Cole’s widow, Maria, saved kinescopes – copies made by filming a TV monitor – of the 1956-57 show that have been remastered for release on Apple Inc.’s iTunes beginning Tuesday.
Cole was the first African-American to star in a network variety program and he attracted a constellation of major black singers and musicians as guests, including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr. and Cab Calloway.
Mel Torme, Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett were among the white performers who appeared.
“I knew these TV shows were too important to have something happen to them, so that’s why I held on them all these years,” Maria Cole said in a statement.
“Nat never looked or sounded better in those shows. It’s just a shame that the show lasted just a little more than a year.”
At least 25 episodes will be released, four a month, with a suggested retail price of $1.99 an episode for download and 99 cents an episode for video on demand or rental. Some videos will be available for sale.
Not all the show’s 64 original episodes have survived, according to a project spokesman.
Cole, who started as a jazz pianist, was a smoothly elegant vocalist who became a pop star in the 1940s. His hit songs included “Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa” and “Walking My Baby Back Home.”
But viewers and advertisers snubbed his TV show, which debuted in November 1956. NBC kept it on the air despite low ratings and lack of national sponsors but it ended in December 1957.
“Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark,” Cole is quoted as saying later about advertisers’ racial skittishness.
TV historians have noted that variety shows with other celebrated singers, including Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, were short-lived.
But there was clearly an entrenched resistance to shows with black stars. It would be close to a decade before other series featuring African-Americans, including “I Spy” with Bill Cosby and “Julia” with Diahann Carroll, gained a place on network TV, and the medium still has an uneven grasp on ethnic diversity.
Cole died in 1965 at age 45. His daughter, Natalie Cole, recorded a Grammy-winning tribute album to her dad in 1991 that included a version of “Unforgettable” combining her voice with his recording of the song.