For Natalie Cole, a fall was to rise from. A few years back, after a private battle with drug addiction and a public rehabilitation, the pop star released an album titled "I'm Ready."

Unfortunately, she wasn't.

Instead, Cole slipped deeper and fell harder. Suddenly she seemed even farther from the warm familial grace of her father, Nat King Cole, and from the promise of her stunning debut in 1975 and her subsequent quick-fire career.

"That album should never have happened," Cole says now. "I wasn't in good physical or mental condition, but the record company was just pushing and pushing for it. I kept asking them not to call it that because it was so ironic, totally against where I was with myself at the time."

In fact, Cole was soon addicted again to cocaine, free-basing it, chasing it with pills and alcohol. Two months after the release of "I'm Ready," with her world crashing down on her, she enrolled in her second treatment center, Minnesota's Hazelden Foundation. She would stay there for six months.

Cole, who will perform Friday at Constitution Hall (the concert is a fundraiser for the local chapter of Jack & Jill of America, a family-oriented charity), is open about her experience, not in the overbearing way of the recently redeemed, but in the relieved manner of someone who knows that a third chance is two more than most people get.

Since leaving Hazelden (she still celebrates the anniversaries of her arrival and "graduation"), she's been involved in a number of antidrug programs. A few weeks ago, she came to Washington for a Second Genesis fundraiser and, "I told the kids there that it was like belonging to this big, huge club. Recovery is a unique process and people who are successful in recovery have a camaraderie, we have a little edge on 'normal' people. And you can't survive out here without that connection . . .

"We have a responsibility -- a subtle one, not a big one -- to let people know what it's like being successful and losing it, what it's like having it all and not being ready for it, what it's like being caught up and not being aware of your priorities. We have a responsibility to the young people because they do look at us for some kind of answers.

"It would be nice if they listened to their parents, but they don't."

Sitting in her hotel suite, enveloped in a postmodern print jacket, Cole seems comfortable with her past and her future. At 36, she is clearly focused, with the poise and candor one might expect of someone who grew up in the shadow of pop celebrity.

But if she'd listened to her own parents, she'd be a doctor -- not a singer -- today.

The daughter of one of the most loved popular singers in America, Cole grew up comfortably in California, with no designs on a career in music. Her mother, who had sung with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, wanted her to study medicine, and even her father was surprised when he found out Natalie could carry a tune.

"He had no idea I was that interested in music," Cole says. "It was like a hobby to me. My sister and I would run around the house singing Broadway tunes . . . our parents took us to a lot of shows. And we saw the greatest people perform -- Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tony Bennett. We were certainly exposed musically, but I guess we took it for granted, it was just a part of our life. No one ever thought of actually doing it."

King Cole gave his princess a tape recorder when she was 11; she promptly recorded a pair of Ella Fitzgerald tunes and presented them to her father. "He was flabbergasted," she recalls with a smile. He also talked conductor Nelson Riddle into writing young Natalie into "I'm With You," a black version of "Gigi" that Cole was doing in Los Angeles. "It was just a short run because I was in school," she says. "That was my first paying job, but it was just for fun."

Nat Cole, who had begun his career as a jazz pianist before becoming a star crooner, offered his daughter subtle guidance. "I had to discover R&B and pop on my own, 'cause he didn't like that kind of stuff. It just wasn't his style. The Beatles were on the same label, so I asked him to bring me a stack of their albums . . . and he'd slip some jazz albums in the middle. I loved it all."

Her father died of lung cancer when Natalie was 15; she went off to the University of Massachusetts, where she immersed herself in her studies. Friends encouraged her singing, she says, "but I felt I was betraying my family. My mother might feel I was doing it to sabotage all her energy and efforts to make me a doctor."

In college, Cole was a child psychology major ("If I had thought I was going to sing I probably wouldn't have studied so hard"), with a weekend minor at a club called the Pub. "It started off as a kick, just like when I was 12," she says. But she may have felt kicked when she showed up at her first job: the marquee failed to mention her name, opting instead for "NAT KING COLE'S DAUGHTER APPEARING HERE!"

"People are so strange," Cole laughs now.

She started to work at her singing, joined a band (and ended up fronting it), took jobs in other cities. Her repertoire was eclectic, with tunes from Roberta Flack, Leon Russell, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, the Allman Brothers. There was only one Nat Cole song, "Mona Lisa."

