Natalie Cole began her career in the giant shadow cast by her legendary father, but she managed to emerge from the shadow and become a star in her own right. At the time of her death, she was overshadowed once again by the falling of other stars. Although her name was mentioned in the “in memoriam” portion of the Grammy Awards, she was not the subject of a tribute like the ones offered for David Bowie, Maurice White, Glenn Frey, and Lemmy Kilmister.
I try to keep this column focused on something other than the deaths of our favorite artists, which are occurring so frequently now, but I think Natalie Colie deserves more recognition than that accorded to her so far. In my own small way, I want to do something to uphold her considerable legacy.
Her father, Nat King Cole, was an iconic musician. Her mother, Maria Hawkins Ellington, had been a singer with the Basie and Ellington bands. So music came naturally to Natalie Cole. She was born in Los Angeles in 1950, and grew up in an affluent part of town. By the time she was six years-old, Natalie had already sung on her father’s classic Christmas album, and by age 11 she was performing.
Natalie went back east for prep school in New England. Her father died when she was 15, and her relationship with her mother became a rocky one. Nevertheless, Natalie attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she studied child psychology, eventually graduated from that school. She was thoroughly steeped in R&B and soul music, and when clubs hired her early in her career the owners were often disappointed to hear her sounding more like Aretha Franklin than Nat King Cole. It was in Chicago that two producers, Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancey, heard her and recorded some tracks with her. Most record labels didn’t show any interest, but one did — Capitol Records, which had of course been her father’s label.
She returned to L.A. to continue working on the songs they had recorded, and eventually her debut album was complete. The Aretha Franklin influence was evident on Inseparable. In fact Aretha later said that songs like “This Will Be” were offered to her first. As it happened, “This Will Be” was a huge hit for Natalie in 1975, climbing all the way up into the Top Ten on the Pop chart, and winning a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. Natalie was also named Best New Artist at the Grammys that year. Both “This Will Be,” and the follow-up single “Inseparable” made it to the top spot on the R&B chart.
The following year, Natalie neatly avoided the sophomore slump with her album Natalie, which included hits like “Sophisticated Lady” and “Mr. Melody.” Natalie earned her first platinum album with her third album, Unpredictable. The album’s huge success owed a lot to the inclusion of the hit “I’ve Got Love on My Mind.” Her fourth album, Thankful, also went platinum, and also included a hit single, “Our Love.” So Natalie Cole had two platinum albums in the same year, 1977. She was the first female artist to achieve that.
Natalie capitalized on her success with her own television special, which also featured Earth, Wind & Fire, and appeared as a guest on the special Sinatra & Friends. Her two albums in 1979, I Love You So, and We’re the Best of Friends (with Peabo Bryson), went gold, and Natalie got her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that year as well.
Things took a turn for the worse in 1980. Natalie’s album Don’t Look Back did not go gold, although it did include the hit single “Someone That I Used to Love.” By 1981 the public was becoming aware of Natalie’s struggle with drugs, which had in fact begun much earlier, and in 1983 she checked into a rehab facility where she remained for six months.
When she got out, Natalie signed with the Atco Records imprint Modern Records. Her first album for the label, Dangerous, began to revive her career. Her comeback was complete when her 1987 album Everlasting, on EMI-Manhattan Records, returned her to the top of the charts. Hits like “Jump Start (My Heart),” “I Live for Your Love,” and her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” helped to give Natalie her first platinum album in ten years. But her biggest success was yet to come.
In 1991 Natalie released Unforgettable … With Love on Elektra Records. The album found Natalie covering songs that her father had made famous (earlier she had refused to cover her father’s songs in live performance), and included the memorable duet with her father on the title track. The album sold seven million copies and won Grammys for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance.
Take a Look, an album of jazz standards, went gold in 1993, as did the holiday album Holly & Ivy. The standards album Stardust went platinum, and included another duet with Nat King Cole on “When I Fall in Love,” which won a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.
More success followed in the new century, with successful albums in several genres, and even a biopic called Livin’ For Love: The Natalie Cole Story. In 2008 she returned to her father’s work with Still Unforgettable, an album that also included songs made famous by other artists, like Frank Sinatra. It was another Grammy-winner for Natalie.
There were so many prominent appearances for Natalie over the years that it’s difficult to recount them all, but highlights would include her performance of the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXVIII, a 1990 appearance on Comic Relief with Al Jarreau, numerous dramatic appearances on TV shows like I’ll Fly Away, Touched by an Angel, Grey’s Anatomy, and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and her performance at the Academy Awards in 1993.
Natalie Cole died of congestive heart failure on December 31, 2015. Her funeral was held on January 11. Among those attending were Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, Chaka Khan, Eddie Levert, Mary Wilson, and Gladys Knight. Natalie was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, next to her father and mother. There must be some awesome duets going on in heaven.