By: D DaNubian
Each week of Black Music Month, we open the 88.9 Vault of Soul, profiles of iconic soul pioneers. Continue reading to take a deep dive into Natalie Cole’s incredible legacy.
Natalie Cole was born on February 6, 1950. The daughter of entertainment trailblazer Nat King Cole, Natalie was initially reluctant to pursue a career that followed in her famous father's footsteps. In time, she emerged from the shadows of a "king" (her father) and her idol (Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin) and rose to award winning prominence for contributions to music that are truly unforgettable.
Born Into Music
As a young girl, it was like the walls of Natalie Cole's home were coated by an eclectic blend of music, painted by the most respected artists in the industry. Cole was constantly surrounded by legends of Jazz, Blues, and Soul. In addition to her dad's talent, her mother Maria was a background vocalist for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Because they were among many, frequent, celebrity house guests, she grew up considering icons like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra as family. Her first recording was on one of her father's Christmas Albums at the age of 6. Natalie Cole's life changed dramatically at age 15 when her father succumbed to cancer. Her family relocated to Massachusetts and upon graduating high school, she enrolled at U Mass Amherst, majoring in child psychology.
A Rising Star
During her summers as a U Mass Amherst student, she performed with a band at various venues but always disappointed the crowds who expected music similar to her father's rather than the R&B and Soul that Cole delivered. After graduation in 1972, Natalie started singing again with the band Black Magic, eventually meeting the songwriting/producing duo Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy. With their assistance, she recorded a demo in a Chicago studio owned by Curtis Mayfield and landed a deal with Capitol Records. In 1975, her debut Inseparable was released. The single, This Will Be, soared to the top of the R&B charts followed by the album's title track. With a 10 song set, Natalie made the boss moves of not only emerging from the shadow of the king (her father), but also sending shockwaves into the palace of Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. At that year's Grammy Awards, Natalie halted the 8 year streak of Aretha winning the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance trophy setting off a storied rivalry in the process. She also claimed the Grammy for Best New Artist on the strength of Inseparable.
What Sophomore Slump?
Natalie Cole's success was no fluke. Whether in the studio or performing live, for the duration of the 1970's, she proved herself to be a powerhouse vocal vixen with her sophomore, third and fourth albums extending her string of hits. Soul was splashed with Funk and Jazz on songs that included Mr. Melody (1976), Grammy winner Sophisticated Lady (1976), I've Got Love On My Mind (1977), and Our Love (1977). A tv special and star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame were among the accomplishments Cole celebrated during that decade. The 80's saw her star power dim from descending into drug addiction. However, a return to the charts in late 1980's, fueled by pop leaning tunes like Jumpstart (1987), an update to Bruce Springsteen's Pink Cadillac (1988), and Miss You Like Crazy( 1989), set the stage for one of the biggest comebacks in music history.
After 20 years of validating herself as more than just "the daughter of", Natalie Cole's time in rehab resulted in the gut wrenching epiphany that grief has no time limit and she hadn't really grieved over losing her dad. How could she when was she too busy answering media questions about what he was like, or if she'd ever sing his songs? The truth was she never wanted to sing his songs due to the pain of his voice singing them resounding freshly in her mind. To put it plain, Natalie Cole was a daddy's girl...his "Sweetie". The time had come for her to completely surrender. To completely let go of the pain and replace it with love. 1991's “Unforgettable With Love” stands as the bestselling album in Natalie Cole's career. She produced the vocal arrangements and worked with her uncle Ike Cole on what I'd describe as a transformative masterpiece. The highlight of the release was actually technology. Technology that made it possible to dub over an old Nat King Cole recording to create the father-daughter duet Unforgettable. Natalie cleaned up at the Grammy Awards that year, winning some of the recording academy's highest honors, including Record of The Year and Album of The Year. For the remainder of the 90's, she continued to put out successful releases and win awards for her work.
In 2008, Natalie Cole was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. She died from congestive heart failure in 2015. Natalie Cole's showmanship was an example of what it means to "leave it all on the stage". She could scat, she could ad lib, she could make you feel the sting of love lost, or the smoldering desire of a newly lit flame. Natalie Cole could bring it softly and romantically, or take you to church. That incredible range was coupled with a precision capable of opening hearts while she pierced the heart of a song. For the majority of her time in the spotlight, she clung so tightly to her musical gift and the pain of losing her father that they were indistinguishable if not inseparable.
Nat King Cole
Ella Fitz Gerald
Whom She Influenced:
Mary J Blige
This Will Be
Miss You Like Crazy
Awards and Honors:
9 Grammy Awards including Album of The Year for Unforgettable With Love
3 American Music Awards
4 NAACP Image Awards
Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame
George and Ira Gershwin Award
Honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music
Host of Big Break-1990
PBS Specal-Unforgettable With Love: Natalie Cole Sings The Songs of Nat King Cole-1992
Livin For Love: The Natalie Cole Story-2000
Law & Order Special Victims Unit-2006
Real Housewives of New York City-2011
RuPaul's Drag Race-2012
You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more.
Interested in exploring the soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Or, take a deep dive into R&B, hip-hop and the legendary voices of soul alongside new and pioneering MCs by streaming ERS+.