Welcome to Afterglow, I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
This week on the program, we pay tribute to singer Natalie Cole—one of the great interpreters of the American Songbook, and one of the people most responsible for its revival over the last 30 years. After her R&B success in the 1970s, Cole was deemed the next Aretha Franklin. But in the 1990s, Natalie Cole made the transition to traditional pop, following in her father’s footsteps. This year marks the 30th anniversary of her Grammy Award sweep for her album Unforgettable… With Love. On this program, we’ll chronicle her career and focus on her interpretations of the Great American Songbook.
It’s Unforgettable: A Tribute to Natalie Cole, coming up on Afterglow
MUSIC - Natalie Cole, “If You Could See Me Now”
Natalie Cole from her 1996 album Stardust, performing the Tadd Dameron and Carl Sigman tune “If You Could See Me Now.” Cole masterfully placed herself in a lineage of great performers with this song, including Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan, who first performed it in 1946.
MUSIC CLIP - BILL EVANS, "WHEN I FALL IN LOVE"
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we pay tribute to singer Natalie Cole. [30 years ago, Cole swept the Grammy Awards with her album Unforgettable… With Love, ushering in a new generation of interpretations of the American Songbook.]
In this hour, we’ll focus mostly on the later half of her career, which was mostly focused on the American Songbook. Natalie Cole had two distinct musical careers—in R&B, and in traditional pop—which made her a rare kind of artist. Writer Will Friedwald said that she was, quote, “the only star since Bobby Darin who could switch easily between youth pop and classic pop.”
Natalie Cole was born in 1950 into not just a musical family, but a musical dynasty. Her mother Maria, was a singer in Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and her father was, of course, Nat King Cole, who, even by then, was already a superstar for Capitol Records. Like Liza Minelli or Nancy Sinatra, Natalie Cole was a second generation star.
In the 1970s, her musical path seemed to be not to follow in her father’s footsteps, but rather in Aretha Franklin’s footsteps. Her debut album Inseparable, for Capitol Records in 1975, included songs that Aretha Franklin had initially turned down. One of those songs, “This Will Be,” would go on to win a Grammy in 1976 for best Female R&B Vocal Performance, a category that had been dominated by Aretha Franklin every year since its inception in 1968. Let’s hear a little bit of that song now…
MUSIC CLIP - NATALIE COLE, “THIS WILL BE”
Natalie Cole with the Grammy Award winning R&B single, “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love).”
After another Grammy and a string of R&B hits in the 1970s, Natalie Cole’s career stagnated in the 1980s. She began to struggle with drug addiction, a battle she discussed in her 2000 autobiography Angel on My Shoulder. Her career briefly bounced back in 1987, with the pop album Everlasting and a hit with Bruce Springsteen’s song “Pink Cadillac.”
MUSIC CLIP - NATALIE COLE, “PINK CADILLAC”
This album also saw Cole record the Victor Young and Edward Heyman song “When I Fall in Love,” her first foray into the Great American Songbook. It was a song that her father first sang in 1956, although Natalie chose a more contemporary style for her version.
MUSIC CLIP - NATALIE COLE, “WHEN I FALL IN LOVE (1987)”
That song would reappear in her repertoire about a decade later, and we’ll get to that in just a bit.
Natalie Cole’s turning point came in 1991, when she was signed to Elektra Records. She and Elektra executive Tommy LiPuma made the decision to turn her career path towards her musical heritage, recording the music that made her father famous. Her 1991 album for Elektra records called Unforgettable: With Love, produced by Cole and LiPuma, with help from David Foster, features Cole abandoning her R&B past, and performing the Great American Songbook in the style of those great 1940s and early 1950s records.
Let’s hear a few of those songs now, beginning with one that her father wrote. Here’s Natalie Cole with “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - NATALIE COLE, “STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT”
MUSIC - NATALIE COLE, “ROUTE 66”
MUSIC - NATALIE COLE, “THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU”
Natalie Cole with “The Very Thought of You,” a song her father made famous in 1958 for Capitol Records. Natalie even mimicked Nat’s original string-heavy arrangement by Gordon Jenkins in this recording from 1991. Before that, we heard Natalie channeling the King Cole Trio with Route 66 and Straighten Up and Fly Right.
Natalie Cole’s 1991 album Unforgettable: With Love was a big commercial risk, but it paid off. The album became an even more massive success than anyone could have imagined. It sold over 7 million copies, topped the Billboard charts, and swept the Grammys in 1992, winning (among other awards) the Grammy Award for Album of the Year and Best Traditional Pop Performance.
The standout track from this record was unquestionably the Irving Gordon song “Unforgettable,” a virtual duet with her late father Nat King Cole. The elder Cole originally recorded this song in 1951 with an arrangement by Nelson Riddle, and that arrangement was edited and remixed to include Natalie’s voice. Amazingly, this 40-year-old song won for Record of the Year AND Song Of The Year at the Grammys. A posthumous Grammy Award for Nat, of course, although songwriter Irving Gordon was still alive, and became the oldest composer to win “Song Of The Year.”
