Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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Natalie Cole
Natalie Cole Natalie Cole Natalie Cole Natalie Cole

When Natalie Coleâs seminal âUnforgettable... With Loveâ 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 âStill Unforgettable.â

Born in 1950 as the daughter of world-acclaimed, jazz/swing-era crooner Nat âKingâ 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 wasnât until 1975 that she signed her first record-deal, with Capitol Records. When - with her teaming up with writer/producers Chuck Jackson & Marvin Yancy - Natalieâs Grammy-winning debut album âInseparableâ kicked-off a five year run of consistent, US chart-topping success. Which saw her temporarily eclipse Aretha Franklin as Americaâs multi-award-winning, multi-Platinum-selling First Lady of Soul - through such classics as her jaunty 1975 breakthrough smash âThis Will Beâ and 1977âs sultry, gospel-influenced ballad âIâve Got Love On My Mind.â

The early Eighties, however, found Coleâs career put on pause as she dealt with a much-publicised severe drug problem. Beginning her comeback in 1985 with the album âDangerousâ, 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 (1987âs âEverlastingâ and 1989âs âGood To Be Backâ) respectively spawning her two biggest-ever worldwide singles - a rock/soul update of Bruce Springsteenâs âPink Cadillacâ and the string-laden ballad âMiss You Like Crazyâ.

It was 1991, however, that heralded the landmark release of Natalieâs career, the aforementioned âUnforgettable... With Loveâ. Which saw her taking a bold leap away from her triedânâtested R&B home-base to deliver an album featuring her own arrangements of the fatherâs 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 âUnforgettable...â eclipsed everything that had gone before in her career and, long-term-wise, saw Cole moving primarily into the âadult standardsâ market. Which in turn (through reasonably-successful albums like 1993âs âTake A Lookâ and 2002âs âAsk Any Womanâ) has seen her become one of the core artists of American smooth-jazz radio; while in 2000 also releasing her riveting autobiography âAngel On My Shoulderâ.

Nevertheless, this monthâs release of âStill Unforgettableâ (which this time sees her posthumously âduettingâ with her late father on his early Fifties recording âWalkinâ My Baby Back Homeâ) finds her delving once more into the Great American Songbook for what is generally considered her long-anticipated âofficialâ follow-up to 1991âs groundbreaking âUnforgettableâ¦â.

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 âB&Sâ for a timely and topical chat.

The thinking behind creating âStill Unforgettableâ

âWhile we were still trying to create that same âUnforgettableâ-type mood or environment, this time I wanted to expand. Rather than just doing another Nat âKingâ 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 thatâs missing from music today. When I hear a lot of contemporary music, Iâm like âWhy are you singing the same chord over and over again?â; or âWhy is the beat more important than the melody?â... You know, I have a problem with that. And I think itâs also something that frustrates good modern-day songwriters too.â

Producing herself for the first time on this record

âBasically I didnât 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 Iâd used back in the day for âUnforgettable⦠With Loveâ. But, what hadnât 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 âWell, I guess Iâm gonna have to do this MYSELF!â. So I spoke to my managers, who were like âYou should be able to pull this off. While you didnât officially wear a producerâs hat for âUnforgettableâ¦â, in reality you did pretty much produce that recordâ... So, while in the past Iâd always thought I needed a quote-unquote âproducerâ 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 Iâd 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.â

How Natalie approached the songs vocally

âI 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 itâs really, really tempting to repeat, or do something similar to, the original - when youâve got these different, new arrangements, you canât really DO that. Itâs like trying to put a size-six dress on a size-10 person! So itâs 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 youâre singing R&B and pop, itâs easy to hide behind a lot of electronics. Whereas, when youâre singing standards and youâre doing jazz, you CANâT hide! Itâs right there in-your-face! And thereâs nothing worse than listening to an artist tackling a standard when you can tell that they donât really know what to DO with it!â

Recording another posthumous âduetâ with her father on âWalkinâ My Baby Back Homeâ

âIf there was going to be another âduetâ with Dad, I felt it should be something more fun and light-hearted. Rather than the serious, dramatic âduetâ we did with âUnforgettableâ, which would have been impossible to better. But then, with Dadâs catalogue being so vast - and bearing in mind the 22 songs we did on âUnforgettable⦠With Loveâ 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 âWalkinâ My Baby Back Homeâ 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 heâs right there with me. Plus it also lets the audience know that, while we are taking this seriously, weâre still having fun with it too.â

How Natalie recalls her years as Americaâs premiere soul diva from 1975 to 1980

âI 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 couldnât 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, Iâd never even SUNG that kind of music before! Iâd 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, Iâd 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 artistsâ work too. I mean, before we did âMr. Melodyâ, 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.â

Whether sheâd return to doing R&B music today

âI feel like I set a precedent back in the day, and that itâs 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 âIâve Got Love On My Mindâ; âIâm Catchinâ Hellâ; âInseparableâ... 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 doesnât 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 thatâs fine with me.â

How Natalie came to move away from R&B and into the music of her fatherâs jazz/swing era with her 1991 career-landmark LP âUnforgettable⦠With Loveâ

âBy the end of the Eighties I was getting disillusioned with the business and with my record company. Iâve always been kind of a risk-taker, and I felt they werenât really ready to go along with me any more. Like when I sat in a meeting with EMI and said âI think the next record I wanna do is an album of my fatherâs musicâ, 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 fatherâs 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 Iâd 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!â

The significant influence âUnforgettable⦠With Loveâ had on the industry as a whole

âThereâs no question that âUnforgettable⦠With Loveâ set a precedent, PERIOD! Thereâs no question that, within the industry, musicians and arrangers and orchestras started working again because of that record. Thereâs no question that other artists jumped on the âAmerican standards movementâ bandwagon - even the ones that couldnât 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 donât wanna ACKNOWLEDGE that for some reason! I donât know if Iâm being paranoid, but it is something Iâve 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 âUnforgettableâ video! And I do see these things happening a lot. But theyâre very rarely as good as the original, Iâm sorry to say.â

Natalieâs controversial comments regarding Amy Winehouse at this yearâs Grammy Awards

âI donât 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 womanâs condition. Because thatâs really what we all NOTICED! People werenât focused on her music, because we were so focused on how she LOOKED! She looked bad, she looked sick⦠Sheâs unwell. You know, the girl came to the show unfortunately with big, incredible stories following her like âThe US wouldnât let her inâ⦠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 theyâre not well when youâve just awarded them six Grammies?! Kinda difficult! And it just became such a bizarre night! People were thinking to themselves âThis is crazyâ, 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 âI hope they donât ask me anything about that Amy Winehouse shit!â!... And, sure enough, this girl stuck a microphone into my face and that was the first question! And I just couldnât take it! I went OFF!â

The album 'Still Unforgettable' is released September 29 through DMI Records/Rhino Entertainment Company

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