Singer Natalie Cole Has Come Full Circle

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007

Natalie Cole titled her most recent album "Leavin'," but it could just as easily have been titled "Comin' Home" after an "Unforgettable" decade and a half.

Released in the fall, "Leavin' " found Cole returning to the R&B sound that made her a star in the mid-'70s, when "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)" earned her the 1975 Grammy for best female R&B vocal performance; she also won that year's Grammy for best new artist.

"This Will Be" broke Aretha Franklin's eight-year hold on the R&B award -- a Rolling Stone cover story at the time dubbed Cole "the next Aretha" -- and Cole includes a cover of Franklin's 1972 hit "Day Dreaming" on her new album.

But "Leavin'," produced by Dallas Austin, is a covers album with range: Cole not only offers the Isley Brothers' "Don't Say Goodnight (It's Time for Love)" and Des'ree's "You Gotta Be," but also Fiona Apple's "Criminal," Kate Bush's "The Man With the Child in His Eyes," Sting's "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You" and Neil Young's "Old Man."

The title track, written by Shelby Lynne, metaphorically puts a little distance between the original R&B diva and the pop star Cole became in 1991 with the release of "Unforgettable With Love," faithful interpretations of standards and pre-rock pop songs associated with her father, legendary crooner and pianist Nat "King" Cole. The title track was a studio-created duet with her father, who died of lung cancer in 1965 (a memorable video matched them up as well). That project, which sold 11 million copies, earned Cole Grammys for record of the year, album of the year and best traditional pop performance.

"When I did the 'Unforgettable' record, that catapulted me into a whole different phase in my career, so for the last 17 years, that's what I've been doing," Cole says. "'Leavin' ' was my way of saying, 'Been there, done enough of that, need some fresh meat.' Being able to return to my roots, so to speak, with this record was a lot of fun and felt very liberating, it really did."

Not that Cole is forgetting her "Unforgettable" fans when she performs Wednesday at Wolf Trap.

"I'm really a performer as well as an artist," she explains. "We start off with a softer, gentler entry and then take a turn, and it goes into some of my old R&B stuff as well as the 'Leavin' ' album. It works, and I think audiences are ready for it now, people who don't know the Natalie Cole who did R&B. It's like I had two careers."

It's a smart, pragmatic approach -- "give them a little bit of what they want and hopefully you can do a little bit of what you want," Cole says. "If you do that, they give you license to take them on that other journey. And they'll throw eggs at you if you don't do certain things!"

The return to familiar roots did force Cole to bust her own chops, and on "Leavin'," she sounds a little freer, less restrained than on her standards-focused recordings. Cole says R&B and jazz "are far apart from one another when you actually sit down to perform it -- your chops are totally different. In R&B, you can get away with being flat, being sharp; you have to have much more vibrato. With jazz, you cannot get away with being flat or sharp; you've got to be tone on tone. You don't need as much power when you're singing jazz."

"So I had to kind of retrain my voice to be able to flip back and forth and do both. I think it's because I was doing R&B but was raised on jazz that I had that sensibility, and it was just a matter of executing vocally what I needed to do. But it does require something entirely different."

As for choosing the material on "Leavin'," Cole says she knew some artists' work, while other songs were picked from 600 recommended by David Monk, a New Yorker whom Cole describes as "part publisher, part human jukebox."

"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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