Stellar singer and showbiz royalty Natalie Cole has passed away at the age of 65. Cole died Thursday evening at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, due to compilations from ongoing health issues. According to a source EBONY spoke with, Cole, who had a liver transplant in 2009, began having heart and lung complications last year and her health recently started failing.
Cole’s family released a statement earlier today: “It is with heavy hearts that we bring to you all the news of our Mother and sister’s passing. Natalie fought a fierce, courageous battle, dying how she lived… with dignity, strength and honor,” her sisters, Timolin Cole and Casey Cole, and son, Robert Yancy, said. “Our beloved Mother and sister will be greatly missed and remain unforgettable in our hearts forever.”
The daughter of legendary jazz vocalist/pianist Nat “King” Cole, she followed in her daddy’s footsteps. But as Philadelphia disk jockey Dyana Williams states, “She took her own road to soul success without copying anyone. In the beginning, many people tried to compare her to Aretha Franklin. But Natalie Cole was truly in her own lane, and she had the hits to prove it.”
In the early 1970s, Natalie Cole’s demo was rejected by numerous labels until Capitol Records took a chance on her (as well as her songwriter/producer husband, Marvin Yancy), and released her amazing 1975 debut, Inseparable. Baltimore resident and Coppin University assistant dean DeChelle Forbes remembers well the album that would go one to win Cole a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1976.
“I used to come home from school and play that album every day,” Forbes says. “I wrote out the lyrics in a notebook and wrote out all the words.” The album’s debut single “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” also won a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, a category previously dominated by Aretha Franklin.
Throughout the decade, Cole would continue to make hits and tour, but the dark side of show business life reared its ugly head when it became public that the celebrated singer had a serious drug problem. “It was just so sad,” says journalist Julia Chance, “because she appeared to have it all together. I went to see her perform in 1977, and she just embodied so much elegance and style. I’ll never forget her on stage singing ‘This Will Be’ and ‘Mr. Melody.’ She was so soulful and jazzy and beautiful.”
While the 1980s became a decade of upheaval for the star, Natalie Cole refused to go away quietly. In 1991, when most thought her career over, Cole’s comeback standards album Unforgettable… with Love, where she covered songs previously recorded by her father, became the biggest album of her career. Featuring a wonderful, technologically innovative “duet” with Nat “King” Cole on the stirring title track, the record would go on to win Album of the Year and sell over 14 million copies worldwide.
In her 2000 autobiography, Angel on My Shoulder, Cole discussed how she had battled heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol addiction for many years. She spent six months in rehab in 1983. When she announced in 2008 that she had been diagnosed with hepatitis C, a liver disease spread through contact with infected blood, she blamed her past intravenous drug use. She criticized the Recording Academy for giving five Grammys to drug user Amy Winehouse in 2008.
“I’m an ex-drug addict and I don’t take that kind of stuff lightly,” Cole explained at the 2009 Grammy Awards. Hepatitis C “stayed in my body for 25 years and it could still happen to this young woman or other addicts who are fooling around with drugs, especially needles.”
Cole received chemotherapy to treat the hepatitis and “within four months, I had kidney failure,” she told CNN’s Larry King in 2009. She needed dialysis three times a week until she received a donor kidney on May 18, 2009. The organ procurement agency One Legacy facilitated the donation from a family that had requested that their donor’s organ go to Cole if it was a match. Cole toured through much of her illness, often receiving dialysis at hospitals around the globe.
In the pantheon of 1970s soul stars, Natalie Cole was indeed one of the best, as her music fused soul, jazz and pop, creating for her an enduring sound. As Julia Chance says, “Chaka was funky, Denise Williams was sweet, Patti LaBelle was sanctified, but Natalie Cole was hip and classy.”
[Associated Press contributed to this article.]
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also a columnist for soulhead.com. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.