At a time when most of the world knew Nat King Cole for the warmth in his singing voice, Jacquie Stiles Stewart knew him for his warmth, period.
She was a Morris Plains, New Jersey, high school senior in 1949 when she won New York radio station WINS’ contest to meet the pop and jazz singer. Cole, already a huge star then, in 1956 became the first black entertainer to host a network television show.
“He was such a nice, nice man — such a real sweetheart,” the 87-year-old Stewart said recently at her Columbus home, with framed shots of their meeting and a congratulatory letter from the sponsoring radio station resting nearby.
Columbus resident Victoria Glick, Stewart’s daughter, figured now would be a good time for her mom to reminisce about the meet-and-greet session amid Black History Month, given the fact that Cole was such a towering figure in musical history. He boasted a record-breaking 100-plus hits on the pop charts, according to natkingcole.com, which no other artist has equaled.
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Stewart said that Cole’s modernized version of “Unforgettable” a technology-created duet with daughter Natalie Cole, is her favorite from the performer.
She spent about 15 minutes with Cole on March 22, 1949, at the New York radio station while King autographed a few of his Capitol Records discs for her and chatted. When the contest was announced, the teen had been battling mononucleosis for a month.
“We didn’t have a TV then,” Stewart said. “Listening to the radio (and Cole’s music) was about all I could do.”
As a fan of Cole’s tunes, she sent in her name and address to the radio station, which is all the contest required, and was drawn as the winner.
Besides meeting the artist, Stewart’s name and picture adorned posters promoting Cole’s next album, “Portrait of Jenny,” in some New York and New Jersey stores.
Stewart recalled that one of the entertainer’s most down-to-earth acts was directed toward her mom, who made the 90-minute drive with her daughter to the station.
Cole noticed Stewart’s mom sitting by herself, waiting patiently for her daughter. So he walked over and introduced himself, as if she didn’t know who he was.
“I thought that was so sweet of him to go out of his way and to take time to recognize my mother,” Stewart said.
What makes Cole’s demeanor even more meaningful to Stewart today was discovering years later that the singer and jazz pianist had weathered prejudice and hatred from people for years simply because he was black. The year before the radio station contest, Cole and his wife endured neighbors’ anger when they moved into the all-white, exclusive Los Angeles neighborhood of Hancock Park near Hollywood.
According to the Cole documentary, “Afraid of the Dark,” the Hancock Park Property Owners Association tried to prevent him from buying a house the well-to-do area. Once the Cole family moved there anyway, neighbors poisoned and killed the couple’s dog. They also burned a racial slur into the grass in his yard.
A few months after their meeting, Cole was denied a room at a upscale hotel in Pittsburgh.
“How he could not be affected by things like that, I just don’t know,” Stewart said.
Nathaniel Adams Coles, known professionally as Nat King Cole, died Feb. 15, 1965 at the age of 45 of lung cancer. Fellow stars of that era who attended his funeral included Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny and Rosemany Clooney.
Stewart recalled growing up and being taught by her parents that everyone was equal, regardless of race. The lesson stuck so well that Glick recalled her mother driving her children in the car one day with the windows down when a pedestrian shouted a racial slur at another person. Mom ordered her children to immediately roll up the windows.
And she pulled the car to the side of the road.
“I know what you kids just heard,” Stewart said. “And I never ever want to hear anything like that come out of your mouth.”
Glick recalled during her childhood seeing the photos the radio station had given her mom and hearing her mother mention the meeting with Cole as if it were no big deal.
“She always was so matter-of-fact about it all,” Glick said.
But these days, Stewart still sees a huge celebrity’s down-to-earth kindness as unforgettable.
- Half-price sale of select books on African-American figures and topics through February, Bartholomew County Public Library, 536 Fifth St. in Columbus. Information: 812-379-1266.
- “Did You Know?” Black History Program, 3 p.m. Saturday, Red Room of the Bartholomew County Public Library, 536 Fifth St. in Columbus. Youth and others will recite poetry, sing and more as they portray famous blacks in various walks of life. Free.
- Sixteenth Annual Gospel Musical, beginning with a free homemade pitch-in meal at 2 p.m. Sunday with the musical following at 4 p.m., Faith, Hope and Love Church of God in Christ, 11401 E. State Road 7 in Elizabethtown. Free.