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Dulé Hill visits “The House that Nat Built”

Dulé Hill next to Nat “King” Cole’s photo inside Capitol Studios. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

This year marks the centenary of an American icon — Nat “King” Cole.For decades, Nat’s rich voice has been instantly recognizable and beloved by millions. His legacy was defined at a distinct moment in American history when the popularity of black entertainers grew exponentially faster than their acceptance into society.

“I would not be here if not for Nat ‘King’ Cole,” says actor Dulé Hill (Psych, The West Wing, Suits) who will star as Mr. Cole in the upcoming Geffen production of Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole. “Sammy Davis Jr. used to say, and I’m paraphrasing here, that he would never walk through a door unless he was absolutely certain that door would stay open for those who came after him. I believe that’s what Mr. Cole has done. He endured during that time. He broke down barriers just by being in people’s living room, by being in their ear as they listened to his music. It has allowed us to all be here now doing what we do.”

Dulé Hill sings “Orange Colored Sky” and “Unforgettable” at Capitol Studios.

This past December, Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) invited actor Dulé to lay down some tracks at Capitol Studios using the same piano that Nat performed on for most of his iconic recordings. He jumped at the opportunity. “It feels as if I’m on hallowed ground. Sacred–it feels anointed,” said Dulé from inside the recording studio. “To be here with the actual instrument he used is an absolute honor. I couldn’t really ask for a better way to re-embark on the journey of telling Mr. Cole’s story.”

When Dulé was originally approached by Lights Out directors Patricia McGregor and Colman Domingo to take on the role of Nat, it didn’t take him long to commit. Dulé was a huge fan of McGregor and Domingo and excited to work with them on their new project. “Now, I will say, Colman kind of tricked me,” remembers Dulé. “At first he said it’s a play. ‘We’re doing a playabout Nat ‘King’ Cole.’ In my mind I’m thinking, okay, I can do a play about him. Maybe I’ll have to hum a little tune.”

But as time went on, more and more music was added to the point where Dulé suspected Colman may have pulled a fast one on him. “Honestly, if Colman would have hit me up and told me we were doing a musical about Nat ‘King’ Cole I would have said no thank you. I mean, it’s Nat ‘King’ Cole. I haven’t been in this business for this long by making stupid decisions!”

David Witham and Dulé Hill perform at Nat “King” Cole’s piano. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

Setting aside his trepidation about singing, Dulé joined the original cast in 2017 when it was mounted for the first time at the People’s Light Theatre outside of Philadelphia. “No one can replicate Nat’s voice,” says Dulé. “I do what I can as an actor to emulate a true legend, but his voice is only part of his story. I want audiences to know what was happening behind the great music we all love and remember.”

Nat was born March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama. His family moved to Chicago when he was just 4 years old, and at 15 he dropped out of high school to pursue his music career. He eventually landed in Los Angeles in 1937 and rose to fame relatively quickly while in his 20s performing with the Nat “King” Cole Trio. “Those cats used to read each other’s minds,” recalled the famed Count Basie. “It was unbelievable.”

During those early days, Nat recorded radio transcriptions for Capitol Records and songs for small labels when Sweet Lorraine was released in 1940 and launched his popularity as a singer. Capitol Records signed Nat to an exclusive contract when he was just 24 years old, and he went on to record nearly 700 songs, including 150 singles that made the Billboardcharts.

Audiences couldn’t get enough of his voice. Nat’s phenomenal success led to the construction of Capitol Records on Vine Street in Hollywood in 1956 — the same year The Nat “King” Cole Show premiered on NBC — and the round iconic building soon became informally known as “The House that Nat Built.” Classic favorites like Unforgettable, L-O-V-E, Mona Lisa, The Christmas Song, and Straighten Up and Fly Right were all recorded at Capitol Records.

Regardless of these accomplishments, Nat lived at a time when the struggle for civil rights and racial equality was hitting its apex. And despite Nat’s talent, charm and grace, his weekly variety show was ultimately canceled because advertisers were afraid to offend white TV audiences at the time. His final TV broadcast of The Nat “King” Cole Show would become the catalyst for the Geffen Playhouse’s west coast premiere of Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole, opening February 5 and closing on March 17, on what would have been Nat’s 100th birthday.

Grammy Award-winning R&B artist Gregory Porter with Dulé Hill. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

For Dulé, walking through the famed halls of Capitol Studios was an experience in and of itself. Following Dulé’s session, Grammy award-winning artist Gregory Porter arrived to record a duet of The Girl From Ipanema, adding his own vocals to those originally recorded by Mr. Cole (in the way of Natalie Cole’s version of Unforgettable, recorded in the ‘90s), which will be featured on a brand new collection, Ultimate Nat “King” Cole, to be released by Capitol/UMe in March.

Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole runs at the Geffen Playhouse from February 5 — March 17, 2019. Tickets available at www.geffenplayhouse.org

With the direct participation of the Nat “King” Cole Estate, Capitol/UMe will release two new collections showcasing Cole’s music on March 15, 2019: Ultimate Nat “King” Cole (CD and digital) and International Nat “King” Cole (CD).

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