It’s been a bittersweet few days for those of us who are lovers of great music and great artistry. We typically enter a new year with an inordinate deal of optimism. But we currently mourn the loss of the inimitable songstress, Ms. Natalie Cole, who died just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, at Cedar Sinai hospital here in Los Angeles.
Like so many of you, I’ve always been a big fan of Natalie’s, but I was more fascinated about her artistic choices, and what I observed to be the three incarnations or re-inventions that took place during her 40 year career. Those stages candidly represent where she was artistically, and where she may have been personally and emotionally. Natalie was nearly Phoenix-like, with an ability to not only survive her personal challenges so publically, but to mature, rise and overcome the demons that nearly destroyed her career, her familial relationships, and marriages due to her long bout with drug addiction.
Natalie was the daughter of the late great Nat King Cole, a musical giant, who not only left an indelible mark on the American Songbook, but passed away from cancer when Natalie was a teen at age 15. By 25, Natalie ironically signed with Capitol Records (the same label her dad built), and burst on to the scene with not one but 4 seminal albums in the span of two years (May 1975-November 1977). These albums assisted in defining what many of us call the 1970s Golden Era of R&B/Soul music. As phase one of her illustrious career, those albums were all-cleverly one worded titles: Inseparable, Natalie, Unpredictable, and Thankful—and gave us a trove of classic singles: “This Will Be,” “Inseparable,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Mr. Melody,” “I’ve Got Love on My Mind,” “Our Love,” along with some deliciously memorable fan-favorite album cuts the likes of “I Can’t Say No,” “Annie Mae,” “LaCosta,” and “I’m Catching Hell.”
Natalie was everywhere during this 70s period. It was constant press, concert tours, TV appearances from Soul Train to Merv Griffen to the Midnight Special. Not bad for a young lady in her mid-20s, who wanted to be known on her own merits and not simply because she was Nat’s daughter. She eventually would admit that her name got her through the door, but she did not launch her career repurposing the songs made famous by her dad, nor did she sound anything like him. Aretha Franklin was coming off a decade-long run of iconic hits, that became the soundtrack to both the civil rights and Pop cultural movements. Aretha wasn’t exactly lighting up the charts during the mid-70s, and perhaps black radio and a younger generation of fans were looking for a new voice. Natalie Cole delivered! Most critics weren’t ready to take away Aretha’s crown – that wasn’t happening, she was established music royalty – but Natalie did provide the genre and fans of R&B new life and a breath of fresh air, especially during a period when many of Natalie’s contemporaries like Chaka Khan (I’m Every Woman), Diana Ross (Love Hangover) and Donna Summer (her entire 70s discography) were having major crossover hits with disco records, the dominant genre at the time. Natalie took full advantage of the opening that was there—down to her output of writing-production credits with her “A” team of Chuck Jackson & Marvin Yancy, the latter gentleman whom she would marry.
Towards the end of the 70s, and into the 1980s, Natalie’s bout with drug addiction and her health challenges would become more public not only in and around the industry but with the general public; and getting another recording contract became increasingly difficult. The early through mid-80s weren’t especially kind to her creatively, but she did provide some memorable gems like the late Michael Masser -produced “Someone The I Used To Love,” and her duet with Peabo Bryson on a remake of “What You Won’t Do For Love,” from their album of duets titled, We’re the Best of Friends.
In the late 80s, it appeared that Natalie was clean and back on track, releasing her 11th and 12th studio albums, respectively titled Everlasting, and Good To Be Back. I believe this to be the beginning of Natalie’s re-invention, a second but short-lived incarnation, and a time where she would deliver a string of sizeable Pop records through new recording deals via Manhattan Records & EMI. These Top 10 Pop hits include “Jump Start (My Heart),” the Bruce Springsteen-written “Pink Cadillac,” three classic ballads: “I Live For Your Love,” “Miss You Like Crazy,” and “Starting Over Again.” She also scored a No. 1 R&B single with Freddie Jackson, titled “I Do.”
It was good to see Natalie back in action. The success of the late 80s felt different than her run in the 70s. Natalie of the 70s was a vital piece of the cultural and Soul music movement, a true expression of Black female independence and power. The 80s was a decidedly different time period both politically and culturally, and thus Natalie’s music represented a lighter more Pop fare. This would set her up for her third and most successful incarnation, the Unforgettable with Love period.
The early 90s saw the launch of young divas like Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige and Toni Braxton. It was when Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard became the most successful soundtrack of all time, and yet Natalie would share chart space alongside these younger women similar to what she did 15 years prior next to the likes of the aforementioned Chaka, Diana, and Donna. In the spring of 1991, Natalie would release her biggest selling album to date, Unforgettable with Love (Elektra Records). This was a well-calculated move in her career, as she was 41 years-old at the time. Natalie waited well into her career before producing this “event album.” The CD featured 22 Pop and Jazz standards, an entire collection of songs once recorded and made famous by her dad. The concept project spared no expense, bringing in some of the most respected musicians like David Foster, Tommy LiPuma, and her husband at the time, Andre Fisher, to produce these historic classics. Her personally-written liner-notes provided a glimpse into the history of the songs, while the clip to “Unforgettable,” a watershed moment in video production and technology, paired a modern-day Natalie up with vintage footage of her dad. The album sold over 14 million copies worldwide, and won the 1992 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, along with five additional Grammys: Record of the Year, Traditional Pop Vocal Performance, Song of the Year, Arrangement Accompanying Vocals and Producer of the Year.
Natalie found a new groove with Unforgettable, and would use it as a template for her subsequent recordings. Her albums Take a Look, [the Christmas album] Holly & Ivy, Stardust, Snowfall on the Sahara, [my personal favorite] Ask a Woman Who Knows, Still Unforgettable, and 2013’s Natalie Cole en Espanol were comprised mostly of the American Pop Songbook, and Jazz Standards. Her audiences that came to see her concerts even changed and expanded. These became orchestral events, and attracted an older, more sophisticated, and yes ‘whiter’ audience than what frequented her shows during the 70s. These were Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra fans, and Natalie’s new core audience. When she decided to do her R&B/Soul music classics, she would have to specifically advertise those shows as such; but what a great problem to have.
It proves that Natalie could do it all – equally sing R&B, Jazz, Pop and even Rock, and that the trajectory of her career and its various re-inventions literally took on a life of their own. Personally, I never had the privilege of interviewing Natalie. She is the one that eluded me. I have met her several times, though, and told her that we share a birthday, February 6. Natalie was coming up on her 66th birthday, and that still seems so young for one to make their transition; but considering all she dealt with, we were blessed and fortunate to have her these 65 years. She certainly lived a full life, and left us with an amazing body of work that is truly Unforgettable.