Big Band singer Maria Hawkins Cole, wife of jazz legend Nat “King” Cole and mother of singer Natalie Cole, died July 10 in Boca Raton, Fla., after a short battle with cancer. She was 89.
“I just want to thank everyone for their prayers [and] loving support. Mom has passed, gone to glory, July 10th 2012. She will be next to Dad at Forest Lawn,” Natalie Cole tweeted on July 11.
Born in Boston in 1922, Cole and her sister moved to North Carolina after her mother died in childbirth, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Blessed with the gift of music, she studied voice and piano as a child and graduated in 1938 from the Palmer Memorial Institute, then one of America’s most prestigious African-American prep schools. After a short stint in Boston, Cole then moved to New York to pursue a career in music, performing with Benny Carter’s band, Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson.
Her big break came in the 1940s after Duke Ellington heard a recording of her “throaty, resonant voice,” according to The New York Times, and hired her as a vocalist for his orchestra. She stayed with him until 1946, when she became a solo act at Club Zanzibar in Harlem, opening for the Mills Brothers.
It was there that Nat “King” Cole first saw her, and reportedly became so smitten that he divorced his first wife Nadine. The pair were married in 1948 in a lavish wedding presided over by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
“Nat wanted to improve himself,” Maria Cole told The Boston Globe in 1989, as cited by the Times. “I wanted to help him improve. What he needed, I had. What I needed, he had. That’s why our marriage worked.”
After their wedding, the pair traveled and performed together during the ‘50s, often encountering racial violence. She raised their five children and supported her husband while his career flourished.
After her husband died of lung cancer in 1965 at age 45, Cole created the Cole Cancer Foundation and became very active in charity work.
According to the Times, Cole’s family said she also retuned to singing both before and after her husband’s death. She and Nat recorded songs with Capitol Records and her best-known solo album, “Love Is a Special Feeling,” was released in 1966.
“Our mom was in a class all by herself,” Natalie said in a statement released with her twin sisters Timolin and Casey Cole. "She epitomized class and elegance and truly defined what it is to be a real lady. We are so blessed and privileged to have inherited the legacy that she leaves behind along with our father. She died how she lived: with great strength, courage and dignity, surrounded by her loving family.”
According to the Associated Press, Cole, who lived in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., at the time of her death, will be buried in private services in California.