Natalie Cole: Singing with Soul
The Triumphs and Tragedies of Natalie Cole
I cannot remember a time when the silky voice of Nat King Cole was not crooning somewhere in the background – Mona Lisa, Sentimental Reasons, The Christmas Song, Nature Boy, It’s Only A Paper Moon, When I fall In Love, Straighten Up and Fly Right, etc, the sound tracks of my life. That’s why when I learned that his daughter Natalie was one of the students in my class at the University of Massachusetts, I was surprised and elated. Having the daughter of Nat King Cole under my tutelage was something really special. Perhaps, I thought, I could repay Nat for the many pleasures he had provided me by helping to shape his daughters view of the world in a way that revealed the heroism and beauty of her heritage as an African American.
Little did I know that she understood next to nothing of that heritage because of the way she was raised, and that being the daughter of old king Cole was a burden as well as a blessing to a young black woman trying to define herself in a competitive society with a racist white majority. Natalie was smart and charming and appeared to be unpretentious and well adjusted.
That’s why I watched in surprised horror when she started doing drugs, careening down the road to self-destruction in a misguided quest to become authentically “black.” Tragically, her idea of being black was fashioned by the decadent values of the urban lumpen-prolitariat from whom a colorful element of the black student population was recruited, the “field niggers” who had been celebrated by Malcolm X, valorized by the Black Panther Party of Oakland, and glamoried by “Superfly” and other black gangster movies that were popular in this period.
The fact that Malcolm X had no clue what he was talking about – since he was spouting mythology not history – and it was really the “house negroes” who actually organized all of the slave revolts everywhere in the Americas, renders Natalies more tragedy than farce. Having no reference point for understanding the kind of highly privileged life she had led, I was puzzled by her apparent need to be “down” with some of the fastest and unsavory elements among the students from the inner-cities of Boston and Springfield; some of whom where obviously dead end kids.
In her new autobiography “Angel On my Shoulder” Natalie takes us into her privileged childhood, which was as different from the average black child’s in America – or white ones for that matter – as a fairytale is from the real world. It was a life of gated communities, grand mansions, exclusive private schools, and lavish parties with some of the biggest names in American show biz, along with their mostly rich white friends.
However it was also a life as part of a family with a loving but absentee father and an emotionally remote, social climbing, materialistic mother who thought it more important to tag along behind her husband criss crossing the globe than to stay at home and raise her five children, two of whom were adopted. On more than one occasion in this text Natalie laments the fact that her mother was not “more nurturing.’
The Marriage of Nat and Maria Cole
Without pulling any punches, Natalie chronicles her fall from affluence and respectability and descent into the surreal world of drug addiction, where her new runnin partners were whores, thieves, dope dealers and assorted felons from the Springfield projects. In this predatory world she began to print and cash bogus checks.
Speaking of the prostitute who had befriended her when she first got strung out on heroin at the beginning of her singing career, Natalie tells us, “Peaches took it upon herself to instruct me in the fine art of extracting welfare checks out of folk’s mailboxes. When I turned out to be useless as a thief, Peaches found me another assignment: counterfeiting and check fraud. I mean, why bother stealing checks when you could just print your own?” And she continued to do just that, until “Big Al,” a black detective in Springfield, where she had moved after leaving Amherst, busted her.
The detective recognized her and let her walk after interrogating her about her career criminal friends, then giving her a stern warning to change her ways before somebody ended her days. She would later view Big Al as one of several “Angels” who would intervene in her life when she was in a life-threatening crisis. In fact, this is the major theme of the book.
Natalie got out of Springfield all right, but she was still carrying that monkey on her back. And it would ride her into the ground on several occasions until she finally decided to straighten up and fly right, seeking medical treatment for her drug addiction. But before she would finally clean up and kick drugs altogether, after a six month confinement in Hazelden, an exclusive drug treatment center, she would go from weed, to LSD, to heroin, to crack. It was a tragic journey that lasted 20 years?
In the process she went through two failed marriages and a succession of bad relationships. She became estranged from her mother and ruined many friendships of a business and personal nature. Miraculously, she wrecked her career and, like the Phoenix, rose from the ashes and soared again. She would have a record setting night at the Grammies for her tribute album to her father “Unforgettable,” a beautiful work of art.
The most interesting part of this book is Natalie’s discussions of making music, especially her descriptions of the working styles and personalities of the many talented arrangers, composers, lyricists, studio musicians and record producers with whom she collaborated to make her many hit records. Also of great interest are her cameo portraits of the many great performing artists and other powerful persons who were friends of her father’s. It was a virtual who’s who of American show business that included Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Danny Thomas, Sammy Davis Jr. Jack Benny, et al. Jack Kennedy was also a good friend, and even showed up at her sister’s coming out party.
Strangely, however, while Natalie pays generous kudos to her father’s singing, virtually nothing is said about the fact that he was also a great pianist. Yet the King Cole Trio is one of the seminal trios in the history of jazz. This fact was also overlooked in the recent Ken Burns PBS television series “Jazz.” And stranger still, in all of the criticisms heaped on that path breaking series, none, to my knowledge, and I read a truck load of them, mentioned the omission of Nat “King” Cole, in spite of the fact that he was selected as the pianist in several all-star bands. Regarding his proper place in the music, it is enough to say that he elaborated on the style of the great Earl “Fatha” Hines.
Nathaniel Cole: Virtuoso Pianist
A Great Pianist who found Fame and Fortune as a Crooner
In the end however, what we have in “Angel On my Shoulder” is another sad tale of a tragic girl singer. Much about Natalie Cole’s story brings to mind the self- destructive sagas of Billy Holliday and Judy Garland. The difference however is that Natalie began her life in wealth and privilege, and she has beat her drug habit and is living a drug free existence.
Furthermore she is presently enjoying a thriving career, having recently won the NAACP Image Award for best female actress over great thespians like Loretta Devine and Candy Alexander, who played a notorious junkie in the critically acclaimed HBO series “The Corner.” It was an award however which she correctly admitted that she did not deserve in her acceptance speech.
However, like Lady Day, Natalie Cole seems doomed to have serious man troubles for the rest of her life, despite the fact that she is looking fine these days and is holding grand theft dough. But, sadly, she sounds as if she is a candidate for the convent in the final chapter of her autobiography, as she swears off men and seeks satisfaction in a relationship with Jesus.
Yet at the end of the book I find myself wondering, as with every tell all text of this genre, what motivates people to publish the tawdry details of their lives. However I am of mixed feeling about it, my ambivilance in the fact that for the historian, and student of history, such revelatory texts are pearls of great price; despite the fact that professional historians view such self-authored text with a jaundiced eye and counsel against taking them as the final statement on the course and significance of an important life.