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Maria Cole, the widow of Nat “King” Cole, the mother of Natalie Cole and a singer in Duke Ellington‘s band in the mid-1940s, died Tuesday of cancer in Boca Raton, Fla. She was 89.
The Coles were wed in Harlem on Easter Sunday in 1948, just six days after Nat’s divorce from his first wife became final, and were married for almost 17 years. The soft-spoken singer of such classics as “Unforgettable,” “Nature Boy,” “Too Young” and “Mona Lisa” died of lung cancer in Santa Monica in February 1965.
“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.”
Born in Boston in 1922, Maria Cole and a sister moved to North Carolina to live with an aunt soon after her mother died in childbirth. She took voice and piano lessons as a child, and after graduating in 1938 from the Palmer Memorial Institute — then one of America’s most prestigious African-American prep schools — she returned to Boston and sang with a jazz orchestra. She soon moved to New York to pursue a music career with jazz great Benny Carter’s band.
In 1943, she married Spurgeon Ellington, a Tuskegee Airmen flyer during World War II. He was killed in Georgia two years later during a routine postwar training flight.
After performing briefly with Count Basie and swing music innovator Fletcher Henderson, Cole’s big break came when Ellington hired her as a vocalist. She stayed with him until 1946, when she began soloing at New York’s Club Zanzibar as an opening act for The Mills Brothers. It was there that she met Nat
, and they was married in 1948 in a lavish ceremony in Harlem.
The couple traveled throughout Europe in the 1950s, and Maria recorded several songs with her husband for Capitol Records and sang at top venues in California and on the East Coast.
Natalie, a nine-time Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter, was born in 1950 as the Coles’ first child. She was followed by the late Nat Kelly Cole, adopted in 1959, and the twins Timolin and Casey, who were born in 1961. In 1949, the couple had adopted Carol (known as “Cookie”), the daughter of Maria’s late sister.
After her husband’s death, Maria produced a James Baldwin play, sang on The Ed Sullivan Show, created the Cole Cancer Foundation and was active in charity work.
In 1987, she was interviewed by Natalie and singer Johnny Mathis for a PBS special on Nat. In 1990, Maria and Natalie accepted a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for her late husband.
In addition to her three daughters, survivors include her sister, Charlotte; her son-in-laws Gary and Julian; and six grandchildren. A private service will be held at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles at a date to be determined.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Nat King Cole Generation Hope Inc. in Boca Raton.
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