Remembering R&B legend Natalie Cole

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Natalie Cole promo photo

On December 31, 2015, a statuesque songbird flew away from her perch to the heavens above.

Natalie Maria Cole was born on February 6, 1950, to iconic singer Nat King Cole and Maria Hawkins Ellington, a great singer in her own right. In 1948, her family was the first Black family that purchased a home in the ritzy, all-White Hancock Park district located in Los Angeles, which caused racial tensions to reach a fever pitch prior to her birth. Residents of the neighborhood tried to prevent the family from buying the home. Afterward, they killed the family’s dog using poisonous meat and set ablaze their front yard by spelling out the N-word. Despite these incidents, the Cole family remained at this residence and were regarded as “The Black Kennedys.”

Hailing from a musical lineage, Cole began to show her singing prowess at the tender age of six. Her voice would be featured on her father’s Christmas album. When her father became one of the first Black people to secure a television variety show on a major network, she made appearances with him. Due to a lack of sponsorship, his program went off the air a year later in 1957. By the time she was eleven, she began developing her singing chops. A few years later, her father succumbed to lung cancer and it left the teenaged Cole heartbroken, resulting in a lasting rift with her mother. Once her mother remarried, their family relocated to Massachusetts.

After she graduated from high school, she enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst majoring in Biology, with plans to become a doctor, but her plans would shift by the end of her academic career. In 1972, she graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a Bachelor’s Degree in Child Sociology and a minor in German. During her college days, she joined one of the famous Black sororities, Delta Sigma Theta and became involved with the Black Panther Party by helping to provide meals to inner city families and being a staunch advocate for more Black Studies courses to be incorporated into the school system’s curriculum.

Upon finishing her degree, she revitalized her singing ambitions and discovered that doing music was her ultimate passion.At this time, she was being influenced musically by rock and roll artists like Janis Joplin and soul singers like Aretha Franklin. While working at various jobs and singing with her group Black Magic at small clubs in the area, she was billed as being Nat King Cole’s daughter. Unfortunately, her performances would be met with backlash from the audiences because her music didn’t reflect her father’s trademark sound. Nevertheless, Cole was determined to continue performing, and as she crafted her own sound, she began to develop an international following, leading to a chance encounter with Chuck Jackson (Reverend Jesse Jackson’s step-brother) and Marvin Yancey, formerly of the R&B group, the Independents.

In 1975, three years after graduating from college, Cole signed a record deal with her father’s flagship label, Capitol Records. They were the only ones interested in signing her after she, Jackson, and Yancey spent months recording new material to be sent to numerous music labels across the country. With her feet firmly planted in the music industry, they began to cultivate a blueprint for her debut album. She made a concerted effort to become her own artist and not follow in her father’s colossal footsteps. As a result, her debut offering, Inseparable, went atop the Billboard R&B and pop charts. The album achieved gold-selling status, powered by the success of three singles, “This Will Be,” “I Can’t Say No,” and “Inseparable.” The overwhelming success of the singles led to Cole winning two Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1976. Due to her efforts, she unseated her idol, the reigning Queen of Soul, from her throne by winning the latter award. Aretha Franklin won Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for eight years straight before Cole delivered a smash album to the masses. In doing so, many culture writers of the time period thought a new Queen of Soul was emerging.

Shortly thereafter, Cole returned to the studio to record her self-titled sophomore album, Natalie in 1976. On this album, she co-wrote the hit single, “Sophisticated Lady (She’s a Different Lady.) The other two singles that were released from the album were “Good Morning Heartache” and “Mr. Melody,” culminating in a second consecutive Grammy Award win for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1977. While recording Natalie, she married one of her production partners, Marvin Yancey.

During the following year, Cole released two platinum-selling albums, Unpredictable and Thankful, becoming the first female artist to ever sell two platinum-selling albums within the same year. Unpredictable featured the chart topping single, “I’ve Got Love on My Mind” and fan favorite, “I’m Catching Hell.” Later on that year, Thankful was recorded while Cole was pregnant with her only child, Robert “Robbie” Yancey. It featured the hit single, “Our Love,” which would become her signature song, as well as the radio hits: “Lovers,” “La Costa,” “Anna Mae,” and “Just Can’t Stay Away.”

