A Man Without Envy: Nat King Cole, Race, Integration and the Politics of Crossover

Decker, Jeffrey Clayton, Department of Music, University of Virginia
DeVeaux, Scott, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Maus, Fred, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Will, Richard, Department of Music, University of Virginia

In the early-1950's, Nat King Cole emerged as the first black male singer to cross over into the white pop singing market with consistent and lasting success. His breakthrough crossover success was different than occasional crossover hits by other black artists. Rather than perform black music, either jazz or Rhythm and Blues, which was often consumed by a white audience, Cole performed romantic pop music that was associated with white singers, or crooners. Complicating his entrance into the institution of crooners was that the image of the crooner had morphed into one ofpost-war America's most sexualized figures, one of sexual potency and predatory intentions. Being a dark-skinned black male in an era of extreme racial tension, Cole needed to either hide his blackness or play off the white racial imagination in order to present himself as an acceptable black male presence in white culture, all the while avoiding stereotypical roles associated with minstrelsy. This dissertation argues that Cole's approach was unique in popular music at the time. Different than other models of racial interaction in popular music, often involving white appropriation of black styles that result in more separation, Cole appropriated white styles and symbols, and in doing so, ushered in the integration of adult male popular singing. After his success, other black crooners enjoyed similar or even greater success. The dissertation traces the development of the crooner from the 1920s through the 1950s to show how the image of the crooner as sex symbol necessitated Cole's strategy. The dissertation also presents an analysis of Cole's R & B trio in the context of the black entertainment culture of the 1940s, and traces how his transformation came about.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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