The Ted Heath Orchestra were the ultimate in British pre–rock’n’roll light entertainment (Ted is pictured in 1958). The same could be said in the US for Nat King Cole. If their style was as non-confrontational as could be, they could still shake things up in the racist southern states of the USA, as was shown on their tour together in 1956. Ronnie Chamberlain, who played sax for Heath recalled:
‘We went on the road with Nat King Cole and he was attacked. It was horrible. We were booked to play in Birmingham, Alabama, and the guys in his trio were absolutely scared stiff saying, ‘We don’t want to go there man.’ We did our show first and when Nat came on they insisted that the curtain was drawn in front of us so they couldn’t see the white band accompanying this ‘nigger’ singer as they called him. That’s how they talked down there, ‘Are you with this nigger group?’ We couldn’t believe it. Leigh Young, Lester Young’s brother, was the drummer with Nat and he was the MD and of course we couldn’t see him through this curtain. It was absolute chaos and we just had to stop. In the end they relented and pulled back the curtain and big applause went up from the audience. Then there was a commotion and a guy came running down the aisle, jumped onto the stage and was on top of Nat and got him on the floor. The concert stopped immediately and we all went off. I felt really sick and went outside and puked, it frightened me so much. Poor Nat was in a terrible state and the audience were just as shocked as we were. In those days they had segregation with the whites one side, and the blacks the other side but the whole audience were as one, and afterwards someone stood up and apologised for the terrible behaviour to Nat and the band’ (source: Talking Swing: the British Big Bands by Sheila Tracy, 1997).
British music paper New Musical Express (April 13 1956) also reported this incident: “One of the world’s most talented and respected singing stars, Nat “King” Cole, was the victim of a vicious attack by a gang of six men at Birmingham (Alabama), during his performance at a concert on Tuesday. His assailants rushed down the aisles during his second number and clambered over the footlights. They knocked Nat down with such force that he hit his head and back on the piano stool, and they then dragged him into the auditorium. Police rushed from the wings and were just in time to prevent the singer from being badly beaten up. They arrested six men, one of whom is a director of the White Citizen’s Council – a group which has been endeavouring to boycott “bop and Negro music” and are supporters of segregation of white and coloured people. The audience—numbering over 3,000—was all white” (note Chamberlain remembered the latter differently).