In 2005, Natalie Cole peforms at the mayoral inagural gala for Antonio Villaraigosa at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (Photo by Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
It isn’t easy being the child of an icon, and early in her singing career, Natalie Cole resisted the legacy of her famous father, crooner Nat King Cole.
In the early 1970s, when one club owner billed her on the marquee as “The daughter of Nat King Cole,” she became angry, insisting she wanted to succeed under her own name. In concerts, she refused to sing her father’s songs.
“People said when I started, ‘Why don’t you just copy your father’s style?’ I had to be myself, singing my songs in my own way,” she told Jet magazine in 1976. Early on, she also told the magazine, people had tried calling her Natalie “Queen” Cole.
With a jazz-and-gospel-inflected voice whose power was undeniable, Cole eventually managed to emerge from the shadow of her legendary father, overcoming struggles with drug addiction and health problems to stake out her own successful career, selling more than 30 million albums and earning nine Grammy Awards. Yet Cole’s greatest triumph — both commercially and perhaps artistically — would come when she embraced her family history with the 1991 album “Unforgettable … With Love,” in which she recorded a series of her father’s favorite standards and sang a duet of one of his signature songs with him decades after his death.
Cole died Thursday from congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The singer, who had recently been forced to cancel several tour dates because of poor health, suffered from hepatitis C and various health complications from a 2009 kidney transplant from which she never fully recovered, according to her publicist, Maureen O’Connor. She was 65.
“Natalie fought a fierce, courageous battle, dying how she lived … with dignity, strength and honor,” the singer’s son Robert Yancy and her sisters Timolin and Casey Cole said in a statement. “Our beloved mother and sister will be greatly missed and remain unforgettable in our hearts forever.”
In a statement released Friday, Neil Portnow, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, called Cole “one of music’s most celebrated and iconic women” and “a wonderful, highly cherished artist.”
As news of Cole’s death spread Friday morning, many who had known her — whether up close or from afar — including fellow performers Cher, Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett, took to social media to offer their tributes to a singer who had experienced both triumphs and tragedies.
“As the new year was ushered in, an angelic instrument moved on,” singer Lenny Kravitz wrote on Instagram. “Natalie Cole’s voice was perfection. And what a lady.”
Cole’s success spanned four decades and multiple genres. She achieved fame in the mid-1970s as an R&B artist with the hits “This Will Be,” “Inseparable” and “Our Love.” She later saw her career wane as she privately battled drug addiction.
But in 1987 Cole returned to the charts with the comeback album “Everlasting” and then found even greater success a few years later with “Unforgettable … With Love,” which sold more than 6 million copies and won six Grammy Awards, including album of the year.
Cole was born Feb. 6, 1950, the second of five children to Nat King Cole and Maria Hawkins Cole, a jazz singer who had sung with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. She grew up in a house filled with music. Luminaries such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Count Basie were regular guests. “Not only did I meet and get to know some of these great singers and musicians, but I fondly recall addressing them as ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle,’” Cole told Jet magazine in an interview years later.
Natalie Cole saw both sides of the coin of fame from an early age.
Cole’s father had been propelled to stardom in the 1940s thanks to his silky baritone, only to face virulent racism that would follow him throughout his career. In 1948, when he and his wife bought a house in Hancock Park, members of the property owners association told Cole they didn’t want any undesirables moving into the area.
“Neither do I,” Cole responded. “And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”
As much as she loved all kinds of music, from traditional jazz to Janis Joplin, Cole’s own professional singing career came about somewhat accidentally. She was working toward a pre-med degree at the University of Massachusetts when a friend who was singing with a local group became ill one evening and asked if she would stand in for him at one of the band’s performances. And that seems to have done it for her.
Setting aside her plans for a medical career, Cole joined the R&B and rock band Black Magic in the early 1970s and within a few years began staking out her own distinctive musical terrain. Her debut album, “Inseparable,” featuring the exuberant R&B hit “This Will Be,” won two Grammys and earned Cole comparisons to Aretha Franklin. Her sophomore album, 1976’s “Natalie,” earned her another Grammy for the song “Sophisticated Lady.”
But Cole’s growing success was soon derailed by a worsening addiction to heroin and crack cocaine. In 1983, with her health and her work suffering, the singer entered rehab.
“I was breaking down physically,” she told The Times in 1985. “I had been into drugs over a number of years and it was starting to take its toll, both mentally and physically — and I had to go away. I started taking smaller jobs so that I wouldn’t be as visible.”
Her years of substance abuse left her with health issues that would plague her for the rest of her life, but Cole’s career eventually rebounded, peaking with “Unforgettable,” which saw her trading phrases with a recording of her father singing his signature hit decades earlier.
“No one really knew what to expect,” Cole told CNN’s Larry King of the duet recording in 2010. “Technologically, we had never done anything like that. Nothing had been attempted like that, to lift Dad’s voice, literally, off of that track and put it on a brand-new one, and then line it up, match it up, get the phrasing right. I remember listening — everyone listening at the end, and we were just enthralled. It was really wonderful.”
Alongside her singing career, Cole found a measure of success as an actress, though she initially had some difficulty being cast as anything other than a singer.
“That was my biggest beef,” she told The Times in 1994. “I got offers: ‘Do you want to act? We have got a role for a singer.’ I didn’t want to do that. It wasn’t much of a stretch for me.”
Over the years, she made guest appearances on TV series such as “I’ll Fly Away,” “Touched by an Angel” and “Grey’s Anatomy” and, in 2001, starred as herself in “Livin’ for Love: The Natalie Cole Story,” for which she received the NAACP Image Award for outstanding actress in a television, mini-series or dramatic special.
Times staff writers Randy Lewis, Susan King and Frank Shyong and former staff writer Robert Hilburn contributed to this report.