Given her father’s eternal place in history as a groundbreaking jazz/big band singer and pianist, many listeners who came of age with Natalie Cole’s string of 1970s R&B and pop hits likely hadn’t thought twice about her rise to success as a musical artist. Indeed, while barely into grade school, she had guested with Nat “King” Cole on his mid-1950s Christmas Album and primetime TV variety series (one of the earliest to be headlined by an African-American). And though music would prove to be a continued part of her childhood through both studies and enjoyment, she stated later in life that she never seriously saw herself pursuing a career as a singer.
Fate had other plans. Going on to a 40-year career in a vast realm of music spanning R&B, rock, jazz, blues, pop, dance, and then some, Natalie Cole ultimately scored six #1 R&B songs, 13 gold- or platinum-certified LPs, 12 Top 40 pop hits, and total sales of more than 30 million records. But, as Natalie told Donnie Simpson during a 1989 interview on Video Soul, she had very different intentions when she graduated college in 1972.
About to embark on graduate studies in psychology, she was approached by an agent after a side musical gig she was doing just for the fun of it. The bug bit her, and after two years of touring clubs across the U.S., she secured a recording contract in 1974 with Capitol Records, the same label which had brought her father fame three decades earlier.
Paired with the already prolific songwriting/production duo of Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy (who had experienced success as The Independents with “Just as Long as You Need Me”), Natalie began to cultivate her own musical identity—after a number of frustrating bouts on the road being pushed to only sing her father’s material. Leading off with the gospel-tinted, vivacious soul dancer “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” in 1975, Natalie displayed a bright tone, sweet yet powerful phrasing, and an innate knowledge of making melodies and rhythms uniquely her own.
This was confirmed with the follow-up single, “Inseparable” (from her debut album of the same title), a contemplative ballad which showcased her gentle, nuanced side. In case anyone doubted her versatility, she brought both her jazzy roots and funky capabilities to the forefront the following year on the Natalie album, featuring what would become one of her trademark tunes, “Sophisticated Lady (She’s a Different Lady)”—as well as the often overlooked “Mr. Melody.”
Natalie continued to explore a variety of musical repertoire throughout the late ‘70s on classic albums such as Thankful, Unpredictable, and I Love You So. Whether going from coyly sassy to roof-raising dynamic on “Party Lights,” parlaying comforting emotions on “Our Love,” or effortlessly intertwining scatting technique with understated jazz sensibility on “La Costa,” she proved herself time and again as a vocalist of remarkable agility and consistency.
For fans who hadn’t gotten the opportunity to see her in concert, her authenticity was captured on record for 1978’s double LP, Natalie…Live! Take, for example, the rousing eight-minute rendition of “I’ve Got Love on My Mind,” in which she seamlessly scales alto and soprano notes in a syncopated fashion that emits soul, jazz, and blues in one fiery line. Or, her glistening and fierce take on The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Certainly, promoters who had been intent on billing Natalie simply as “Nat’s daughter” in her early days of performing were now inclined to take a serious look at what they missed out on in the process.
As the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, Natalie retained a high public profile, appearing as a spokeswoman in TV and print ads for African-American cosmetic line Posner and releasing a hit duet album with labelmate/burgeoning hitmaker Peabo Bryson, We’re the Best of Friends. She also began penning noteworthy original material for her albums, as evidenced by the introspective, country-influenced “Your Lonely Heart” in 1979 and the touching, free-flowing “Beautiful Dreamer” in 1980.
Yet somehow, Natalie was losing her commercial edge. Subsequently, she took a break from her seven-year musical partnership with Jackson and Yancy to record 1981’s Happy Love, produced by George Tobin and Mike Piccirillo. While she couldn’t quite regain the chart standing she had achieved with earlier efforts, the LP revitalized her artistic mojo with the passionate “Nothin’ but a Fool” and the bluesy “You Were Right Girl.”
Behind the scenes, however, Natalie’s quality of life was quickly going downhill. As she would later discuss candidly in her 2000 memoirs, Angel on My Shoulder, she had battled with substance abuse before her rise to fame, and become more and more dependent on the habit concurrent to her rise to fame.
