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UNFORGETTABLE: A PERSONAL TRIBUTE TO NATALIE COLE
It’s virtually impossible to review and summarize a forty-year relationship. That’s exactly what I had with Natalie Cole, whose passing on Thursday night, December 31, 2015 was unexpected even though ‘those in the know’ were aware that Natalie had been dealing with health challenges over the three months prior. I shared in my 1999 book The Soulful Divas some of the aspects of our association which began when I interviewed Natalie by phone in June 1975 just as her first album, “Inseperable” was being released by Capitol Records as her now-classic recording, “This Will Be” was spiraling up the charts in the US and the UK.
Beyond the professional association of music journalist and recording artist, Natalie and I enjoyed a friendship and while it wouldn’t fit the normal parameters of the kind of friendship I have with the people I interact with on a regular basis, it was certainly a much more personal relationship than I’ve had with the vast majority of the hundreds of people I’ve interviewed over decades as a scribe. Case in point: on a rare visit to Chicago in 1977 to attend a multi-artist concert, Natalie invited me on the Sunday morning of my stay to come with her to the church where her then-husband, producer Reverend Marvin Yancy was pastor. It was probably our first really personal time together and we had a blast! Of course, the moment Natalie walked in the whole congregation in the small storefront church clapped: she was after all not just the preacher’s wife, she was by then an international Grammy-winning hitmaker and performer. It was thrilling to watch her sing along with the choir and there was a genuine expression of devotion as she blended with the men and women who sang there every Sunday. I was very moved by the experience and thankful that Natalie had afforded me a glimpse into her world away from the bright lights.
There are many memories from those forty years, some great, some not so great and some plain hilarious! For sure, in the ‘not-so-great’ category was a 1982 meeting in Angela Bofill’s dressing room at L.A.’s Roxy club in 1982. The likes of Dionne Warwick and Phyllis Hyman, Angie’s lablemates were there…and so was a woman I barely recognized. Gaunt, thin as a rake, Natalie literally lurched, clearly high and out of it. She saw me and instantly chided me for not having called her. At first, I didn’t know who she was. As I began to realize this was the woman I had spoken with a good half-a-dozen times in the previous seven years, I literally shuddered. In the room full of other celebrities and music industry execs, everyone was clearly embarrassed at Natalie’s behavior and outburst at me. I did my best to offer an excuse – that I was only in L.A. for a few days (since I lived in New York at the time) – and left the room, stunned. It was fortunately the only time I saw Natalie in such a state and when we spoke subsequently in 1985 – upon the release of her album Dangerous – she talked openly and honestly about her years of addiction.

Whatever personal bond we had created in the ‘70s – we were after all fellow Aquarians (she February 6, me February 15, also the day of her famous father’s death in 1965) continued throughout the ‘80s and beyond. She invited me to her second wedding to producer and former Rufus drummer, Andre Fischer in 1989 and I remember it well, hanging out with singer/songwriter Brenda Russell at the church in the Inglewood section of Los Angeles before headed to a wonderful reception – my first ‘celebrity’ nuptials! Not long after, Natalie asked if I would put together a choir to sing behind her at a Universal Amphitheatre gig she as doing as special guest on a show with Smokey Robinson. She knew I sang with the mostly-black choir at Unity Fellowship Church and I was thrilled at her invitation, calling my good friend Byron Motley to assemble the men and women for this special occasion. We rehearsed with her musical director and within days, we were at the prestigious L.A. venue for soundcheck and the show. The event – as thrilling as it was, in particular when Natalie turned to me on stage and gave me a big grin as she watched sing out behind her, fully decked out in church robes – was not without incident. No one had made arrangements for the choir to eat and when the food arrived for the crew and musicians, there was literally nothing for us. Natalie’s MD told me to speak with her directly – and I did! She was none too pleased that I brought it to her attention – two Aquarians going at it isn’t necessarily pretty! – and yet she understood and arranged for food to be brought in. Fortunately this happened an hour or two before the show so by the time we were onstage, any upset had long dissipated.

