Natalie Cole: A famous last name, a world of influences

11:53 PM, Dec 11, 2013

Natalie Cole didn't immediately turn to the music of her father, the legendary Nat King Cole. In fact, it took her 20 years to sing the standards that he made famous, initially refusing to perform the music at all. (Bryan Bedder/ / Getty Images for Exploring the Art)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: Natalie Cole.
When: 4 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Kodak Hall at the Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
Tickets: Ranging from $45 to $95, plus service charges, available at rochesterjazz.com and (585) 454-2060.

Let’s play armchair psychologist for a moment. Imagine you’re a superb vocalist, but the first thing that people think of when they hear your name is your father: Nat King Cole. Then you put out your first album, Inseparable, and it’s a smash, producing hits such as “This Will Be” and the title track. You win the 1976 Grammy for Best New Artist. And the next thing that people think of when they hear your voice is: the new Aretha Franklin.

If you’re Natalie Cole, perhaps you have an identity crisis. Other people’s identities. And how do you deal with it?

In one respect — regarding her father — Cole embraces it. “It’s kinda the basis of the shows, the foundation, people coming to hear ‘Unforgettable,’ ” says Cole, who performs Sunday afternoon at Kodak Hall at the Eastman Theatre. “The Great American Songbook. The only other person doing it successfully is Rod Stewart.”

Cole didn’t immediately turn to that page, to her father’s music. In fact, it took her 20 years to sing the standards that he made famous, initially refusing to perform the music at all.

After the fast start, with hits “Sophisticated Lady,” “I’ve Got Love On My Mind” and “Our Love,” Cole began a slow fade. As an armchair psychologist, perhaps you can attribute the serious drug problem as a response to the expectations heaped on the daughter of Nat King Cole, and the heir apparent to Aretha Franklin. But as a student of human nature, you also understand that easy access to vices just seems to come with the entertainment business.

By 1981 Cole was in rehab. Then a determined and admirable rebuilding of the career and return to the charts with “Jump Start (My Heart),” “I Live For Your Love” and the danced-up remake Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.”

Then came Unforgettable… With Love, the 1991 release with Cole singing songs made famous by her father. And the two — thanks to studio magic — singing a duet on “Unforgettable.” It was her biggest-selling album ever.

She did Still Unforgettable in 2008, and another studio duet with Dad, “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” So yes, Cole is Daddy’s girl, with an R&B heart. An alignment that she calls “modern contemporary R&B,” and one that comes with limitations.

Frankie Beverly, whose band is all men, very sexist, very sexy,” she says. “How come Frankie Beverly doesn’t have any women in his group? Well, it’s a very testosterone show. There are others.” She pauses for a moment, thinking of the others. “Bob Dylan. No women onstage, very manly, very macho.”

She sighs. “At end of the day, though, it doesn’t matter.”

It doesn’t matter because there is another answer to dealing with an identity crisis, besides embracing it. Running in the opposite direction. “American audiences are still very ignorant to music,” she says. “They need to broaden their minds. My job isn’t so much to surprise them than it is to open their ears. I think they open up to what they haven’t heard before because they like it.

You can get jaded very quick when you’re stuck in one kind of genre. And it’s easy to do. Any good music sitting in treasure boxes for years, it’s a nice thing to reignite. It becomes a fusion of keeping old music alive, while adding something new. It is all connected.”

Cole loves jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. And contemporary country music, particularly Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town. “Absolutely!” she says when asked if she’d like to do a country album. “I think the only thing that can happen if you fail is you say, ‘OK, I won’t be doing that again.’ “

Here’s something she might be willing to try: collaborating with pop-R&B rapper Bruno Mars. “I have a friend from New York who is a walking juke box,” she says. “He told me, ‘This guy is gonna blow up, you watch.’ And he was absolutely right.” Cole recently caught up with Mars in Budapest. “We met backstage,” she says. “We had the pictures taken, all that stuff.”

Did she ask him to write her a song?

I did. And he will.”

He will, she says, with certainty. Natalie Cole wants certain things. A bigger world. For Cole, the Great American Songbook goes beyond borders.

Mexico and South America, for instance. Her latest album, En Español, is sort of the Spanish-language version of Unforgettable — new versions of songs from her father’s 1958 album Cole Español, including another studio-built duet with her father on “Acércate Má.”

That ought to shake ‘em up a little. The last thing she wants is for people to feel they’re being “dragged to a Natalie Cole concert,” she says. Perhaps such wanderings into the Spanish language — and jazz and Christmas music with the London Symphony Orchestra — allow Cole to go places herself. If so, one of those places is home.

There, the identity crisis is solved, among friends. “Dinner, go to the movies, sit around talking,” Cole says. “That’s the haven. Retreating to where I can just be myself.”