During a Chicago engagement in 1974, Cole met producers Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy, who took her into Curtis Mayfield's studio, writing and producing an entire album for her. (She and Yancy were married in 1976.) When they went shopping for a record deal, 10 labels were interested -- but most only wanted to exploit the family name. Ironically, Cole ended up at Capitol, her father's label. "I wasn't recognized elsewhere for having my own talent, but they were willing to let me be who I was."

It turned out to be a good move. Cole's debut album, "Inseparable," spawned several hit singles, sold a few million copies and earned her two Grammys. But having had no great expectations, Cole found herself totally unprepared for success.

"I was very surprised and at the same time I didn't take it seriously," she explains. "There are people who have worked so hard to get into this business . . . I can't imagine having worked that hard.

"Now it's more of a chore, not so much because of the problems I had but because of where music is going. It's competitive and very temporary and I'm a longevity-type person. I hate to be trendy: maybe in my clothes, but never in my work. That's what makes it so much more challenging now."

Cole's sudden success set the stage for her gradual decline and fall, which occurred in counterpoint to a string of successful albums and SRO concert tours.

"As my success escalated, so did the drug problem," she says somberly. "I had a good marriage, I had a son Robbie, now 8 . My husband was my producer, and we were both very successful young people, the 'ideal' Hollywood couple.

"But there's a lot of guilt that goes along with being successful, doing what you do in the closet and having people tell you how wonderful you are when you know what the deal is. We both shared some guilt about that, myself more because of the influence that I had: At that time it seemed the world was mine."

It wasn't, of course, so the illusion was not only short-lived but detrimental. Cole slipped into a cycle of excess, aware of the consequences, yet unable to confront her physical and emotional problems. "If there's any way to prepare a young person for success," she pleads, "then by all means, let it be known, because it's something that can happen at any given time."

Eventually, her concerts became disasters. Her reputation in the business, once so high, plummeted. A California court named Cole's mother conservator of her estate.

Her first rehab, Cole says, "was ineffective, mostly because of myself . . . I wasn't ready to accept that there was something wrong with me. I was bored, and I knew exactly what I was going to do when I left."

The second time around, she had a much clearer intimation of her own mortality. "In the first treatment center, they never explained to you in real street, lowdown, dirty terms what's going on with you. It was more of a medical clinic, seeing a psychiatrist every other day, so we were all under the impression that we were sick, and that, yes, we did have a problem, but not that we were probably going to die if we kept on doing it."

The Hazelden program is based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and even now Cole is aware of how close the abyss remains. "It's one day at a time," she notes soberly. "There is no cure. You can't go back."

The program's lesson, she says, "is spiritual as well. It's like God has given you this second chance and He doesn't like it when you mess around with it. I've learned that very well because He's given me 30,000 chances and this was the last straw."

Yancy and Cole separated in 1979; last year, he died of a heart attack. Suddenly, Natalie Cole was not only trying to rebuild her career, but was doing it as a single parent.

"In retrospect I'm not really that different from a lot of working mothers," she says. "Robbie's a special kid, at least to me, and he's seemed to weather all of this extremely well. The most important thing for him right now is he knows where his mommy is."

Cole's last album, "Dangerous," marked a return to form. And after her next pop album, due in June, she'll embark on the project that's been a natural since her debut: Natalie Cole Sings Nat King Cole.

This cuts in two directions, of course. Cole has always disdained the "Queen Cole" routines, and her voice and her R&B style are worlds away from her father's urbane pop, though that hasn't seemed to discourage comparisons. "People want so badly to put you in a niche, have you be what they want you to be," she sighs. "But now I'm ready to do an album of my father's music.

"To some people it may be overdue, to me it's on time. There's a lot of emotion, and pressure, that go along with it. I wasn't in the greatest place with myself to deal with all that. I was feeling guilty about what I was doing . . . I felt unworthy, and those were real feelings that weren't totally inaccurate."

Thanks to the magic of studio technology, there's a good chance she'll do a duet with her father more than 20 years after his death (they're already a two-star attraction on Hollywood's Walk of Fame).

After Hazelden, for the first time, Natalie Cole took vocal lessons. "It's like working out," she enthuses. "Once you get into it, it's really hard to stop." She studies with the celebrated Seth Riggs, who has worked with Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder and all the Jacksons.

The training, she says, "gives you real confidence in hitting or sustaining notes you didn't think you could. If you've got a natural talent for singing, he works you above your level so when you go back into your normal level, it's almost effortless. There's a clarity to my voice I didn't have several years ago."

And to her life, as well.