By Sandy Cohen And Hillel Italie
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LOS ANGELES _ She began as a 1970s soul singer hyped as the next Aretha Franklin and peaked in the 1990s as an old-fashioned stylist and time-defying duet partner to her late father, Nat “King” Cole.
Natalie Cole, who died Thursday in Los Angeles at age 65, was a Grammy winning superstar honoured and haunted by comparisons to others.
“Natalie fought a fierce, courageous battle, dying how she lived … with dignity, strength and honour. Our beloved Mother and sister will be greatly missed and remain UNFORGETTABLE in our hearts forever,” read a statement from her son, Robert Yancy, and sisters Timolin and Casey Cole.
According to her family, Cole died of complications from ongoing health issues. She had battled drug problems and hepatitis that forced her to undergo a kidney transplant in May 2009. Cole’s older sister, Carol “Cookie” Cole, died the day she received the transplant. Their brother, Nat Kelly Cole, died in 1995.
“I had to hold back the tears,” Franklin, who had feuded with Cole early in Cole’s career, said in a statement. “She fought for so long. She was one of the greatest singers of our time. She represented the Cole legend of excellence and class quite well.”
A mezzo-soprano with striking range and power, Cole was destined to be a singer, the only question being what kind. She was inspired by her dad at an early age and auditioned to sing with him when she was just 11 years old. She was 15 when he died of lung cancer, in 1965, and would reunite with him decades later in a way only possible through modern technology.
All along, she was moved by and sometimes torn between past and present sounds. As a young woman, she had listened to Franklin and Janis Joplin and for years was reluctant to perform her father’s material. She sang on stage with Frank Sinatra, but also covered Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.”
“I was determined to create my own identity,” she wrote in her 2010 memoir “Love Brought Me Back.”
The public loved her either way.
She made her recording debut in 1975 with “Inseparable,” and the music industry welcomed her with two Grammy Awards _ one for best new artist and one for best female R&B vocal performance for her buoyant hit “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love).” Her quick success and the similarities to Franklin, another mezzo-soprano, did not please the “Queen of Soul,” who at the time called Cole “just a beginner.”
“The first time I saw Aretha was at an industry banquet,” Cole later told Franklin biographer David Ritz. “She gave me an icy stare and turned her back on me. It took me weeks to recover.”
Backed by the writing-producing team of Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy, she followed with such hits as “Our Love” and “I’ve Got Love on My Mind,” and by 1979 had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But her career faded in the early 1980s and she battled heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol addiction for many years. She spent six months in rehab in 1983.
Her recovery began later in the decade with the album “Everlasting” and reached multiplatinum heights with her 1991 album, “Unforgettable … With Love.” No longer trying to keep up with current sounds, Cole paid tribute to her father with reworked versions of some of his best-known songs, including “That Sunday That Summer,” ”Too Young“ and ”Mona Lisa.“
Her voice was overlaid with her dad’s in the title cut, offering a delicate duet a quarter-century after his death.
Although criticized by some as morbid, the album sold some 14 million copies and won six Grammys, including album of the year as well record and song of the year for the title track duet.
While making the album, Cole told The Associated Press in 1991, she had to “throw out every R&B lick that I had ever learned and every pop trick I had ever learned. With him, the music was in the background and the voice was in the front.”
“I didn’t shed really any real tears until the album was over,” Cole said. “Then I cried a whole lot. When we started the project it was a way of reconnecting with my dad. Then when we did the last song, I had to say goodbye again.”
She was nominated for an Emmy award in 1992 for a televised performance of her father’s songs.
“That was really my thank you,” she told People magazine in 2006. “I owed that to him.”
Another father-daughter duet, “When I Fall in Love,” won a 1996 Grammy for best pop collaboration with vocals, and a follow-up album, “Still Unforgettable,” won for best traditional pop vocal album of 2008.
She also worked as an actress, with appearances on TV’s “Touched by an Angel” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
But she was happiest touring and performing live.
“I still love recording and still love the stage,” she said on her website in 2008, “but like my dad, I have the most fun when I am in front of that glorious orchestra or that kick-butt big band.”
Cole was born in 1950 to Nat “King” Cole and his wife, Maria Ellington Cole, a onetime vocalist with Duke Ellington who was no relation to the great bandleader.
Her father’s graceful easygoing style was admired by Sinatra, Ray Charles and many others and, in 1956, he became the first black entertainer to host a national TV variety show. Natalie Cole grew up in Los Angeles’ posh Hancock Park neighbourhood, where her parents had settled in 1948, despite animosity from some white residents about having the black singer as a neighbour. When told by residents they didn’t want “undesirable people” in the area, the singer said, “Neither do I, and if I see (any), I’ll be the first to complain.”
The family eventually included five children. Cole herself married three times, her husbands including Marvin Yancy and “Unforgettable” co-producer Andre Fischer. Robert Yancy was her only child.
When she announced in 2008 that she had been diagnosed with hepatitis C, a liver disease spread through contact with infected blood, she blamed her past intravenous drug use.
She criticized the Recording Academy for giving five Grammys to drug user Amy Winehouse in 2008.
“I’m an ex-drug addict and I don’t take that kind of stuff lightly,” Cole explained at the 2009 Grammy Awards. Hepatitis C “stayed in my body for 25 years and it could still happen to this young woman or other addicts who are fooling around with drugs, especially needles.”
Cole received chemotherapy to treat the hepatitis and “within four months, I had kidney failure,” she told CNN’s Larry King in 2009. She needed dialysis three times a week until she received a donor kidney on May 18, 2009.
Cole toured through much of her illness, often receiving dialysis at hospitals around the globe.
“I think that I am a walking testimony to you can have scars,” she told People magazine. “You can go through turbulent times and still have victory in your life.”
Italie reported on this story from New York.