Thanks so much for joining us today Sherman, and happy holidays.
Sherman “Dilla” Thomas: Hey thanks Cianna, happy holidays to you.
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