Legendary singer Natalie Marie Cole died Thursday night in Los Angeles, just as we were preparing to ring in 2016. And as Natalie’s life is being remembered on news and social media outlets around the world, the legendary singer’s musical mark is one that I’d be remiss without reflecting upon it here on djrobblog. In this article, I pay tribute to one of the greatest, yet most troubled singers of our time – a singer who overcame the huge burden of having to follow in her legendary father’s footsteps, and who overcame drug addiction and health problems to forge comeback after unpredictable comeback. I cap off the article with my list of her 12 greatest songs (in my opinion of course), along with accompanying video clips on YouTube.
By now, everyone who knew of her is familiar with Natalie’s story. She was the daughter of one of the most successful singers in music history – a singer that ranked at #11 on the djroblist of the greatest black musicians of all time six months ago – the fellow legend Nat King Cole. Daughter Natalie initially rose to fame at age 25 when she released the #1 R&B hit “This Will Be” from her 1975 gold début album Inseparable. Over the next 40 years she went on to become one of the most recognizable and most rewarded singers in R&B history with multiple platinum-selling albums and singles, a trove of Grammy awards and international success that helped distance her from father’s immense shadow.
From the start, however, her reception was a dubious mixture of critical acclaim from believers and panning from doubters, largely due to the instantaneous nature of her success. Was she really that good or was she riding her father’s coattails? Was she the new Aretha Franklin or a pretender to the throne? Yes, people were actually comparing her to the Queen of Soul in the mid-1970s. After all, she had just run off the type of numbers that no woman had on the R&B chart since Aretha earlier in the decade. Natalie’s first eight singles all reached the top ten on that chart, with five of them reaching #1, including the first three (“This Will Be,” “Inseparable” and “Sophisticated Lady (She’s a Special Lady)”).
The other two #1s were “I’ve Got Love on My Mind” and “Our Love,” million-selling singles from her two separate 1977 albums: Unpredictable from February of that year, and Thankful released that November. With both of those albums being certified platinum, Natalie became the first woman ever to have two different albums from the same year be certified as million-sellers.
The Grammy community quickly rewarded Cole’s talents as well, naming her Best New Artist of 1975 (awarded in February 1976). She also won the award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, both for 1975 (“This Will Be”) and 1976 (“Sophisticated Lady”). That accomplishment was especially notable because Natalie was only the second person to win the award since its inauguration in 1967. The winner for those first eight years? You guessed it: Aretha Franklin.
In addition to all the big radio hits and crossover successes were some very important other songs by Natalie during that heyday. For instance, on the 1976 album, Natalie, was the single “Mr. Melody,” a top-ten R&B hit. On the 1977 follow-up album Unpredictable was another top-ten R&B hit, “Party Lights” – a high-energy disco tune that, at 132 beats-per-minute, was easily her most up-tempo song ever. Also on that album was a song about being alone (and not liking it at all), “I’m Catching Hell.” That album-cut was also included on her first live album in 1978 and became a fan favorite and staple of Natalie’s live performances from that time forward.
On the second 1977 album, Thankful, was the song that served as the B-side to the “Our Love” single, called “La Costa.” As evidence of my love for this elegant yet breezy tune, I wore out that side of the 45 more than I did the hit side. In my opinion, “La Costa” is one of the best Natalie Cole songs ever made and certainly one of the most underrated. Also on Thankful was the second single, “Annie Mae,” the first song released by Natalie that she wrote by herself (she had co-written “Sophisticated Lady” two years earlier). “Annie Mae” reached the R&B top ten in 1978, capping her string of eight straight such chart hits.
With all that success achieved in just under three years from 1975 to 1978, it was safe to assume that Cole would be the next Aretha (although 40-plus years of wisdom have made us now realize that no one will ever topple the Queen of Soul). But as close as Natalie came to repeating Franklin’s earlier chart success with her first four albums, she hit a commercial brick wall over the next few years, with each successive album selling fewer copies than those first four had. Coincident with her music’s declining sales was her well-documented alliance with hard drugs, including crack cocaine and heroin. Natalie achieved minor crossover success with songs like “Someone That I Used to Love” in 1980, but the million-sellers were behind her.
At least, that is, until she left her first label, Capital Records, in 1983 and became somewhat of an industry gypsy, recording five albums for four different labels over the next eight years. This coincided with visits to rehab facilities for her heavy drug usage, including a notable stint in one facility that lasted six months and was designed to help Cole get her life together and re-position her career on a more positive trajectory.
Slowly, things began to look up for Natalie. Of those albums from the mid-1980s, the one that began a comeback of sorts for Cole was her 1987 hit LP Everlasting. It marked another first for the singer. The album gave her three top-40 pop hits, something none of her albums before (or since) had done. Those hits were the #13-peaking singles “Jump Start” and “I Live For Your Love,” and the #5 hit, “Pink Cadillac” – a remake of the Bruce Springsteen song. All three also returned Natalie to the top ten on the R&B chart, along with a duet she recorded with Ray Parker, Jr., called “Over You,” which appeared on his album.
Natalie hadn’t had that kind of chart presence since 1977/78, and the Everlasting album set the stage for another hit follow-up, the 1989 album Good To Be Back, which featured her first #1 R&B hit since 1978, “Miss You Like Crazy.” Despite that being her sixth and last #1 R&B single, the success that Cole would experience in the next decade would be unparalleled in her career.
In 1991, she recorded the massively successful album Unforgettable…with Love, which contained the “virtual” duet with her late father of his earlier recording, “Unforgettable.” The clever splicing of his three-decade-old vocals with her newly recorded ones (along with footage of the elder Cole used for its amazing video) helped the song achieve crossover success and the album reach #1 on the Billboard 200, making it her first and only #1 pop album. It went on to become certified seven-times platinum in the U.S. (and platinum in several other countries as well), easily making it her most successful album ever. It also began a decade-long relationship with Elektra Records, making that the label with which she was signed the longest (and had the most success in terms of worldwide sales).
The success of “Unforgettable” was even more remarkable when you consider the musical landscape of the time. By 1991, music had clearly changed, with heavily synthesized (and over-produced) dance tracks, new-jack swing and hip-hop being favored over almost everything else, particularly in the pop and R&B communities. For Natalie Cole to bring back jazz-oriented standards with real instrumentation and heart-warming vocals, and then have that much success with it, was at the least very refreshing and, at best, one of the greatest musical accomplishments of the previous half-decade.
The song and album earned Natalie three Grammy awards (matching her career total up to that point…and her first awards since 1977), including Album of the Year, Record of the Year (for the single) and Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance (also for the single).
The success of the “Unforgettable” single (#10 R&B, #14 pop) led to a string of other successful virtual duets with her father, including notable versions of his “The Christmas Song” (which ranked very high on my list of Greatest Christmas Songs last month), and “When I Fall In Love,” a song Natalie had first recorded solo for her Everlasting album. It was the virtual duet version, recorded in 1996, that won Cole another Grammy award, for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.
It was somewhat ironic that Cole’s greatest success would be achieved after her decision to delve into her dad’s catalog of pop standards. For years she refused to cover any of his earlier hits during her live performances, perhaps in response to (or in an attempt to prevent) the inevitable criticism that she was simply riding his coattails. Yet, she was embracing her Nat King Cole legacy with open arms at this stage of her career, and it was her pairing with him in the 1990s that resulted in unprecedented sales of her records. By that time, Natalie had already forged a nearly two-decade career herself, and likely felt she had nothing else to prove, and certainly nothing to lose.
The change of heart certainly paid off. Natalie milked the Unforgettable theme throughout the 1990s and again in 2009, when it yielded another Grammy-winning album, Still Unforgettable. That album was chock full of covers of pop standards by Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Lena Horne and, of course, her father Nat (in a virtual duet of “Walking My Baby Back Home”). The album won the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, and would be her last Grammy winner.
In all, Natalie won 9 Grammy Awards, recorded 23 studio albums and three live albums, and had six #1 R&B singles, all over the span of four decades. I’d say that’s not bad for the daughter of a legendary pop singer – a daughter who had the talent, strength and endurance to forge a 40-year legendary career in her own right – a career we’re not likely soon to forget.
So what are your favorite Natalie Cole songs? Below, I’ve ranked the twelve greatest songs in her catalog, based on my opinion, of course. Feel free to comment and give me yours.
12. “Party Lights”
11. “I Live For Your Love”
10. “Sophisticated Lady (She’s a Different Lady)”
9. “Mr. Melody”
8. “When I Fall in Love” (virtual duet with her dad)
7. “Miss You Like Crazy”
5. “Our Love”
4. “La Costa”
3. “This Will Be”
2. “I’ve Got Love on My Mind”
1. “Unforgettable” (virtual duet w/ dad)
RIP Natalie Marie Cole (February 6, 1950 – December 31, 2015)