Natalie Cole: An appreciation

3 minute read
Cole in 2007 (Photo by dbking via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Cole in 2007 (Photo by dbking via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Author and musicologist Will Friedwald once described the rockers, folkies, and popsters who turned to the Great American Songbook as would-be vocalists “who like to dress up in mommy’s and daddy’s clothes.”

He was referring specifically to Linda Ronstadt — whose singing Friedwald described as “mooing” — who made three albums of standards with arranger Nelson Riddle (What’s New [1983], Lush Life [1984], and For Sentimental Reasons [1986]). The trend actually started in 1981, with folky Carly Simon’s unfortunate Torch. These days, the unlikeliest of artists are playing dress-up, including Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, and, of all people, Paul McCartney. The results, we shall say, have been mixed.

Natalie Cole, however, was, the real thing. It helped, perhaps, that she grew up in a household filled with some of the finest music imaginable — that of her father, the beloved singer/pianist Nat “King” Cole.

“A new Aretha”

Whatever she heard or whatever her influences were, Natalie — like many musicians who came of age in the 1960s — fell under the spell of Aretha Franklin and other R&B artists. After she graduated from the University of Massachusetts, she recorded a few R&B demos but literally couldn’t give them away until they came to the attention of her dad’s old record label, Capitol. Released in 1975, Natalie Cole’s first album, Inseparable, won a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. (You can hear her famous song here.)

Other chart-topping hits followed, and some began calling her “the new Aretha,” much to the displeasure of Ms. Franklin. Personal and professional ups (including a hit version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac”) and downs (struggles with substance abuse and a six-month stint in rehab) ensued. In 1991, however, Natalie not only resurrected her career but also totally switched musical gears by turning to her father’s songbook.

Previously, Natalie Cole had refused to sing any of her father’s songs in concert or on record. Whether it was a marketing ploy, a heartfelt choice, or a combination of both, Unforgettable: With Love sold more than 7 million copies and was Grammy’s Album of the Year. (Her posthumous duet with her dad on the title song was Grammy’s Song of the Year.) She went on to make several more albums of standards and covers, plus numerous Christmas albums, sometimes with her uncle, singer Freddy Cole, on piano.

A genuine difference

What set Natalie Cole apart from the other popsters trying to make like Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett was her depth, her sincerity, and her understanding of the lyric and where it came from — all of which came, in part, from her father’s example. She not only touched audiences familiar with the Songbook classics, but helped younger audiences appreciate this music as well. She also opened the door to the various rock stars and their albums of standards, as well as Lady Gaga’s duets with Tony Bennett.

The difference is that listeners knew Natalie Cole was expressing genuine emotion and that the magic — which is what it was — was coming from a credible place. Whatever one’s feelings are about Frank Sinatra Jr., audiences instinctively know that they are hearing something as close to the real thing as there is. He is, after all, Frank Sinatra’s son. And Natalie Cole? She was, after all, Nat “King” Cole’s daughter.

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