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Singer Natalie Cole Has Come Full Circle

"I didn't know who Shelby Lynne was," she admits. "Fiona Apple I'd heard of but had never really tapped into her music. Someone recommended the Neil Young song, as well as 'Lovin' Arms,' the Tom Jans tune, most recently done by Etta James."

Cole, who describes herself as "a clothes hound," compares picking songs to picking clothes. "In fashion, they talk about 'That dress is wearing her, she's not wearing the dress, it looks too perfect for her,' which to me is not natural," she says. "It should look like it was made exactly for me, and that's kind of what I try to do with my music. If it doesn't fit, I don't force it. When it works, it takes on a life of its own and you're comfortable right away. You shouldn't have to labor so hard -- it's not nuclear science, doesn't have to be that complicated."

Oddly, there has always been a little push and pull in Cole's catalogue. Even as she was being hyped as the next Aretha, Cole included the Billie Holiday torch ballad "Good Morning, Heartache" on her second album, 1976's "Natalie." On 1999's "Snowfall on the Sahara," Cole tested the standards approach with the Count Basie-Joe Williams chestnut "Every Day I Have the Blues" and Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" (with a new verse written by Dylan especially for her). Her 2002 album, "Ask a Woman Who Knows," featured songs made famous by Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan.

"It's always a little bit of a test," Cole says.

The same could be said of her life. In 1956, when Cole was 6, she recorded "I'm Good Will, Your Christmas Spirit," a novelty single that did not follow her father's "The Christmas Song" into the pantheon of seasonal classics. Five years later, Cole, sister Carole and her father recorded "Ain't She Sweet," but Cole didn't seem particularly sweet on music. After her father's death, when she was 15, Cole chose a different career path, graduating from the University of Massachusetts in 1972 with a bachelor's degree in child psychology.

Cole, however, had also decided to give music an adult fling, singing in clubs and eventually catching the ear of record executives. After much deliberation, she signed with Capitol, the label her father had helped make famous. Cole was 25 when "Inseparable" was released and established her as a rising R&B star -- until she was propelled down another road with 1991's "Unforgettable."

Cole, longing to establish her own style and identity, had always disdained "Queen" Cole connections: In a 1986 interview with The Post, she announced she would be going into the studio to embark on a long-rumored, much-anticipated project tentatively titled "Natalie Cole Sings Nat King Cole." But it would be five years before it came to fruition. Part of it was her need to make peace with her father -- he'd been absent from her life in his later years while touring -- as well as to honor him. "Unforgettable" was as much a parent-child reunion as a commercial mega-hit reaching across several generations.

The '80s, it turned out, had been . . . well, forgettable in many ways. Cole eventually addressed drug abuse (LSD, cocaine and heroin), an arrest for heroin possession and assorted rehabs and romantic travails in her excruciatingly honest 2000 autobiography, "Angel on My Shoulder," concurrently turned into a made-for-TV movie, "Livin' for Love: The Natalie Cole Story." Cole was an executive producer and the movie's narrator, though actress Theresa Randle portrays her in most of the film. But when the singer at age 35 leaves the Hazelden recovery program in Minnesota drug-free, Cole plays herself until the movie ends with her Grammy win for "Unforgettable" at age 41.

Over the years, many of Cole's hits have had a familiar refrain: "I've Got Love on My Mind," "Our Love," "Someone That I Used to Love," "I Live for Your Love," even a Grammy-winning duet remake of one of her father's signature hits, "When I Fall in Love." Her breakthrough hit from more than 30 years ago, "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)," is the theme song for eHarmony's television and radio commercials. The marriage-oriented matchmaking Web site has used it since 2004, and Cole met co-founder Neil Clark Warren at one of her concerts.

"What a lovely man," she says. "He and his wife came backstage to say hello. They were very sweet."

"It's a great service," Cole adds, though she says she hasn't used it despite several failed marriages.

"I've actually thought about it, but I think God would be very upset with me, " she says, chuckling. "If I just listened to Him, I would be okay."

Natalie Cole Appearing Wednesday at Wolf Trap Auntie Ella: Natalie Cole recently hosted PBS's all-star tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, father Nat "King" Cole's good friend and Los Angeles neighbor and her "Auntie." In that show, Cole performed the first song she ever learned, at age 6, Fitzgerald's nursery-rhyme classic "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." When Cole's father gave her a tape recorder for her 11th birthday, the first thing she taped was herself singing Fitzgerald's late-'30s hit "Undecided." Must be something about "un"-songs.


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