While some fans aware of her struggles thought she had conquered those demons during the early ‘80s, that perception changed in 1983 when she was interviewed on TV’s Good Morning America, appearing visibly high while talking about her I’m Ready album (her first and only for Epic Records). She had reunited with Jackson and Yancy for many of the sessions (in addition to working with Stanley Clarke); but her vocals were strained at times, and her appearance in the music video for “Too Much Mister” can be viewed in hindsight as a warning against addiction to illegal drugs.
Following a publicized intervention by her mother, Natalie entered a rehabilitation clinic for six weeks. She emerged a stronger person with renewed confidence and energy—and, remarkably and relievingly, with as much vocal gusto as ever. Her initial return to music came as soon as 1985, when she released what remains one of her most underrated albums to date, Dangerous.
Recorded for Atlantic subsidiary Modern Records (longtime label home of Stevie Nicks), the set found Natalie collaborating with producers Gary Skardina and Marti Sharron, as well as her cousin, Eddie. While the title track lead single was a bit of an obvious take-off on The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump,” the follow-up, “A Little Bit of Heaven,” was a majestic midtempo gem which allowed Natalie to deliver a charmingly vulnerable reading of a sunny melody. Unfortunately, it seemed lost on the public. Likewise, the third single release—the wickedly catchy “Secrets”—disappeared without a trace, in spite of a killer club-length remix which featured additional vocals by Natalie that gave other dance divas of the day a run for their money.
Dangerous is also the source of several significant non-single gems which are seldom mentioned in discussion of Natalie’s catalog. The heartfelt “The Gift” is a poignantly personal tale of her struggle, redemption, and her love for her supporters. The mellow and tender “Love Is on the Way,” co-written by Natalie and Eddie, is a romantic slow-jam which also hints at the trials that she had gone through to get to a place of truly being “ready” for love. But without doubt, the most moving and incomporable performance of the album came via “Nobody’s Soldier,” on which Natalie showed no vocal inhibitions and proved herself the ultimate torch songstress with every ounce of grace and strength necessary to convey the song’s heart-wrenching lyrics in full emotional truth.
1987 would prove to be the year in which her post-recovery efforts came to full commercial fruition. Armed with a glowing selection of material contributed by the likes of Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, Bruce Springsteen, Calloway (of Midnight Star), Andy Goldmark, and Jerry Knight, Everlasting resulted in three Top 10 R&B hits (each also placing in the pop Top 20), as well as giving many fans the first chance to hear her cover a song associated with her father: “When I Fall in Love.” Meanwhile, Natalie’s impressive chart strides came via another string of diverse styles playing to her various strengths. Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” showed her playful, yet assertive way with a colorful lyric set to a groovy pop-dance persuasion; “I Live for Your Love” gave her ample room to be both sultry and strong atop a soul-melting ballad; and “Jump Start” found her in a fully charged, funky mode. She again collaborated with her cousin Eddie, this time on the endearing “More Than the Stars.”
The chart impact of Everlasting also spread to Europe, creating a far-reaching platform for the 1989 follow-up, Good to Be Back. Executive-producing the set with Dan Cleary, Natalie worked with an impressive slate of producers including Narada Michael Walden, Michael Masser, Andre Fischer, Dennis Lambert, and Ric Wake on an eclectic menagerie of repertoire spanning gutsy ballads, feel-good uptempo’s, and an elegant rendition of “Someone’s Rockin’ My Dreamboat” (first recorded by The Ink Spots in 1942 and later popularized by Dinah Washington during the late ‘50s). On the singles front, the Michael Masser/Gerry Goffin/Preston Glass composition, “Miss You Like Crazy,” gave Natalie a #1 R&B and adult contemporary hit that also made the pop Top 10. Starting subtly and building to a heart-tugging belt, Natalie poured intensity into each plea and cry for the return of her soulmate.
Natalie seemed to be on an upward path to a second chapter of her popular music career enduring even longer than her first run during the ‘70s, but fate intervened again. While the follow-up to “Miss You Like Crazy”—a duet with R&B crooner Freddie Jackson entitled “I Do”—placed once again in the R&B Top 10, pop audiences seemed indifferent. The subsequent uptempo release, “As a Matter of Fact,” as well as the riveting “Wild Women Do” from the Pretty Woman soundtrack the following year, both failed to make a widespread impact.
Meanwhile, Natalie had been incorporating some of her father’s material into her live shows, and 25 years had passed since his untimely death from lung cancer in 1965. Thus, the timing was ideal when she asked her label, EMI-Manhattan, to release her from her contract in order to record the album she desired in tribute to her father.