Let’s hear Nat and Natalie, father and daughter, with “Unforgettable” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - NATALIE COLE AND NAT KING COLE, “Unforgettable”
MUSIC - NATALIE COLE AND NAT KING COLE, “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”
Two virtual duets between Natalie Cole and her father Nat. We just heard “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” from Natalie Cole’s 2008 album Still Unforgettable, and the song “Unforgettable” from 1991.
MUSIC CLIP - NATALIE COLE AND NAT KING COLE, “When I Fall in Love”
A little more of Nat and Natalie in the background right now with the aforementioned “When I Fall In Love,” a recording from 1996. We’ll hear more of Natalie Cole’s interpretations of the Great American Songbook after a short break, stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - JOE PASS "UNFORGETTABLE"
MUSIC CLIP - MILES DAVIS, “WHEN I FALL IN LOVE”
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been paying tribute to singer Natalie Cole this hour. It’s hard to say that Natalie lived in the shadow of her father, Nat. After all, in the 1970s, she was dubbed the next Aretha Franklin, earning a superstar status as an R&B and disco singer, well outside of anything that her father ever performed.
However, in 1991, Natalie Cole began to perform music from the American Songbook, a genre where her father reigns as one of its greatest interpreters. After performing an album entirely of her father’s standards, it was clear that Cole could stand on her own as a jazz and traditional pop artist.
We’ll spend the rest of the hour listening to some of Cole’s versions of standards, from the many albums she released after the groundbreaking 1991 album Unforgettable… With Love. We’ll begin with her fine interpretation of a song first made famous by Billie Holiday in 1949.
From the 1993 album Take A Look, here’s Natalie Cole with “Crazy He Calls Me,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - NATALIE COLE, “Crazy He Calls Me”
MUSIC - NATALIE COLE, “Take a Look”
The Clyde Otis song “Take a Look,” the title track from Natalie Cole’s 1993 album. Before that, we heard Cole with the Bob Russell and Carl Sigman tune “Crazy He Calls Me” from the same album.
What I love about this version of “Take A Look” which we just heard was the way Natalie Cole taps into her R&B roots and channels Aretha Franklin. Franklin recorded this song for Columbia Records back in 1964, and it was also the title of one of her Columbia albums. As I’ve mentioned already, Cole and Franklin had a minor musical rivalry in the 1970s. What’s interesting to me is how their careers are reflections of one another: Cole began in R&B, but seemed to find her true voice in traditional pop, whereas Franklin began her career as a traditional pop singer, and years later, abandoned it to become the Queen of Soul.
This balance that Natalie Cole struck between R&B and traditional pop puts her in a category with a number of artists who interpreted the Great American Songbook, not just Aretha Franklin, but also Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Dinah Washington. Musically, Cole and Washington shared many traits, which is especially evident in this next song, a song that Dinah Washington was known for.
Here’s Natalie Cole with “What a Diff’rence and Day Made” on Afterglow
MUSIC - NATALIE COLE, “What A Diff’rence a Day Made
MUSIC - NATALIE COLE, “It’s Sand, Man
Natalie Cole showing her range as a singer. We just heard her being a one-person version of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, with “It’s Sand, Man!” from the album Take a Look. Before that, that was Cole channeling Dinah Washington with “What a diff’rence a day made” from her 1996 album Stardust.
After hitting it big with “Unforgettable,” Cole recorded 10 albums over the next 25 years. Four of these albums were all in the jazz and traditional pop vein. In 2002, she moved over to the Verve label, a traditional jazz label, and recorded her Grammy-nominated jazz album Ask a Woman Who Knows. In addition to songs originally performed by Dinah Washington, or her father, this album features a duet with artist Diana Krall. Let’s hear that now.
Here’s Diana Krall and Natalie Cole with their Grammy-nominated song “Better Than Anything” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - NATALIE COLE AND DIANA KRALL, “Better Than Anything"
MUSIC - NATALIE COLE, “You’re Mine You"
Natalie Cole with the Johnny Green and Edward Heyman tune “You’re Mine You.” Before that, we heard Cole and Diana Krall with the David “Buck” Wheat song “Better Than Anything.”
Natalie Cole’s final American Songbook album was 2008’s Still Unforgettable, a conscious successor to that 1991 Grammy award-winner Unforgettable… With Love. Just like in 1991, Still Unforgettable won the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Album. After this album, she released another Christmas album in 2008, as well as a Spanish-language album in 2013 (much in the vein of her father’s famous Cole Espanol album from 1958).
Later in life, she struggled with some health issues, which stemmed from her drug use back in the 1980s. Sadly, Natalie Cole passed away of heart failure on New Year’s Eve 2015 at 65. Like her father, she died far too young.
We’ll close off this tribute to Natalie Cole with a song from that 2008 album now—the Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke song “But Beautiful.” Her father recorded this song exactly 50 years earlier, and like her father, Natalie Cole’s interpretation is honest, direct, lovely, and captivating.
Here’s Natalie Cole with “But Beautiful,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - NATALIE COLE, “But Beautiful”
Natalie Cole, with the Van Heusen and Burke standard “But Beautiful.” Thanks for tuning into this Natalie Cole Tribute on Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “UNFORGETTABLE”
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow