This week on the program, we pay tribute to singer Natalie Cole, who passed away on New Year’s Eve 2015. 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. On this program, we’ll chronicle her career and focus on her interpretations of the Great American Songbook.
The Next Aretha Franklin
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, Cole was a second generation star. In the 1970s, her path seemed to be not to follow in her father’s footsteps, but rather in those of Aretha Franklin. 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 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. 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.” 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, and a song that she would win a Grammy award almost a decade later.
Unforgettable: With Love
Cole’s turning point came in 1991, when she decided to lean into her heritage, and record the music that made her father famous. Her 1991 album for Elektra records called Unforgettable...With Love features Cole abandoning her R&B past, and performing some of her father's songs from Great American Songbook in the style of those great 1940s and early 1950s records. Cole’s 1991 album Unforgettable...With Love was an even more massive success, than anyone could have imagined, selling over 7 million copies, and earning her the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The standout track from this record was questionably the Irving Gordon song “Unforgettable,” a virtual duet with her late father. 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 song of the year, record of the year, and traditional pop performance of the year. After hitting it big with “Unforgettable,” Cole recorded 10 albums over the next 25 years, including three Christmas albums, two returning to her pop and R&B roots, and one entirely in Spanish. The remaining four albums were all in the jazz and traditional pop vein. She won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance on her 1993 album Take A Look, and won two Grammys for "When I Fall in Love" off her 1996 album Stardust. 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. And one of her last albums, Still Unforgettable from 2008, won the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.