The worst part of hearing that Natalie Cole passed away? Knowing that my 18-year-old daughter wouldn’t particularly care. And worse yet, she might not know who she was at all. I held my breath and sent her a text as soon as I heard the news.
Me: Did you hear that Natalie Cole passed away?
Me: Did you know her music?
18-year-old: Not really.
Sigh. Yet another musical parental fail for me.
My parents made sure I was exposed to more than just what was current in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I had to listen to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I knew not just Nat King Cole’s music but how he had to fight against racism in his day — both personally and professionally. I was allowed to love New Edition and paper my room with their posters. But I had to have knowledge of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn too.
Today, my teenaged daughter and I equally bonded over Beyoncé’s latest album. And while she occasionally falls down the Internet rabbit hole and discovers The Beatles or Stevie Wonder, I don’t actively make sure she knows her R&B history. Much of it has to do with how we consume music. If our house were filled with vinyl records, like my childhood home, she’d probably be more educated by osmosis.
By the time I was 12, Natalie Cole had formed an indelible impression in my mind. For my 12th birthday, I’d received a stereo with a record player. But I only owned one album, Thriller. And while I lived for Michael Jackson, Thriller wasn’t the kind of album you played on repeat. I stole down to my parent’s basement one night, picking through the crates of their albums. I grabbed Natalie Cole’s Inseparable. I only knew her name in passing. I knew she was Nat King Cole’s daughter and that my dad loved her dad. But I digress. It was Natalie’s sunny smile and the pink rose tucked into her fluffy ‘fro on the front cover sold me before I even got it back up to my room to play it.
Inseparable stayed on my player for months on end. “This Will Be,” “Inseparable,” and “I Can’t Say No” were my favorites. I was twelve years old, with no romantic prospects whatsoever. But it didn’t matter. Natalie’s vocal conviction made me believe I’d one day be able to belt out “I Can’t Say No,” “Inseparable,” or “This Will Be” into a hairbrush in front of a mirror and really have someone in mind I’d be singing to.
While Cole didn’t have a major hit in recent years, her importance to the entertainment industry can’t be overstated. My 18-year-old doesn’t know about Cole’s Grammy Awards trifecta win in 1992, when her hit single “Inseparable,” a duet with her deceased father, won Record of The Year, Album of The Year and Song of The Year at the 34th Grammy Awards. My 18-year-old also doesn’t realize that some of her famous rappers, including Jay Z and Kanye West, have sampled Cole’s work. She doesn’t know that some of her favorite R&B singers, including Keyshia Cole and Mary J. Blige, have covered or sampled Cole’s music.
In 2006, I worked with Faith Evans on her memoir, Keep The Faith. I knew she would understand Cole’s importance and gave her a ring this morning for her thoughts on Cole’s passing.
“The music industry lost a true talent in Ms. Cole,” Faith said to me this morning. “There was just something about her smooth vocal approach that was soothing. Like her dad, she had that jazz background so even when she was singing pop music, there was a special touch she brought to her sound." I asked Faith about her favorite Natalie Cole song and she answered with no hesitation. “'I’ve Got Love On My Mind’ is my favorite,” said Faith.
Just this past holiday season, I spent some time with the one and only Patti LaBelle, taste-testing her infamous “Patti Pies.” I checked in with Ms. LaBelle today as well, for her thoughts on Cole’s passing. For Ms. LaBelle it’s more then the loss of a musical icon, it’s the loss of a friend. “I am deeply saddened by the passing of my friend Natalie Cole,” she said. “She was a beautiful spirit, a consummate artist and an inspiration to so many. Natalie will be truly missed, but her light will shine forever."
Cole’s light can shine forever — but only if we continue to light it. That starts with me making a playlist for my 18-year-old and my 8-year-old. This weekend, we’re taking a break from Meek Mill and J. Cole — today, in her memory, it’s Natalie Cole 101 in this house.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.