Natalie Cole died on New Year’s Eve at the age of 65. For over thirty years, she was a leading pop/R&B singer and a popular jazz interpreter. She could’ve simply been known as Nat “King” Cole’s daughter – and she never shied away from his shadow – but instead, she forged a career of her own, creating her own legacy and becoming a legend in her own right. Part of Cole’s ability to make an identity independent of her father’s, is that she initially performed music that was far removed from his groundbreaking prerock pop and jazz. Instead, she owed more to Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight. Her initial fame in the 1970s came from a string of successful singles and albums that featured the diva singing soulful R&B. Her debut album, Inseparable and its two hit singles “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” and the title tune won the singer two Grammys, and spawned a string top 10 R&B singles that included “Sophisticated Lady (She’s a Different Lady),” “I’ve Got Love on My Mind,” “Mr. Melody,” “Our Love,” and “Stand By.” In all, she had 10 top 10 R&B singles, five of which when to number one and three of which crossed over into the Billboard Top Ten. Health issues and drug addiction derailed her career for a bit, but she made a healthy comeback in 1987 with a string of top 20 pop hits including “Pink Cadillac” which climbed all the way into the top 5. Her comeback was complete when in 1989, she recorded the hit ballad “Miss You Like Crazy,” scoring another top ten hit. Her albums at the time, Everlasting (1987) and Good to Be Back (1989) both sold well, the former going gold while the latter went gold in the UK.
It wasn’t until 1991, that Cole finally embraced her father’s legacy and his sound, by recording Unforgettable…With Love, a collection of jazz and pop standards. The album’s highlight the title track, a duet with her late father, which was seen as cutting-edge technology at the time. The albums old over 7 million copies, and won a whopping six Grammys. Unforgettable was Cole’s career peak – her sales steadily declined, but her profile didn’t. She put out more albums of jazz/pop standards throughout the next two decades, reuniting with her father sporadically, like in 1996 with platinum-selling Stardust, in which Cole sang with her pop on the chestnut “When I Fall in Love.” Unforgettable…With Love finally got a “proper” sequel with Still Unforgettable, which again, showcased Cole’s prowess with jazz standards, and yet again, had a duet with her late dad.
Assessing Cole’s career and legacy can be tricky because though she was a huge superstar, selling over 30 million albums, and winning 9 Grammys, she still seemed slightly-underrated, especially when compared to her contemporaries like Franklin, Patti LaBelle, or Diana Ross. Her output was arguably much more consistent and she often had better taste in material. Part of the problem with looking at Cole’s career is that though her first duet with her father seemed like a technological wonder, she leaned on that technique far too many times, and it started to look gimmicky and crass. Since Unforgettable, Cole has recorded another duet with her father at least four more times.
Still, Cole’s output is pretty impressive and she has a great track record for putting out some incredible music.
Inseparable (1975) – One of the strongest debuts in pop music, and one of Cole’s best. The hit singles are incredible, but the b-sides are just as good – the album is a collection of great soul/R&B, influenced by gospel and pop. Cole’s voice, a joyous, sometimes-raucous instrument, had an earthy, soulful quality that was years away from her dad’s patented smoothness.
Natalie (1976) – Another winner, though its impact is slightly duller than her excellent debut. With Natalie, Cole also gives listeners a preview of her jazz work with an excellent rendition of “Good Morning Heartache.” The rest of the record is top-quality soul, with “Mr. Melody” skirting disco and jazz, as well.
Unpredictable (1977) – Cole’s third album was yet another winner, proving that she was nothing if not consistent. Another collection of strong soul songs, with a gorgeous, quiet storm ballad, “I’ve Got Love on My Mind.” “I’m Catching Hell” is another barnstormer of a slow dance tune, and Cole even has two self-penned tunes, “Peaceful Living” and “Your Eyes” that show off a surprisingly competent tunes smith as well as singer.
Thankful (1977) – It’s absurd that Cole was able to release four albums in a span of three years, and each one was strong in its own right. Thankful has one of Cole’s best tunes “Our Love” that features a gorgeous piano intro. There are more solid Cole-penned songs, as well.
Everlasting (1987) – It took ten years for Cole to put out another album worth listening to, after a winning streak early in her career. As her health issues mounted, her attention to music wavered, and she released a string of so-so ho hum records that were pale imitations of the excellent Inseparable. Everlasting isn’t as good as Cole’s debut – it’s too time-stamped with 1980s production that includes mile-wide bass licks, shiny synthesizers, and drum machines, but Cole’s voice and talent manages to transcend the dated quality of the release. The title track is a nice, swinging number, and Cole’s rendition of “When I Fall in Love” (which she would return to a decade later) is dreamy. Cole also horned in on Janet Jackson’s turf with two credible dance numbers: “Jump Start” and the Bruce Springsteen cover “Pink Cadillac.” Cole also seemed inspired by Whitney Houston, as evidenced by the Broadway-like pop ballad “I Love for Your Love” that gave the singer a chance to show off her impressive range and lung power.
