*Natalie Cole left here, taking with her some of my precious musical DNA. In 1963, the year I turned eight, Natalie’s celebrated dad, Nat “King” Cole, had a hit with the “swing” ballad, “That Sunday, That Summer.”
That song, wafting out of our kitchen radio one afternoon as I awakened from a nap, is my earliest memory of hearing—-and paying attention to the elements of–a pop song. I credit (or blame) Nat Cole’s wistful rendition of the Joe Sherman/George David Weiss composition (and later, the Beatles) for my penchant for great vocal melodies and inventive musical arrangements. I came to relish Natalie Cole as my living connection to that musical magic.
Not that I was immediately sold. To me, “This Will Be,” Cole’s snappy 1975 debut Capitol Records single from her Inseparable album, with its spirited gospel piano and the singer’s obviously Aretha Franklin-inspired vocal, was an overt emulation of the Queen.
Figures: according to legend, before songwriter/producer Marvin Yancy’s destiny-altering act of catching an unsigned Cole’s performance in a nightclub, he’d submitted songs he and production partner Chuck Jackson wrote, to Ms. Franklin. Lady Soul passed on most of them.
So, Yancy and Jackson cut the songs on Cole and sent the tapes to labels until one, Capitol, said yes. So did Natalie: she and Yancy were married in 1976. They created Cole’s only child, Robert Yancy, who’d grow up to play in his mom’s touring band. Cole and Yancy divorced in 1980.
In any case, “This Will Be” was the kind of self-contained, seamlessly crafted R&B/pop hit characteristic of a one-hit wonder. The single won Cole a 1976 Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and another Grammy that evening for Best New Artist. More than just shape her own style as a vocalist and stage performer, Cole, anything but a one-hit-wonder, evolved into an artist, whose creative intuition was reflected in her musical choices.
Take “La Costa,” on Cole’s 1977 album, Thankful. The breezy, jazzy slice of bossa nova Cole co-wrote (with keyboardist Linda Williams) would seem to be out of place but isn’t among the album’s singles “Annie Mae,” an uptempo urban tale of broken, abused women resembling a movie soundtrack, and the swaying “Our Love,” which is traditional girl-group R&B.
Cole had the audacity to lobby for “La Costa”‘s release as a single. And it was, fending for radio airplay among commercial records of the day such as Rose Royce’s “Car Wash”, the Emotions’ “Best Of My Love” and “Slide” by Slave.
But then, stylistically, Natalie could do it all. Funky one minute, elegant the next. Before signing with Capitol, in the clubs she sang rock and roll. Cole’s mother, Maria, was a jazz vocalist who sang with Duke Ellington. Nat, having found fame crooning the Great American Songbook, was originally known as a jazz pianist gifted in swing and bop. Musically, Natalie was bound to be able to sing lots of styles; It was in her genes.
Still, Cole, at the beginning of her recording career, was reticent about being musically associated with her legendary father (who succumbed to lung cancer in 1965, when Natalie was barely in her teens). Like many performers whose parents were great entertainers before them, she didn’t want to appear to be riding his coattails.
Only after firmly establishing her career in R&B/pop did Cole consider recording a collection of Nat Cole’s classic songs-—with an orchestra, just as he cut them. Remarkably, Capitol, her label-—the very company for which Nat Cole recorded–disagreed.
The Elektra label saw things differently, and 1991’s Unforgettable…with Love, featured Natalie singing such Nat Cole standards as “Smile”, “Nature Boy”, “Mona Lisa”, “L-O-V-E”, “That Sunday, That Summer” and the album’s centerpiece, “Unforgettable”, Cole’s duet with her father via his vocal from the original 1952 recording.
The album spent five weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts, earned six Grammy awards and ultimately sold more than 14 million copies worldwide.
Unforgettable was a milestone in a career that includes some 23 albums–over 30 million of them sold worldwide–and more than 300 major television appearances; world concert tours; two TV specials and major dramatic TV and film roles. Cole, honored in 1979 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, wrote two memoirs, one of which became an 2000 NBC made-for-TV film, Livin’ for Love: The Natalie Cole Story.
Natalie Cole was—is—a demographic-spanning star, a household name whose international celebrity was earned not with hits on Youtube, likes on Facebook or amidst the glare of a reality show scandal. Ms. Cole’s immortality was earned the old fashioned way, on the formidable back of the kind of distinctive, enduring talent that entertains and inspires.
Most amazing is the fact that Cole created this incredible body of work while battling, for much of her adult life, heroin and crack cocaine addiction and subsequent resulting health issues including hepatitis C, Kidney failure, dialysis and a kidney transplant.
Despite the challenges, Cole never stopped. In 2013, she recorded Natalie Cole en Espanol, an ambitious collection of Latin pop classics sung in Spanish—-which means that before recording the songs, Cole had to learn the language.
As late as December 2015, Cole had concert dates scheduled. On the evening of December 31, 2015, while her friend Gladys Knight subbed for her during a New Years Eve show at downtown Los Angeles’ Disney Hall that included the O’Jays, Cole, across town at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood, surrounded by family, was making her transition. She was 65.
New Years night, Aretha Franklin, on the heels of her show-stopping televised “Natural Woman” performance at Kennedy Center, brought a packed house at Uncasville, Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Arena to tears by sitting at the piano and performing Cole’s signature ballad, “Inseparable.” “We will always remember this very classy and sophisticated lady,” Franklin declared, recalling Cole’s 1976 hit, “Sophisticated Lady”.
While Natalie made music that will stand the test of time, I’d say Ms. Cole’s other legacy, of equal worth, is one of determination and resilience. It was her DNA.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]