The untold story of Natalie Cole’s comeback tribute to her father, Nat King Cole – interview – Cover Story
Laura B. Randolph
IT was all one big hoax. A sham. A farce of such mammoth proportions even Natalie Cole can’t remember all the details. “I out and out lied to the press,” she can admit now, only now, reflecting on the numerous interviews she gave in 1983, claiming to be-once and for all-clean and sober.
She wasn’t. Far from it. What she couldn’t admit then was that her much-publicized three-week stay in a drug rehab center had not been enough to exorcise what she calls her “demons.”
No, she hadn’t made it because, like so much of the rest of her life up to that point, she had done it for the wrong reason. “The first time I went in [for rehab treatment],” she confesses, “I did it for everybody but me. And as soon as I got out, I went right back to doing what I was doing before I went in. “
What she was doing before she went in was slow-dancing with death. In addition to the coke, she’d started abusing prescription pills and alcohol. Then, drunk or high, she’d slide behind the wheel of her car and head for the L.A. freeways. It was a drag race with the devil. Only after walking away from what should have been a fatal accident with nothing more than a scratched finger did she begin to see the light.
Months of counseling would finally reveal-to her that the drugs were just a way of silencing the little voice-“the demons”-inside her that told her she wasn’t good enough. Ever since she was a little girl growing up in the exclusive Hancock Park section of Los Angeles, she had always wondered if her own brilliance was just a reflection of her father, the legendary Nat King Cole; if the glory of his talent somehow dim med her own; and, most disturbing of all, if it was her heritage, not her, that people were drawn to.
“It started with something I couldn’t control and that was the family I was brought up in-never really knowing if people liked you for yourself, or because of who your father was, ” she says of what, with therapy and counseling, she has come to recognize as her early “self-hatred. “
That is why Unforgettable, her most successful album to date, is more than a tribute to her father. Hauntingly beautiful, it certainly is that. But more important, it is a badge of triumph in her lifelong battle to learn to love herself; to come to terms with her father’s legend, his death from lung cancer in 1965, just nine days after her 15th birthday, and the profound effect both had on her life.
It is the perfect symbol really. It is a made-for-the-movies emblem of her newfound security: standing toe-to-toe, mike-to-mike, with the father who never even knew she wanted to sing; harmonizing with the parent she lost before she had a chance to say goodbye; singing the virtues of the music she once ran so far and hard from out of a fear that if she performed it, she might never be respected as an artist in her own right. “I spent the first part of my career rebelling against it,” Cole says of her father’s music. Always in the back of my mind I was trying to stay as far away from that stigma as I possibly could. “
How ironic, then, that this 22-song album of her father’s hits should be her first-and only-No. I album, even though between 1975 and 1979 she had five consecutive gold records. How paradoxical that it wasn’t until she stopped running from the legend of Nat King Cole that she became secure enough to embrace it and, in the process, prove to herself that she had what it took to live up to it. And how bittersweet that, 26 years after his death, his songs would give her the chance, at age 41, she never thought she’d have to tell her father “thanks and goodbye. “
“When you lose a parent in your early teen years, it’s like you are still a child, ” she muses. “I never got to make that transition from little girl to young woman … and that really screws you up. Doing this project gave me an opportunity to create a dialogue between me and my dad. And all the things that a young girl might never have had a chance to say to her dad, and all the things she wished he could have said to her are on this album. That’s really what the duet, Unforgettable, is all about. As far as I’m concerned, he’s singing to me.”
If she was looking for a sign from beyond that she had her father’s blessing, Natalie certainly got it. During the three months she spent recording the album, his spirit, she believes, was right there with her, not just singing with her, but filling her with his magic, guiding her every step of the way. “I felt my father everywhere, ” she says of the recording sessions at Capitol Records, where her father had cut his unforgettable hits when she was knee-high to a piano. “It was like we’d really pulled his spirit in,” she says. “There was a guidance I felt from him and I never felt at a loss. I’d been waiting to do this for so long, I knew exactly what to do. I knew exactly what was going to work and what wasn’t. “
Watching her as she speaks, it’s clear that this woman knows exactly what will and won’t work for her-in a recording studio, in her life. It is, in fact, what makes it so hard to believe that this Natalie Cole, this poised and elegant woman who earned three Grammys, five gold records and a star on Hollywood Boulevard before she was 30, would ever see herself as so “unworthy” that she would try to drown herself in drugs to numb her pain. For me, drugs were the only option because there wasn’t any way I could try and face whatever my demons were sober,” she reveals.
