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The life and songs of Nat 'King' Cole at Evergreen next week

More than half a century ago, Nat "King" Cole played the Hotel Vancouver but, because of racial segregation, wasn't allowed to stay there.

More than half a century ago, Nat "King" Cole played the Hotel Vancouver but, because of racial segregation, wasn't allowed to stay there.

Fast forward to 2011 and Cole tribute artist, Don Stewart, who also happens to be black, is performing at the landmark building monthly."I think that would bring a smile to his face," Stewart said.

Next week, Stewart will bring Unforgettable: The Music of Nat King Cole to Coquitlam's Evergreen Cultural Centre, a musical that traces the life of the musical pioneer who was one of the first black Americans to host a variety show and who built Capitol Records.

Stewart starts his show as a narrator then transforms into Cole, singing a total of 30 songs with his four-piece jazz band; it also includes a few duets with Cayla Brooke who portrays Peggy Lee.The Coquitlam performance will be Stewart and Brooke's first as Cole and Lee.

Brooke saw his tribute show two years ago at the Presentation House Theatre in North Vancouver when he had Sibel Thrasher as Ella Fitzgerald. "I thought it was wonderful and people loved it," Brooke remembered. "They were smiling and singing during the intermission."

About a week later, Stewart saw Brooke on television, called her and the pair went for coffee. And, last fall, when Stewart offered her the part of Lee, "I jumped at the chance," she said, adding, "Peggy Lee is there for some variety and to show the difference between the races in that era. She recorded with him and was on his show which was a big deal actually during that time because Caucasian people, when they went on his show, it didn't necessarily bode well for their careers.

"She was a very tough woman and did what she believed in.I'm very honoured to be portraying her," Brooke said.

Stewart, too, is happy to share Cole's story with audiences.

Born Nathaniel Adams Coles in 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, the jazz pianist and pop singer was nicknamed Nat "King" Cole by a Los Angeles club owner in 1937 for his warm-sounding, satin baritone voice.

His NBC program, The Nat King Cole Show, debuted in 1956 and, besides Lee and Fitzgerald, guest starred Harry Belafonte, Frankie Laine, Mel Torme and Eartha Kitt (he cancelled it due to financial losses).

That same year, he avoided a kidnapping attempt by the White Citizens Council in Birmingham, Alabama.

"He went through quite a bit over his lifetime but he kept singing," Stewart said. "He was loved and hated by blacks and whites for singing in segregated places but Nat just wanted to sing."

Stewart believes Cole - who died in 1965 at 45 from lung cancer - would have been pleased with how his music has stayed relevant. Songs like Mona Lisa, When I Fall In Love, Unforgettable and Ramblin' Rose (Stewart's favourite) are known by young and old.

Children as young as 10 can sing Cole's tunes. "I go up to them afterwards and say, 'How do you know the words?' But the generations have passed them on," the Vancouver resident said.

As well, current jazz artists such as B.C. natives Diana Krall and Michael Buble have covered songs made popular by Cole; Natalie, his daughter, won several Grammy's for her 1991 best-selling album, Unforgettable... with Love, that featured 22 of Cole's songs. She performed the title track as a duet with her late father using his original recording.

Stewart said he doesn't try to replicate Cole's sound or performance style. "I just try to present his stuff the best way that I can," he said, "because nobody can copy Nat."

ABOUT THE SHOW

Unforgettable: The Music of Nat King Cole runs from May 17 to 21 at the Evergreen Cultural Centre (1205 Pinetree Way, Coquitlam) with shows at 8 p.m. and a Saturday matinee at 4 p.m.

It is directed by Milo Shandel with Ron Johnston as musical director.

Tickets range from $10 to $35 and are available by calling 604-927-6555 or visiting www.evergreenculturalcentre.ca.

For more on Don Stewart and THE DONSTEWART TRIO at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, visit www.donstewart.ca.

jwarren@tricitynews.com