Cole grew up in Enfield, attending Chase Side primary school and Chace secondary school for boys. He became interested in music in his teens, his first major inspiration being The Shadows. Cole initially learned to play guitar, but became disillusioned with the instrument, conscious of the number of talented guitarists that were already active on the music scene. Performances by the American duo Santo & Johnny aired on the Perry Como show introduced him to the exotic and unusual sound of the steel guitar, and in 1963, he traded in some toy trains to buy his first lap steel – a Dallas Rangemaster.
Around two years later, Cole first became aware of the pedal steel guitar, and soon acquired his first instrument, a Fender 1000. What had been an enthusiasm now became a passion: Cole began to play in bands in his free time and to become actively involved in the music scene, landing his first ‘proper’ session in 1968; this was for Albert Lee, work which was included on the album Black Claw & Country Fever, released much later, in 1991.
In 1968, while playing at a gig in Kingston, South London, Cole was head-hunted to join what was to be an English group conceived on the lines of the Flying Burrito Brothers. The project never got off the ground, but through it Cole was introduced to the singer Stewart Brown, a former member of the band Bluesology with Elton John. In 1969, Brown invited Cole to become a member of the new heavy rock/country band Cochise, with Mick Grabham on guitar, Rick Wills on bass, and Willie Wilson on drums. Cochise enjoyed moderate success, and released three albums – Cochise (Liberty/United Artists, 1970), Swallow Tales (United Artists, 1971) and So Far (United Artists, 1972) – all of which included songs written by Cole. The tracks on these albums were included on a two-disc anthology, Velvet Mountain (Eclectic/Cherry Red), issued in 2013.
Cochise folded in 1972, but through it Cole came into contact with a wide range of active and high-profile musicians, including Andy Fairweather Low and Steve Marriott. He went on to carry out recording sessions with all of them, but his breakthrough moment came in 1971, when he played steel guitar on Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’, included on the album Madman Across the Water. ‘Tiny Dancer’ clearly and prominently demonstrated what Cole and the steel guitar were capable of, and created a context for the instrument in the music of contemporary British singer-songwriters.
Throughout the 1970s, Cole was greatly in demand as a session musician, appearing with artists including: Humble Pie (Cole played on three of their albums, including Eat It of 1973), Roger Daltrey (Daltrey, 1973), Man (Christmas at the Patti, 1973), Kiki Dee (Loving & Free, 1973, and I’ve Got the Music In Me, 1974), Procol Harum (Exotic Birds and Fruit, 1974), T. Rex (Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, 1974), the Walker Brothers (No Regrets, 1975), Uriah Heep (Return to Fantasy, 1975), Andy Fairweather Low (La Booga Rooga, 1975, including "Wide Eyed and Legless"), Joan Armatrading ("Down to Zero", 1976), Roy Harper ("One of Those Days in England", 1977), Gerry Rafferty (City to City, 1978), and Cat Stevens (Back to Earth, 1978).