The resulting Unforgettable… with Love, released in the spring of 1991, would go on to sell more than seven million copies alone in the U.S., fueled by Natalie’s virtual duet with her late father on the Irving Gordon-penned “Unforgettable,” which Nat had made popular 40 years earlier. The single racked up three Grammy’s in 1992, while the full-length set was recognized as Album of the Year.
The reception and accolades translated into a whole new chapter of Natalie’s career that saw her performing regularly in front of grand orchestras and big bands and recording a number of critically lauded albums throughout the ‘90s further exploring the jazz roots implanted by her father. 1993’s Take a Look, collecting her fresh interpretations of standards and hidden gems popularized by the likes of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald, garnered her another Grammy; “When I Fall in Love,” a second virtual duet with Nat taken from 1996’s Stardust, followed suit. Towards the close of the decade, Natalie decided to widen her horizons even further, masterfully approaching a potpourri of rock, jazz, country, and soul on 1999’s Snowfall on the Sahara.
During the early 2000s, she deepened her exploration of jazz and pop history, taking on songs associated with the likes of Carmen McRae, Barbra Streisand, and Frank Sinatra as she joined the revered Verve label to record 2002’s Ask a Woman Who Knows. Despite four Grammy nominations, she wasn’t content to rest on her laurels when it came to musical choices for her next project.
Delving into the works of contemporary singer-songwriters such as Fiona Apple and Shelby Lynne while also visiting classics by Aretha Franklin and Neil Young, she delivered the wide-ranging Leavin’ in 2006. Nonetheless, legions of fans who had come to revel in her readings of Nat’s treasures (and those of his contemporaries) were delighted with her 2008 follow-up, Still Unforgettable. Containing a new virtual duet with Nat (“Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”), as well as selections from the catalogs of Lena Horne and Sammy Davis, Jr., the set won Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album at the 2009 Grammys.
The success of Still Unforgettable was an artistic high that was overcast by newly emerging health issues which Natalie found herself faced with as a result of her drug abuse decades earlier. Contracting Hepatitis C, she underwent rigorous treatment that was successful, but seriously compromised her kidneys. She received dialysis regularly while traveling the world performing and hoping for a kidney transplant.
Though the odds were against her, a match was found via a caretaker whose niece had tragically passed while pregnant. The miraculous event was bittersweet, however, with Natalie’s ill sister, Cookie, passing away on the day that she received her new kidney (brother Kelly had passed away more than a decade earlier). Natalie documented the events and emotions of these times in her 2010 book, Love Brought Me Back: A Journey of Loss and Gain.
In 2013, promoting her En Espanol album, she told the Daily Mail’s Rebecca Hardy, “I should have been dead awhile ago, but I’m still here for a reason.” The album in question gave Natalie a chance to pay tribute to her life-saver, with all of the songs recorded in her native tongue of Spanish. 55 years earlier, Nat had recorded Cole Espanol, followed by two additional Spanish language LPs. Featuring flavorful renditions of both traditional Latin and American songs, the set served as the final outlet for another father-daughter “duet,” “Acercate Mas.” It reached the top of both Billboard’s Top Latin Albums and Latin Pop Albums.
While Natalie continued to tour and perform at a number of engagements up through 2015, the remnants of her health issues frequently popped up and took their toll. Nonetheless, with her sparkling stage persona, continuously vivid vocal delivery, and indomitably upbeat disposition in the public spotlight, the news of her death on December 31 came as a shock to fans across the world. Over the course of four decades, Natalie had solidified a remarkable stamina for delivering highly energetic recordings and performances, even in the face of daunting physical and emotional challenges. Each phrase she sang—whether the source be the great American songbook, a no-holds-barred soul number, or her own pensive lyrics and luminous melodies, she conveyed with flying colors and boundless realism.
No matter the age, gender, cultural background, or stylistic preference of the listener, there was a magic in her rhythmic approach and musical execution that spoke to everyone. It came from the knowing of life’s ups and downs, heartaches and highs, tragedies and triumphs, and from a natural ability to connect each of those experiences and events with just the right notes, dynamics, and feeling to reach and touch any beating heart. Combined with the universally appealing catalog of nearly 300 songs she recorded, her voice was truly one of a kind which will continue to hold unquestionable meaning and inspiration for generations to come.
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