To put the legacy of legendary vocalist Natalie Cole, who passed away on Thursday night of congestive heart failure, in its proper perspective, look no further than the recent holy-sh*t-is-this-really-happening performance of Aretha Franklin on the 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. By now you’ve probably caught the trending clip of a swaggering Ms. Franklin—draped in a full length fur coat in all her F.U. PETA glory—belting out “(You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Women)” in tribute to its iconic songwriter and Kennedy honoree Carol King.
Franklin’s genius, emotive, heart-snatching display was so epic, so transformative that it drove King into feverish, animated astonishment and President Barack Obama to tears. The riveting showing was yet another reminder just how much of a larger-than-life figure Franklin has been and still is; the pristine caliber of a once-in-a-generation vocalist so deeply branded onto the pop culture consciousness (think Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson—BIG) that she has become her own genre.
So imagine being a young Natalie Cole in the mid ‘70s—already carrying the ridiculously daunting burden as the daughter of the late trailblazing jazz and pop standards icon Nat King Cole—having to cut through the piercing noise of being hyped THE NEXT ARETHA FRANKLIN!!!!. Indeed, the shameless publicity machine at Capitol Records was working overtime to present Cole, the sweet, yet powerful, pitch-perfect talent, as the heir apparent to a music deity that was still alive and kicking, albeit in a disco-era slump of sorts. Of course, it didn’t help matters that Natalie Cole’s 1975 million-selling debut Inseparable was effortlessly brilliant.
Backed up by two monster singles, the crossover pop doo-wop classic “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” and the soon-to-be quiet storm staple “Inseparable,” Cole quickly became the new go-to soul diva. She would win Grammy’s for the coveted Best New Artist slot and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance—the latter award having been won by Franklin for a remarkable eight years in a row. Years later, Cole spoke of being uneasy with early comparisons to the Queen of Soul. “I was determined to create my own identity,” she admitted in her second memoir, 2010’s Love Brought Me Back. “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.”
Many viewed the Grammy triumph as a symbolic passing of the torch, yet some critics and fans were suspicious of the refined, filtered Cole, labeling her a more sanitized alternative to the aforementioned Franklin, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, and Gladys Knight. Influential music writer Robert Christgau offered somewhat backhanded praise for Inseparable claiming the standout set, “Betray[s] a soupçon and a half of Nancy Wilson. So where's Natalie? Serving her masters, ex-Independents Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy.”
Ahhh…it was all clear. Natalie Cole wasn’t as authentic as ReRe and them. She wasn’t church. She’s wasn’t gutbucket. She wasn’t…real. In fact, as lauded as Cole had become by her loyal followers many could not help to think that she benefited from being a legacy act fueled by ace, at times, pop-aimed songwriters; her silver spoon clutched in one hand with a mic in the other. But as Cole would prove during her remarkable three-decade plus run, her small, but vocal contingent of detractors had it all wrong.
Cole wasn’t the next Aretha. She was the simply the MOST versatile vocalist of the soul-pop era; an act so limitless that she routinely defied category, confounding her critics.
Cole’s first three albums alone—Inseparable, Natalie (1976), and Unpredictable (1977)—jumped from unfiltered, church-inflected rhythm and blues, torch-song balladry, and shameless pop. You could more than envision Cole belting out Chaka’s sexy come-on funk “Tell Me Something Good.” But Chaka would sound a bit out of place on Cole’s unabashedly sugary confection “Our Love.” Cole would not at all be out of place pulling lead vocals on Gladys Knight & the Pips’ soul stirring “Midnight Train to Georgia.” But could Gladys tackle a jazz standard like Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache,’ displaying the quiet moments that makes the song so damn haunting?
Cole could deliver Whitney Houston’s ‘60s-inspired, girl-group infectiousness that is “How Will I Know.” But Houston would come off as way too controlled, too polished to go from covering a psychedelic Beatles classic like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to the down bottom blues of Etta James’ “Something Got A Hold On Me” as Cole did on her excellent 1978 concert album Natalie Live! Cole, who would go on to score several 1980’s hits, including a light hearted take on the rocking Bruce Springsteen burner “Pink Cadillac,” thrived in her role as the ultimate vocal chameleon. So much so that in the next decade, she shocked the music industry with her biggest commercial triumph yet: 1991’s Unforgettable…with Love.
Essentially an album of covers of big band/jazz/pop classics made famous by her old man Nat King, the acclaimed Unforgettable was deemed as pure Grammy-bait by some listeners. Cole, who would ironically win the top Grammy for Album of the Year, didn’t blink, selling over seven million copies of the throwback tribute to an artist who also had to overcome accusations that he was (as well) too eager to court the masses.
But what’s a few critical bumps and scrapes when you’ve survived a much-publicized battle with drug addiction, more specifically heroin? A battle that nearly killed the singer in the early ‘80s amid a house fire as she ignored the deadly flames surrounding her while a possessed Cole was too consumed with getting high.
The best salute you can give to the great Natalie Cole in 2016? When you press play on Adele’s earthy songbook-style work on 25; Erykah Badu’s spacey alternative funk heard on But You Caint Use My Phone; the check-your-brain-at-the-door silly pop rock that is Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance;” or the complex, jazzy excursions of Diana Krall’s Wallflower, pour a little something for Ms. Nat.
It’s all her.
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(Photo: Greta Pratt/Reuters)