NATALIE COLE: Star Bright
When Natalie Cole’s seminal ‘Unforgettable... With Love’ was released in 1991, the chart-topping jazz collection - which captured six Grammies and sold over 14 million copies worldwide - set a new standard for reinventing the Great American Songbook. Meanwhile, this month finally sees the release of its long-awaited follow-up - the appropriately-titled ‘Still Unforgettable.’
Born in 1950 as the daughter of world-acclaimed, jazz/swing-era crooner Nat ‘King’ Cole, Natalie Maria Cole grew up in an affluent area of Los Angeles and, having been exposed to the greats of jazz, soul and blues at an early age, actually began performing at 11. Though it wasn’t until 1975 that she signed her first record-deal, with Capitol Records. When - with her teaming up with writer/producers Chuck Jackson & Marvin Yancy - Natalie’s Grammy-winning debut album ‘Inseparable’ kicked-off a five year run of consistent, US chart-topping success. Which saw her temporarily eclipse Aretha Franklin as America’s multi-award-winning, multi-Platinum-selling First Lady of Soul - through such classics as her jaunty 1975 breakthrough smash ‘This Will Be’ and 1977’s sultry, gospel-influenced ballad ‘I’ve Got Love On My Mind.’
The early Eighties, however, found Cole’s career put on pause as she dealt with a much-publicised severe drug problem. Beginning her comeback in 1985 with the album ‘Dangerous’, it was not however until signing with EMI/Manhattan Records in 1987 that she finally re-emerged as a major international star. The two albums she recorded for the label (1987’s ‘Everlasting’ and 1989’s ‘Good To Be Back”) respectively spawning her two biggest-ever worldwide singles - a rock/soul update of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Pink Cadillac’ and the string-laden ballad ‘Miss You Like Crazy’.
It was 1991, however, that heralded the landmark release of Natalie’s career, the aforementioned ‘Unforgettable... With Love’. Which saw her taking a bold leap away from her tried’n’tested R&B home-base to deliver an album featuring her own arrangements of the father’s greatest hits; pioneered by its attention-grabbing title-track - a duet with her late father created by splicing an old recording of his vocals onto her own new track. Selling over 14 million worldwide and winning six Grammy Awards, the trailblazing success of ‘Unforgettable...’ eclipsed everything that had gone before in her career and, long-term-wise, saw Cole moving primarily into the “adult standards” market. Which in turn (through reasonably-successful albums like 1993’s ‘Take A Look’ and 2002’s ‘Ask Any Woman’) has seen her become one of the core artists of American smooth-jazz radio; while in 2000 also releasing her riveting autobiography ‘Angel On My Shoulder’.
Nevertheless, this month’s release of ‘Still Unforgettable’ (which this time sees her posthumously “duetting” with her late father on his early Fifties recording ‘Walkin’ My Baby Back Home’) finds her delving once more into the Great American Songbook for what is generally considered her long-anticipated “official” follow-up to 1991’s groundbreaking ‘Unforgettable…’.
In London to promote her new album (which was recorded in the legendary Capital Studios in Hollywood, California) an instantly charming, articulate Ms. Cole reunites herself with ‘B&S’ for a timely and topical chat.
The thinking behind creating ‘Still Unforgettable’
“While we were still trying to create that same ‘Unforgettable’-type mood or environment, this time I wanted to expand. Rather than just doing another Nat ‘King’ Cole tribute - which was not necessary - I wanted to go deeper into the American Songbook, by not just getting songs from my father, but also from other singers of his time like Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peggy Lee. You know, there was something about the approach that the writers from that era had to the lyrics and the melodies that was so intentional, so purposeful. Which I think is the thing that’s missing from music today. When I hear a lot of contemporary music, I’m like ‘Why are you singing the same chord over and over again?’; or ‘Why is the beat more important than the melody?’... You know, I have a problem with that. And I think it’s also something that frustrates good modern-day songwriters too.”
