The daughter of the 1950s crooner Nat “King” Cole, the soulful mezzo-soprano Natalie Cole enjoyed a fitful career with a string of international hits, including the ebullient, upbeat, uplifting “This Will Be”, her debut 1975 single and the first of nine Grammy Awards she won over four decades across the Jazz, R&B, Pop and Traditional Pop categories. This was an indication of the versatility of her phrasing and the inter-connecting genres she could easily tackle without quite ever knocking her rival, Aretha Franklin, off the “Queen of Soul” throne (she did achieved it briefly with “This Will Be”, and again in 1977 with the sassy, slinky “Sophisticated Lady”).
Most famously, in 1991 Cole and her producer David Foster originated the “virtual duet” practice, now commonplace in the music industry, when they “resurrected” her late father to create a new version of his signature song “Unforgettable” featuring them both. “Nothing had been attempted like that,” she said. “To lift Dad’s voice, literally, off of that track and put it on a brand new one, and then line it up, match it up, get the phrasing right. I remember listening – everyone listening at the end, and we were just enthralled. It was really wonderful.”
The Unforgettable ... With Love collection of standards introduced both performers to a younger generation of listeners and went on to sell 14m copies. Its success ushered in several albums that repeated the trick: “When I Fall In Love”, for Stardust (1996), “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”, for Still Unforgettable (2008), and “Acércate Más” for Natalie Cole en Español (2013).
These rather overshadowed her ability as a singer of rock and R&B who could have followed in the footsteps of Tina Turner, with songs such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” and Reggie Calloway’s “Jump Start” (both 1988). She was also a supreme interpreter of crossover ballads like “I Live For Your Love” (1988) and “Miss You Like Crazy” (1989), and a star at ease collaborating with the soul singer Peabo Bryson (on We’re The Best Of Friends, 1979) or the jazz vocalist Diana Krall (Ask A Woman Who Knows, 2002), as well as making memorable contributions to major Hollywood soundtracks. Her “Wild Women Do” was one of the highlights from Pretty Woman, the 1990 romantic comedy starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts.
No slouch as a co-writer, especially when paired with Marvin Yancy, her first husband and the co-writer and co-producer of her first six albums with Chuck Jackson, Cole could pick material that suited her gorgeous voice and three-octave range. “That’s kind of what I try and do with my music,” she said. “It should look like it was made exactly for me. If it doesn’t fit, I don’t force it. When it works, it takes on a life of its own and you’re comfortable right away. It’s not nuclear science, it doesn’t have to be that complicated.”
But away from music-making things didn’t prove so clear-cut. Her dalliances with hard drugs, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, and the consequential health issues, regularly derailed her comeback-heavy career, despite the efforts of her entourage, who booked her into the best hotels like the Dorchester, where I first met her while she was promoting the Everlasting album in 1987. Sadly, the preconceptions of showbusiness agents prevented her from fulfilling her formidable inherited talent. Rather than move into major acting roles, she had to be content with the occasional part in TV series like Grey’s Anatomy and Law And Order and cameos in films such as De-Lovely, the Cole Porter biopic. In 2001 she played herself in the biopic Livin’ for Love: The Natalie Cole Story.
Born Natalie Maria Cole at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital of Los Angeles in 1950, she had music running through both sides of her family tree; her mother, Maria Hawkins, sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and met her father at the Zanzibar Club in Santa Monica. The lineage of “the black Kennedys”, as she sometimes called her family, was anything but simple. For a while, Natalie was the couple’s sole natural child after they adopted her cousin, Carole or “Cookie”, and a boy, Nat, or “Kelly”. Then in 1961, her mother gave birth to female twins, Timolin and Casey.
“My mother tried to keep us all normal,” she recalled. “I grew up around people like Harry Belafonte, who used to swim in our pool, and Count Basie, Pearl Bailey. Ella Fitzgerald. They came to our house for lunch, they played golf with my dad. I went to their houses, they were all like aunts and uncles.” Her schoolfriends were, she said, “Walt Disney’s grandchildren, Bob Hope’s niece. We all looked at one another like oddities. We all led very different lives.”
Jazz formed the vivid background to her childhood and teenage years. “I knew every song Ella Fitzgerald sang,” she recalled. “One day, I made my father sit down in the living room and I sang him ‘Unsighted’, a tune Ella used to sing. He was so shocked to hear me sing that he found me a part in this show he was doing, The Merry Young World of Nat ‘King’ Cole. I ended up doing it in Riverside and at the Greek Theater [in California].”
Natalie enjoyed sitting in the audience and watching her father perform. “He was great. He was the same easy-going guy on stage that he was at home. It was a great thrill for me to watch him mesmerise an audience.”
She also made a guest appearance on one of her father’s many Christmas recordings, perpetuating a family’s tradition of much-loved Yuletide collections that she would continue with releases that teamed her up with the tenors José Carreras and Placido Domingo (A Celebration of Christmas, 1996), the London Symphony Orchestra (The Magic Of Christmas, 1999) or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, 2010).
As she put it, her father’s death from lung cancer in 1965 “threw everything off-kilter. No one in the family really knew what they wanted to do after that. It was such a sad, grief-stricken time for all of us. I felt like my arm and leg had been cut off. He meant so much to each of us. He was only 47 years old.”
By then, her musical tastes had broadened to include Motown acts like the Supremes. Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, as well as the Beatles, who were signed to Capitol, the label whose turntable-like headquarters in Hollywood had long been known as “the House that Nat Built”. After completing pre-med at the University of Massachusetts, she jumped on stage for an impromptu set with a band called Black Magic and turned her life around. She joined Capitol and became a major act immediately, topping the R&B charts with “Inseparable”, “I’ve Got Love On My Mind” and “Our Love”, and daring to reinterpret the Fab Four’s “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” on her 1978 concert set Natalie Live!
In two autobiographies, Angel On My Shoulder (2000) and Love Brought Me Back (2010), she chronicled the ups and downs of her career, including her struggles to come to terms with the deaths of her adoptive sister in 2009 and her mother in 2012, as well as her kidney transplant in 2010. She rightly attributed her need for a new kidney to the travails of intravenous drug use and became spokesperson for the University Kidney Research Organisation.
“Hepatitis C stayed in my body for 25 years, and it could still happen to addicts who are fooling around with drugs, especially needles,” said Cole, who died of congestive heart failure at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital of Los Angeles (renamed the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center). Her life had indeed gone full circle.
“I am a walking testimony that you can have scars,” she once told People magazine. “You can go through turbulent times and still have victory in your life.”
Natalie Maria Cole, singer, songwriter and actress: born Los Angeles 6 February 1950; married 1976 Marvin Yancy (divorced 1980; one son), 1989 André Fischer (divorced 1995), 2001 Bishop Kenneth Dupree (divorced 2004); died Los Angeles 31 December 2015.
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