When I was little my mother would play all types of music in our home, but what they all had in common was that they were, in her words, “feel-good music”—music that spoke to the soul, music that felt comfortable but also energizing. Natalie Cole, along with Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye and many other great musicians, fell into this category.
This past holiday I listened to Natalie Cole’s Christmas album Holly & Ivy (1994) and for the first time I was truly able to appreciate it. Her phrasing is simple but elegant, and her sweet voice soars effortlessly over the arrangements. I was stunned and sat fixated, listening to the whole record. It goes to show there are always more layers to discover in great music.
Natalie was the daughter of great jazz vocalist and pianist Nat “King” Cole. At first she did not follow in her father’s footsteps and refused to record jazz, instead turning to soul and blues. She looked up to artists like Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. Eventually she was approached by Chicago musicians-producers Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy, and she signed with Capitol Records, the same label as her father.
Her first record Inseparable (1975) had many hits, including the well-known song, “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love),” which earned her two out of the nine Grammy Awards she would win during her career. Sixteen years later she recorded Unforgettable… with Love (1991), a return to her familial roots with a focus on jazz standards. The title track is a beautiful duet with previously-recorded audio of her father singing. It’s truly enchanting to hear them sing together; their voices complement each other so well.
Take A Look (1993), Stardust (1996), and Still Unforgettable (2008) were all jazz recordings, and they show off her ability to transform familiar standards into something new. She sounds so comfortable singing all the tunes and for me, that is inspiring. Most times, if something sounds easy, it really isn’t—and she makes everything sound easy and flawless. I remember, in high school, learning “Willow Weep For Me” from her version on Still Unforgettable. I was blown away by her expressive voice—so bewitching, so alluring, so real…
Near the end of her life, Natalie recorded Natalie Cole En Español (2013), featuring many of the classics made famous by her father. The gorgeous bolero, “Acércate Mas,” again splices her father’s voice into a duet with his gifted daughter. The title means “come closer,” a beautiful description of what the recording does for them both and for us as listeners. I love the vibe of this tune—I just disappear from my life for two and a half minutes, and sway while the music paints colourful pictures in my head.
Natalie Cole died on the last day of 2015, at the age of 65. She didn’t have an easy life, but she leaves us with over twenty recordings to listen to, a memoir of a life expressed in music. She is truly “unforgettable.”