Natalie Cole, 'Unforgettable' jazz icon, dies at 65
It’s hard to recall a time when an album of jazz-pop standards could be considered a daring career move.
But think back to where Natalie Cole was in 1991.
She was 41, and had endured an up-and-down career as a pop singer -- three Grammys and more nominations, yes, but also stalled singles and struggles with drug addiction, all in the formidable shadow of her late, legendary father, Nat “King” Cole. An album honoring Nat, including a posthumous father-daughter duet of one of his most iconic hits, was a risk that would’ve been easy for critics and cynics to rip.
But people were rooting for Cole -- always had been, ever since those frequent early-career comparisons to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. And so Unforgettable...With Love became a smash, culture-sweeping hit, selling 7 million copies and reaping six Grammys, including Album, Record and Song of the Year. The New York Times called it “an inspired, one-of-a-kind stroke of pop nostalgia.”
Unforgettable made Cole, who died New Year’s Eve at age 65, exactly that. She became an icon of resilience and perseverance, and the album’s success spurred other aging singers to follow a path she helped popularize – think Frank Sinatra’s Duets or Rod Stewart’s American Songbook series.
Blessed with a voice as nimble as it was powerful, and always in total control of her talent, Cole will be remembered for more than Unforgettable. In a career that spanned more than four decades, she won nine Grammys and sold more than 30 million albums. Five of her singles hit the pop top 10, including 1975’s swinging brass delight This Will Be, 1988’s freestyle-tinged Pink Cadillac and 1989 power ballad Miss You Like Crazy. Many more soared high on the R&B charts.
And while Cole would always be her father’s daughter -- they also “duetted” on 1996’s When I Fall In Love and 2008’s Walkin’ My Baby Back Home -- Unforgettable gave her a legacy all her own. She rode its success to a long and fruitful career in jazz, and kept taking risks along the way – singing for hundreds of millions at the Super Bowl and Oscars, singing with Andrea Bocelli and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, recording an album in Spanish, acting on TV and in films.
Cole still toured regularly -- she was scheduled to perform at Sarasota’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in April -- but had canceled numerous dates in recent weeks due to health issues, all stemming from her addiction to alcohol, crack and heroin in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She suffered from hepatitis C and in 2009 underwent a kidney transplant; the organ, she later revealed, came from a deceased fan who requested she receive it.
Cole's struggles in life gave her 1991 comeback that much more meaning, and made Unforgettable all the more poignant a single. In the wake of her death, fans who loved her music will spin it over and over, because that’s exactly the sort of song Unforgettable is -- a heart-rending eulogy perfectly suited for In Memoriam newsreels.
It’s a tribute she deserves. Unforgettable was once her father’s signature song; now it’s theirs together, forever. That’s a lovely accomplishment, one the world will never forget.
-- Jay Cridlin