It wasn’t until her second stay in a drug rehab center-this time for six months beginning, in the winter of 1983-that she learned the seeds of those demons were sown many years ago. From the time she was a little girl, she never felt being Natalie Cole was enough. To cope with her intense insecurity, “I became a people pleaser,” she confides. “I went out of my way to’ make people like me. I would do just about anything to get them to like me. And even though I still suffer from [insecurity] now and then, it’s not close to what it was. Once you get grounded and love yourself and have people who love you whether you never sing another note, then you don’t have to constantly worry about what other people think. It’s taken a long time for me to get to that place. “
Truth be told, she almost didn’t live through the journey. During her five years of addiction, she was in “at least two or three accidents,” she says. Miraculously, she was never hurt, though she was placed on two years probation and fined $300 after the California Highway Patrol charged her with driving under the influence of drugs. I had a Datsun 240Z that flipped over on Sunset Boulevard at 11 o’clock at night,” says Cole of one of the most ominous accidents. “I crawled out of the window with just a scratch on my finger. “
It’s no wonder she’s convinced there’s been a divine hand in my life. When I look back at some of the things that could have happened to me and didn’t . . . , ” she says, closing her eyes, her voice trailing off “God was watching over me like a hawk. “
God and, fortunately for her, her mother, Maria Cole, who in the early 80s went to L.A. Superior Court to gain control of her daughter’s affairs when she realized the extent of Natalie’s addiction.
Even after her mother took control of her affairs, it was far from over. TO add to her profound insecurity, Natalie developed throat polyps that left her hoarse for six months-and terrified she’d never sing again. Her marriage to the late Rev. Marvin Yancy-who produced her early hits and with whom she had a son, Robert, now 13-crashed and burned and she became involved in what she tactfully refers to as “a bad relationship.”
In fact, so painful was that relationship (“It was short but devastating”), Natalie almost didn’t connect with her current husband of two years, music producer Andre Fischer, whom she met while both were attending the 1976 Tokyo music festival. “He was the drummer for Rufus & Chaka Khan,” she says smiling. “Go look at the old album, honey, and you will crack up. ” Though he asked her out when they met, Natalie was engaged to Yancy at the time and they didn’t hook up again until 1988 when Fischer called to offer her material for her next album. Or so he said.
As he would confess to her a year later, the phone call was somewhat of a ruse. Yes, he’d been married three times since they met, Fischer told her, but he’d been in love with her since the day they met. Having been burned–and burned badly-before, Natalie’s reaction to his I-love-you confession can only be politely described as acute skepticism. “You know how people tell you if it looks too good to be true, it probably is, ” she says. “Well that’s how I felt. I was on the phone with my sister saying, ‘I don’t know what to do. Something’s wrong. He’s too nice. “‘
Fischer, however, wouldn’t be dissuaded. When she was sick, he was there picking up her medicine, going to the grocery store, making sure she and her son Robbie had everything they needed. When she needed space, he backed off. But not too far. When she wanted to talk, or just needed a shoulder to lean on, he was there. Finally, when he had convinced her that he was for real, the magnets connected. I’d never had a best friend in a man I was in a relationship with and I never knew that was possible,” says Natalie softly.
On February 10, 1989, a month after he’d confessed his love to her, Fischer asked Natalie to marry him. “He got down on his knees at three o’clock in the morning and asked me would I consider being his wife,” she recalls with a smile that’s like the sun breaking through clouds. From that day forward I’ve never looked back. “
As for her professional horizons, they’re equally glowing. The Unforgettable album reached the No. 1 spot on both the pop and jazz charts and this month October) she and her 38-piece orchestra will embark on a much anticipated international tour. “I’m traveling all over the world with a show of my father’s music,” she says beaming. There’s even talk of taking it to Broadway.
Every November 28 she still celebrates “because that’s the last day I did drugs.” And every single day she thanks God for her blessings-and her life. “The first Bible scripture that I really ever took to heart, I’ve never forgotten: ‘In all thy ways acknowledge God and He will direct your path.’ When everybody else has let you down, God will lift you up and I know this to be true. You just can’t get tired. You have to hang in there and just keep on keeping on no matter what. “
COPYRIGHT 1991 Johnson Publishing Co.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group