The New Year began with very sad news: legendary singer Natalie Cole died from congestive heart failure at 65.
There’s something about that name that evokes so much in the hearts and minds of Black folks, in particular. She’d been a part of the hierarchy of legendary soul divas that includes Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack, Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples, Minnie Riperton and, of course, Aretha Franklin. But with Natalie, there was always the legacy factor; after all, she was the daughter of Nat “King” Cole, a singer who’d represented Black aspiration for a generation, in many ways. She always felt like a connection between the generation that had grown up on pop and jazz standards and the rock and soul kids who immediately followed it.
It’s appropriate that her career would be defined by versatility. Living in the same house as one of the great singers of pop and jazz standards, Cole soaked up all of her father’s influence while also diving headfirst into rock n’ roll and R&B. She was as versed in Sarah Vaughan as she was in The Beatles, with her father bringing everything from orchestral pop to blues into their house. “I was madly in love with Elvis Presley,” she would later reflect in her memoir. “Dad wasn't into it at all, at least not for himself as a performer. He used to say, ‘Mr. Cole does not rock 'n' roll.’”
And Cole’s music consistently showcased her wide range of influences and the diversity of her talents. Initially, she was marketed as a soul singer, the daughter of a legend and “heir apparent” to Queen Aretha. Her voice could be as bold as it was nuanced and she landed as classic soul was beginning to give way to disco—a time when many of the soul legends of the 60s and early 70s were beginning to falter in their command of the audience’s attention. Her early albums featured the songwriting of her frequent collaborators Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancey, two veteran musicians (Jackson had been an established writer in the early 60s, Yancey had moved from gospel success to secular music upon meeting Jackson a decade later). The resulting music led to a string of hits for the singer, including “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” and “Sophisticated Lady.” Her piano playing and songwriting were also showcased on albums like Inseparable and Unpredictable. A decade after losing her father, Nat’s little girl had been catapulted into the center of late 70s stardom.
As has been well-documented, the pressures of that stardom were almost too much for the twentysomething Cole to bear. She’d lost her famous dad just days after she turned 15 back in 1965, and had been saddled with the “next Aretha” tag from the moment she released her first album. She reflected many years later on the insecurities she felt earlier in her career with these two figures looming so large over everything that she’d done. Her insecurities led her to drugs, namely heroin and freebasing. Her autobiography, Angel On My Shoulder, famously detailed an instance where she almost died in a fire in the early 80s because she was committed to getting high before she would evacuate, and also touched on another rattling experience where her son almost drowned while she was stoned.
It would be misguided to reduce Natalie Cole’s story to just one of triumph over heroin, however. Cole’s longevity as a top-tier artist—she was a nine-time Grammy winner—is remarkable, to say the least. Her body of work spans four decades and a myriad of styles: from the shuffling soul of “Sophisticated Lady” to the brassy 80s pop of “Pink Cadillac” to the more traditional jazziness of her 90s output. In being so wide open and diverse, Cole’s music is now a study in Black popular music of the non-hip-hop variety; a sonic timeline that exemplifies just how mercurial the term “R&B” has always been. And in a pop climate that can so often be dismissive of women maturing, she was even more visible in the 1990s than she’d been before.
When she re-emerged in 1991, it was as a much more confident woman who was entering her forties determined to chart her own career course—and not be defined by fears of who she could be compared to. “I've always adored my father's music, but ever since I'd started singing, whether it was while I was still a student at the University of Massachusetts or professionally, I avoided Dad's material,” she wrote in her second memoir, Love Brought Me Back. “I was determined to create my own identity. My first hits, in fact, were straight-up rhythm and blues. My voice was compared to Aretha Franklin's, though, for my money, no one compares to Aretha.
“By the time I approached my forties, I had the self-assurance to approach all the genres I love so deeply: R & B, rock, jazz, and pop. My dad bridged jazz and pop with such aplomb that, even with my newfound confidence, I was hesitant. But I did it, and the result changed my musical life. Unforgettable … with Love sold some fourteen million copies.”
In cementing her return to charts with her Grammy-winning duets album, Cole cemented her legend, as well. She proved that she wasn’t only capable of beating drugs, she was capable of transcending the pressures that had defined the first half of her career. Tina Turner’s comeback may be more lionized in the public consciousness, but Natalie Cole’s is just as inspiring and unlikely. The long list of artists who never made it back from the brink is enough evidence to prove that these stars don’t always find happy endings; but Natalie Cole found hers—as an artist and as a woman. She never stopped pushing herself; never stopped being open.
“I listen to everything from gospel music to R&B,” Cole said in a 2013 interview. “I have (pop-rock band) Maroon 5 on my phone as one of my ring tones. I love Adele. I'm listening to a lot of Spanish music too. I was at the Latin Grammys. Even Pitbull came out and did something with somebody.”
There’s a tendency in our culture to mythologize artists who succumb to addictions or depression. Whitney Houston is probably the easiest to evoke as it pertains to superstar female vocalists who were overwhelmed by their demons; a list that also includes names like Judy Garland and Amy Winehouse. And there are several examples of celebrity kids who grew up to become dysfunctional people because of the spotlight their family name placed them under. Natalie Cole had to navigate both. But she didn’t become totally submerged in the darkness; she fought back and ultimately won. In addition to her musical accomplishments, she was an established author and earned a degree in child psychology. She made one hell of a life for herself and never felt shame or sorrow for her sometimes-harrowing journey.
“One of things is that you must live your life, if possible, without regret,” she told Essence in 2010. “If you are the kind of person who is open to learning, every negative thing that ever happened, every mistake you ever made and every choice is going to affect you in a way, whether it's good or bad. It will change you. You have to be responsible for your choices. You can't moan and whine and feel sorry for yourself when the consequences aren't what you hoped they would be. You deal with it. Unfortunately, we do have some young people out there who have made some really bad choices, and it did kill them. I would say to the ones who are still standing, ‘Watch yourself. Keep your ear to the ground. Be a good observer. Treat people well, and take responsibility for your choices.’"
It’s a shame that so many younger music fans may not truly understand how great this diva was; the scope of her talent, the breadth of her artistry, the fortitude of her spirit. Because Natalie Cole was one of the all-time great artists and singers, more than just a famous daughter, more than just “Your momma’s favorite.” She was a survivor. She was a legend. She was a queen.
And she will be missed deeply.