Producing herself for the first time on this record
“Basically I didn’t have a choice! We were working with an independent label - a company called DMI - and they were very anxious to get this kind of a record out quickly. So I started talking to the team of people I’d used back in the day for ‘Unforgettable… With Love’. But, what hadn’t occurred to me was that they might not be available! Some had other projects they were working on; some were actually out of the country... So I was like ‘Well, I guess I’m gonna have to do this MYSELF!’. So I spoke to my managers, who were like ‘You should be able to pull this off. While you didn’t officially wear a producer’s hat for ‘Unforgettable…’, in reality you did pretty much produce that record’... So, while in the past I’d always thought I needed a quote-unquote ‘producer’ watching over my shoulder, this time I actually felt really confident about putting the right kind of people together myself. And, by using my expertise and my knowledge I’d gained over the past 15 years of doing this kind of music, I was able to find some great arrangers like John Clayton, Patrick Williams, Nan Schwartz… Plus I was able to get Al Schmidt, who of course is one of the most wonderful engineers for this kind of record in the business.”
How Natalie approached the songs vocally
“I think sometimes you have to just close your eyes and go for it! You know, you have to be very careful not to mess with the songs themselves too much, because then you destroy the essence of what makes them standards. But, at the same time, vocally - while it’s really, really tempting to repeat, or do something similar to, the original - when you’ve got these different, new arrangements, you can’t really DO that. It’s like trying to put a size-six dress on a size-10 person! So it’s a very thin line that I find myself walking whenever I do this kind of music. And I must say that PRODUCING this record was actually a lot easier than SINGING it! You know, it was extremely vocally-challenging, and I worked with my vocal coach daily. Because this music is very exposing to the voice. I mean, when you’re singing R&B and pop, it’s easy to hide behind a lot of electronics. Whereas, when you’re singing standards and you’re doing jazz, you CAN’T hide! It’s right there in-your-face! And there’s nothing worse than listening to an artist tackling a standard when you can tell that they don’t really know what to DO with it!”
Recording another posthumous “duet” with her father on ‘Walkin’ My Baby Back Home’
“If there was going to be another ‘duet’ with Dad, I felt it should be something more fun and light-hearted. Rather than the serious, dramatic ‘duet’ we did with ‘Unforgettable’, which would have been impossible to better. But then, with Dad’s catalogue being so vast - and bearing in mind the 22 songs we did on ‘Unforgettable… With Love’ were the ones that made him who he was - I needed to find an uptempo, cute little song that was still going to strike a chord of familiarity with the audience. And ‘Walkin’ My Baby Back Home’ actually turned out to be one of the easiest songs to record on the whole album! It works really well as a loving, lighthearted duet between parent and child, to where it actually feels like he’s right there with me. Plus it also lets the audience know that, while we are taking this seriously, we’re still having fun with it too.”
How Natalie recalls her years as America’s premiere soul diva from 1975 to 1980
“I had some of the best years of my career during that era. My writers - Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy - had their finger on a pulse, to where you just couldn’t stop them! They were writing music that had sophistication, and yet had the undercurrent of good old R&B. You know, when I met them these were struggling songwriters from New York trying to find their way. They were looking for an Aretha Franklin - and they got a Natalie Cole! I mean, I’d never even SUNG that kind of music before! I’d been singing rock & roll, pop... And they came along and totally changed my musical world! To where we became really the leaders in R&B for a good, I’d say, five/six years. No-one could TOUCH us! That cool combination of the R&B rhythm with the strings on top became the new sound that started to influence other artists’ work too. I mean, before we did ‘Mr. Melody’, whoever heard of scatting it the middle of an R&B song?! We had no rules; we had no boundaries; we were loving every minute of it… Plus we were great FRIENDS! And all that showed in those wonderful songs we did together. So yeah, we rode a great, great cloud. And through it we influenced so many other singers/writers/musicians/arrangers to explore and to expand, and to help make R&B what it went on to become.”
