1956 November 5

Nat King Cole Show, First to Star an African-American, Debuts on NBC television


Nat King Cole was one of the most popular pop singers in the 1950s. His NBC television show, which debuted on this day, was the first network television show hosted by an African-American. No company was willing to sponsor the show, however, and it was not carried by southern stations. It began as a 15-minute show and then expanded to 30 minutes. It broadcast for a little more than a year, ending in December 1957.

Upset over the lack of sponsors for Cole’s show, the popular singer Frankie Laine (“That’s My Desire,” “Mule Train,” High Noon”) appeared on the show, the first white entertainer to do so, and waived his normal $10,000 fee.

On April 10, 1956, Cole was assaulted on stage by white racists while in the middle of a performance in Birmingham, Alabama.

In fact, Nat King Cole was not the first African-American to have a television network show. Jazz pianist Hazel Scott had a show for a few months on the small and long-defunct Dumont network in 1950. Her show was cancelled on July 29, 1950, however, after she was named as a Communist sympathizer by the notorious Red Channels report (June 22, 1950) and she was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Watch the Nat King Cole Show (note: there is a soundless introduction, and the sound does not come on for about a minute): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5tZrH2O4jc

Learn more: Daniel Epstein, Nat King Cole (1999)

Learn more about Nat King Cole: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/cole-nat-king-1919-1965

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