A year later, she gave birth to her son, Robert, and released a gold-selling live album, Natalie Live! Her numerous triumphs afforded her the opportunity to host an hour-long television special on CBS, which featured R&B juggernaut, Earth, Wind & Fire and Johnny Mathis. She was on the verge of reaching the same level of superstardom her father achieved during his lifetime. In 1979, she released two more successful albums, I Love You So and a gold-selling duet album with burgeoning R&B star, Peabo Bryson, entitled We’re the Best of Friends. By the end of the 1970s, Cole had become one of the biggest stars on the planet, but her years of drug addiction would soon catch up with her, as well as mounting problems with her record label and in her marriage.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Cole released three albums, Don’t Look Back (1980) and Happy Love (1981) on Capitol Records and I’m Ready (1983), her only release on Epic Records, but they weren’t as successful as her prior recordings. With her career at a crossroads and an increasing drug habit, she was checked into Hazelden, a drug treatment center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She spent six months there. During her stint, she fought off her demons and became sober for the rest her life. Two years later, she arrived back on the musical landscape by releasing her comeback album, Dangerous (1985). She failed to recapture the level of her 1970s success, but she was on the verge of finding her unforgettable groove with her next album.

Retracing her footsteps, she signed a new recording contract with Manhattan Records via Capitol Records and released her comeback smash, Everlasting (1987). The album featured hit singles: “Jump Start” produced by Reggie and Vincent Calloway, formerly of the R&B group, Midnight Starr, “When I Fall in Love,” “I Live for Your Love,” and the pop remake of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.” Two years later, she signed a new recording contract with EMI Records and released her second consecutive hit album, Good to Be Back (1989). It featured the international chart topping hit, “Miss You Like Crazy” and singles: “I Do,” a popular duet with Freddie Jackson, “As a Matter of Fact,” and “The Rest of the Night.” “Miss You Like Crazy” would be her last number-one hit of her legendary career. Within the same year, she remarried record producer Andre Fischer (Clare Fischer’s nephew).

Coming off her recent string of successes, she was given the chance to host a new television program called Big Break, where new talent would be given a platform to showcase their musical gifts. Some of the new acts she helped to break into the industry were R&B stars R. Kelly and Eric Benet. When it came to her music career, she was at odds with her label over the direction of it. Record executives wanted her to record a New Jack Swing type of album, while she believed she had earn the right to honor her father’s legacy by recording an album of his classic songs. As a result, she left EMI Records and signed a new deal with Elektra Records. Elektra allowed Cole the chance to her father’s songs, and it resulted in unparalleled success for the artist. Unforgettable…with Love was released to much fanfare. It became a multiplatinum-selling smash and led to her dominating the 1992 Grammy Awards show by winning six Grammy Awards.

For the remainder of the decade, she released four more albums: Take a Look (1993), Holly and Ivy (1994), Stardust (1996), and Snowfall on the Sahara (1999). During this same juncture, she made her television acting debut on two programs. As the new millennium approached, she published her autobiography, An Angel on my Shoulder. She continued making regular appearances on various television shows and recording new music. She released her final albums, Ask a Woman Who Knows (2002), Leavin’ (2006), Still Unforgettable (2008), Caroling, Caroling: Christmas with Natalie Cole (2008), The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (2010), and Natalie Cole en Espanol (2013).

Natalie Cole was much more than a singer. She exuded class, grace, and regality. She worked tirelessly for organizations that strived to help those in great need. When there wasn’t many Black faces on television screens during the latter half of the twentieth century, Cole was one of the few that made consistent appearances on Dinah Shore’s television show, Dinah! Once she arrived on the music scene, the R&B field was crowded with grand voices such as Aretha Franklin, Jean Carn, Dionne Warwick, Chaka Khan, Deneice Williams, Melba Moore, Stephanie Mills, Angela Bofill, Patti Austin, Teena Marie, among others. The fact she was able to stake her claim and forge her own path to success is a testament to her work ethic and her other worldly talents as a singer, songwriter, producer, and arranger. Without question, her effortless techniques of blending jazz, soul, rock, and gospel places in her esteemed company.

Her prolific run during the latter half of the 1970s is one of the best streaks of hit records in the history of music. Also, she became a fixture on Soul Train and their branding commercials. By the end of the 1980s, her career rebounded and flourished among a new field of R&B singers like Oleta Adams, Me’Lisa Morgan, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, and Vesta. As many of our legends do, she battled her demons throughout her career, but she arose from her troubles, to achieve success again the early 1990s. I’m going to miss her, but we must not forget about her luminous musical and pop culture legacy

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