Whether she’d return to doing R&B music today
“I feel like I set a precedent back in the day, and that it’s not really necessary for me to continue doing that style. R&B has changed very, very much. I feel that the field is now extremely competitive, and I like the idea of being able to move on and do other kinds of music. But, having said that, if you come to a live show, there is like a 20-minute section where we go right back there and do nothing but songs like ‘I’ve Got Love On My Mind’; ‘I’m Catchin’ Hell’; ‘Inseparable’... And all the old Natalie Cole fans sitting there are in Heaven! They love every MINUTE of it! But the thought of trying to recreate that music again now doesn’t really interest me so much. You know, I like to see the fact that newer artists like Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige have taken the good part of the R&B and added this new freshness to it. I actually do think R&B is on its way to another level. And that’s fine with me.”
How Natalie came to move away from R&B and into the music of her father’s jazz/swing era with her 1991 career-landmark LP ‘Unforgettable… With Love’
“By the end of the Eighties I was getting disillusioned with the business and with my record company. I’ve always been kind of a risk-taker, and I felt they weren’t really ready to go along with me any more. Like when I sat in a meeting with EMI and said ‘I think the next record I wanna do is an album of my father’s music’, they looked at me like I had three heads! So eventually we all agreed to disagree, and they let me go. We went over to the CEO of Elektra Records, who thought a record of my father’s music was a BRILLIANT idea! So we sat down right there and then, and started putting the songs together. They found these wonderful arrangers, and I was suddenly introduced to a whole new world of music! The world that my FAHTER had been in, and that I’d only tiptoed around! All of a sudden I was totally immersed in it, and it was like flying! You know, the support we got when we were in the studio making that record was so phenomenal!”
The significant influence ‘Unforgettable… With Love’ had on the industry as a whole
“There’s no question that ‘Unforgettable… With Love’ set a precedent, PERIOD! There’s no question that, within the industry, musicians and arrangers and orchestras started working again because of that record. There’s no question that other artists jumped on the ‘American standards movement’ bandwagon - even the ones that couldn’t pull it off! Plus it was one the top records of that year, and one of the few records ever to win a Grammy in every (relevant) category… You know, that one record had such a huge influence in the music industry on many levels. But yet people seem to forget and kinda don’t wanna ACKNOWLEDGE that for some reason! I don’t know if I’m being paranoid, but it is something I’ve noticed many times. Like, for example, on the Grammies last year, when they had Alicia Keys duetting with the video of Frank Sinatra. You know, that was a DIRECT STEAL of what we did back in the day with me and Dad for the ‘Unforgettable’ video! And I do see these things happening a lot. But they’re very rarely as good as the original, I’m sorry to say.”
Natalie’s controversial comments regarding Amy Winehouse at this year’s Grammy Awards
“I don’t normally go around speaking and talking out of turn. But I took the events of that particular night very personally. l looked at a young woman who has an exceptional talent, and who is in trouble. And I was very upset with the Grammies. Because I thought they did themselves such a disservice by glorifying and making such a big deal out of this woman’s condition. Because that’s really what we all NOTICED! People weren’t focused on her music, because we were so focused on how she LOOKED! She looked bad, she looked sick… She’s unwell. You know, the girl came to the show unfortunately with big, incredible stories following her like ‘The US wouldn’t let her in’… I mean, it was CRAZY! And to think that Grammies would try to put her life, really, in jeopardy to get ratings, was to me just incredible! Plus you then have the problem of, how do you tell someone they’re not well when you’ve just awarded them six Grammies?! Kinda difficult! And it just became such a bizarre night! People were thinking to themselves ‘This is crazy’, but no-one was SAYING anything! And after the show - we were on our way to one of the after-parties - I said to my escort ‘I hope they don’t ask me anything about that Amy Winehouse shit!’!... And, sure enough, this girl stuck a microphone into my face and that was the first question! And I just couldn’t take it! I went OFF!”
The album 'Still Unforgettable' is released September 29 through DMI Records/Rhino Entertainment Company
Words PETE LEWIS