The Natalie Cole Collection (1982) – If you don’t want to get the individual albums from Cole’s excellent 1970s period, this is a great investment, as it contains all the big hits, right before she came back with Everlasting. Because Inseparable and Natalie are so strong as individual releases, I’d recommend getting the studio albums, as opposed to this collection, but it’s a handy release to have, as it contains the brightest moments of her unsuccessful work, as well.
“The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” (1988) – Cole’s Christmas output is spotty – her Christmas albums are either soporific, schmaltzy, or very corny. Her rendition of Mel Torme’s holiday classic though is beautiful and a high spot on the soundtrack to the 1988 holiday comedy Scrooged.
Good to Be Back (1989) – By 1989, Cole was back -a bonafide pop diva. She gets the expensive, superstar release with Good to Be Back, which featured top songwriters like Glen Ballard, Siedah Garrett, Gerry Goffin, and Michael Masser. This is miles away from her soulful collaborations with Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy, but it’s still highly-enjoyable. “Miss You Like Crazy,” the A/C smash hit is the album’s biggest hit, but the rest of the record is solid, shiny pop – though it’s a touch faceless when compared to her more interesting work of the 1970s.
Unforgettable…With Love (1991) – Cole finally plunged into the prewar pop and jazz genre, recording an album solely dedicated to the kind of music her dad made. While Cole is not a jazz singer per se, she handled these tunes beautifully – she shows an affinity for the music, and was able to make her mark with distinct vocals. At times, her performances could be too reverential, but she clearly had the chops to tackle work by songwriters like Harold Arlen, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rogers, and Billy Strayhorn. In fact, her rendition of “Lush Life” is one of the best on vinyl, as is her cover of Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa.” The centerpiece of the record is the title track, which she sang with her late father. She adapts well to his style of singing, toning down her naturally-boisterous voice to approximate his smooth croon. This album opened up a career for Cole, which she embraced fully, recording pop standards for bulk of her later career.
Take a Look (1993) – Though it didn’t get nearly the attention of Unforgettable (nor the sales), Take a Look is the stronger effort. Cole has a wide variety of pop and jazz standards, each of which she claims as her own. The hoary chestnut “As Time Goes By” gets a millionth reading here, but Cole manages to enliven the moldy oldie, but her prowess as a jazz interpreter is really evident on her strong reading of “Cry Me a River,” “Don’t Explain,” and “Calypso Blues” (a song her dad wrote).
“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (1993) – Her duet with Frank Sinatra from his smash hit Duets album came during the time that Cole was the flavor of the month because of Unforgettable. It’s a bouncy, nimbly number that benefits from the charisma and talent of the two performers (though they were reportedly recorded separately). The album as a whole leaned toward camp because of the duet partners that Sinatra was paired with (Bono, Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan), but because Cole’s familiarity and fluency with the American Songbook, the duet works.
Stardust (1996) – Another set of excellent interpretations of jazz/pop standards. Her duet with her father, “When I Fall in Love” is slightly less interesting than “Unforgettable,” only because the novelty has worn off. But the album is still beautiful – especially her reading of “Teach Me Tonight” and the blue “He Was Too Good to Me.” At this point, Cole has become one of the strongest contemporary performers of the American Songbook, and she hit her stride and found her voice.
“America” (1996) – Cole appeared on an all-star tribute album to the Bernstein/Sondheim classic West Side Story. Teamed with Patti LaBelle and Sheila E., Cole was allowed to really rip into “America,” matching Miss LaBelle note for note. Though slightly crowded and busy (the Sheila E. drum solo in the middle was unnecessary), it’s nice to hear Cole really let loose and sing unbridled passion.
Snowfall on the Sahara (1999) – Cole’s return to contemporary pop was an interesting affair because it worked underneath the shadow of her highly-successful jazz/pop work. Like her last contemporary pop effort, 1989’s Good to Be Back, Snowfall on the Sahara is immaculately-produced, with no expense spared. It’s a strange mix of covers and originals, all of which allow for Cole’s tendency to shout and wail when she sings. The title track is an atmospheric pop number that’s lush and beautiful. Her cover of “A Song for You” is wonderful as is her take on the blues classic “Corrina.” At this point in her career, Cole has established herself as a premier songstress, so it’s fine to hear her apply those skills to more contemporary fare than just the American Songbook.
Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 (2000) – The title indicated that there’d be a follow-up, sadly one never came. This is an excellent overview of Cole’s career – better, in fact, than the 1987 compilation, because this includes her soul hits, plus her 80s pop hits, along with some soundtrack work as well as two new songs. Some may quibble that there are too many live versions of her old hits (though “Our Love” is brilliant in its live version), but it’s a comprehensive look at Cole’s career as a hit maker. The highlight (aside from the excellent 70s hits) is “Livin’ for Love” Cole’s take on house/dance-pop.
“Stormy Weather” (2001) – Tony Bennett was a pal of Nat King Cole’s and a contemporary. He like, Cole, created a wonderful body of work interpreting the American Songbook. So it’s gratifying to hear Bennett duet with Natalie Cole on this torchy number, made famous by Lena Horne. Bennett’s wizened, grayed voice matches well with Cole, and the two have a palpable chemistry. It’s a shame Cole has never recorded this as a solo song.
“Livin’ for Love” – EP (2001) – Cole’s single from her greatest hits package is a fantastic disco stomper with Cole’s powerful, bell-like voice roaring over the thumbing dance beats. This EP has six tracks that include the album version, an instrumental and four remixes, the best being Frankie Knuckles Classic Club Mix, which send the already-fantastic dance number out of orbit.
Ask a Woman Who Knows (2002) – Cole entered the new millennium with a new jazz album. Like with her previous efforts, Ask a Woman Who Knows boasts some incredible song choices and impeccable performances. Backed by the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra on some of the songs, and featuring a duet with Diana Krall, this record was another solid entry into Cole’s already-impressive disography. And though dominated by prewar pop songs, the best of the bunch is Cole’s moody take on “Calling You,” the theme from Baghdad Cafe.
“Fever” (2004) – Taking on Peggy Lee’s “Fever” is a daunting task, made all the more intimidating by pairing the song with the great Ray Charles. Cole’s a natural with this song, being able to make her voice dance with the throbbing voice. Charles performs with his usual grace, and the two seem like they’re having a good time.
“Tell Me All About It” (2005) – Cole’s career with dance music has always been rather fitful and fleeting. It’s a shame because her voice is perfectly suited for dance-pop or house. On this laid back dance track from DJ Danny Krivit’s In the House, Cole uses her jazzy vocals on a thumping, low key neo-disco/house number.
Leavin’ (2006) – Cole followed up Ask a Woman Who Knows with another covers album, but this time the record is devoted to contemporary pop covers. Cole tackles some surprising tunes, including Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (which she reimagines as a blues number), Des’ree’s inspirational “You Gotta Be,” and Shelby Lynne’s “Leavin’.” She takes on her rival Aretha Franklin, with the soul classic “Day Dreaming” which is recast as a slinky dance number. The strongest tunes, though, are her gospel-infused covers of Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” and Kate Bush’s “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” (a standard for Cole’s shows).
“Finally Made Me Happy” (2007) – This is an odd entry, because Cole only provides backup vocals for Macy Gray’s opening track on her 2007 album Big. But Cole’s distinct soulful wail makes its mark, and she’s allowed for some campy vamping later in the song. It’s a testament to her skills as a singer and her charisma, that even as a backup singer, she still manages to outshine the lead.
Still Unforgettable (2008) – Cole’s belated sequel to the 1991 smash hit, has the singer yet again join her dad, this time on “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” The song selection on this release suffer a bit in that there are too many recognizable songs – I don’t think we need yet another cover of “Come Rain or Come Shine.” It would’ve been great to hear Cole dig into the American Songbook and pull out some obscure gems. Still, Cole is a master at these songs, and even if they suffer a bit from familiarity, she manages to make them each her own.
“Watch What Happens” (2011) – Another Tony Bennett, from his hugely-successful Duets II project. Cole and Bennett duet on a lushly-orchestrated Michel Legrand number, and as with their other collaborations, show a deep affinity for each other and the material.
“These Are the Days” (2015) – One of Cole’s last-released recordings has the singer pair with Van Morrison on a re-recording of his hit. It’s a weathered affair with Van Morrison’s voice aged and reduced. Still, it’s a sweet and sentimental song and is poignant in its simple delivery. Though Cole’s voice is still powerful, she holds back and performs the song with Morrison in a lower key without her usual flash and flair, thereby imbuing the song with some quiet strength.