Two years later, I recall being ensconced in the home she shared with Andre, a large painting of her father in the large living room. Natalie was celebrating: she had taken a creative stand that she would do a muscial tribute to her legendary father and while her previous record label (EMI Records) was not going for it, Elektra Records got the vision for it – and Natalie, Andre and producer David Foster were rewarded as “Unforgettable” scored much-deserved Grammy Awards. Seeing Natalie onstage at the Hollywood Bowl with a full orchestra as she performed the songs from the album (including the famous ‘duet’ created through technology of her with Nat King Cole) was one of the most memorable moments of the entire ‘90s for me. She looked and sounded absolutely stunning. We had a little ‘moment’ afterwards when I went backstage with my young (and I mean, young as in late twenty-something!) friend of mine – my date for the evening, Johnny. I naturally introduced him – he was a handsome man of mixed African-American and Korean heritage – and Natalie looked him up and down, giving me an obvious disapproving look! He was a little embarrassed since it was clear that Natalie had ‘assessed’ our relationship (and she was pretty much on point, older man, younger guy….) and clearly had an ‘opinion’ expressed in her response at meeting him!

And so it was with Natalie and I: many amazing conversations, some occasional hiccups – like when I wrote a slightly disparaging review about a concert during which she seemed to be ‘preaching’ so much that I felt uncomfortable. After all this was a music event not a church service – and when Natalie saw what I’d written, she let it be known she was very displeased. That created a temporary chill between us that was only broken when I attended a release party in Los Angeles for her 2006 album “Leavin’”. I vividly recall going backstage afterwards and we talked through what had happened in the aftermath of the review from a few years earlier: the air was cleared, Natalie expressing how glad she was I had attended the show – at which she sounded great – and thus began what I had no idea would be the final chapter in our relationship.

When she came to London in 2009 for dialysis treatment in the wake of her diagnosis with Hepatitis C and prior to receving a much-needed kidney transplant, she asked my sister Sylvia and I to visit her at her hotel: she had met Sylvia previously and we had both gone to see Natalie at a show at the Indigo 02 in 2007 when I was visiting from Los Angeles. Subsequently, Sylvia accompanied her to the hospital for a number of days and sat with Natalie while she underwent the treatments. It cemented their relationship and added a new dimension to the personal nature of mine with her.

On a visit to Los Angeles, we were back in touch and we went for a lovely lunch together at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, slightly initially marred when the waiter informed us he didn’t have anywhere for us to sit, promptly Natalie – for once giving a little diva-tude! – to whisper her name in his ear resulting in the miraculous appearance of a place for us to eat! Natalie drove me back to my L.A. accommodation – which turned out to be a motel on Sunset Boulevard, much to her horror. ‘You’re staying here, David?’ she asked. I quickly explained that I had chosen to stay there since it was the site of the first place I stayed with my friend/about-to-be-flatmate Percy when we arrived with virtually no money from New York, over thirty five years earlier! “I’m staying there ‘for old times sake!’” was my reply although Natalie didn’t appear completely convinced!

We saw each other again in 2011 after she appeared at a benefit concert for The Hunger Project with Dionne Warwick and others; we had temporarily lost contact – due to a change in email addresses! – and vowed to make up for it. We just that: had a momentous high tea at the swanky Dorchester Hotel, laughing and joking, Natalie’s health clearly restored. I told great stories of my exploits with Nina Simone and Esther Phillips and Natalie was literally in stitches! I was myself laughing…when I realized that the low cut dress Natalie was wearing was not exactly fitting properly, with occasional nipple appearances as a result! I looked over at her and whispered, ‘You’re showing!’ trying to be discreet and she promptly pulled the top of the dress to ensure she was covered. When it happened a second time, I started grinning…’Er, Natalie, you’re ‘showing’ again,’ I said prompting her to head back to her room to change. ‘I’m going to have to take this dress back!’ she roared and returned for us to finish what had been a truly delightful – and as it turned out, final – meeting.

I could say so much about Natalie’s music, her voice, her live performances – and much of it has already been said in the last few days since her passing. I would only be adding to the accolades for, beyond our personal relationship, I was always aware of her tremendous talent as a singer. I was thrilled that through my SoulMusic Records’ label, I was able to reissue two of her great Capitol albums, “Natalie Live!” in 2010 and “Thankful” in 2011. I compiled an anthology for Capitol in the U.S. many years earlier and as memory serves, wrote the bio for her Verve album, “Ask A Woman Who Knows.” She was an exceptional artist, capable of moving from soulful R&B to elegant jazz and sophisticated pop.

Beyond of all of that, a smart, witty and honest woman who was unafraid to share her vulnerability – and that’s how I will always remember her. Truly, simple unforgettable. Rest in peace, dear friend, I’ll never forget you.


About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.
  
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