“If you’re going to write a book about your life,”. says Natalie Cole, “either give up almost everything, or don’t bother.”
When you’ve lived a life with as many peaks and valleys as Cole’s, giving most of it up takes gumption. But that she has. In the following exclusive excerpt from Angel on My Shoulder, her new autobiography (written with Digby Diehl) out this month from Warner Books, she details it all—from her happy, affluent Los Angeles childhood to the death at 46 of her adored father, singing legend Nat King Cole, to her own chart-topping successes and the descent into heroin and cocaine addiction that nearly killed her. Deciding to put pen to paper, says Cole, 50, wasn’t easy. “I was approached to write this book 10 years ago, which was a real bad idea,” she says. “My son Robbie was younger, and it wouldn’t have been fair for me to overwhelm him with all this stuff.”
She also wondered how her mother, Maria, 78, would react. Natalie and Maria have had a strained relationship through the singer’s adulthood, which only worsened when Maria sued her four children for their portion of their father’s estate. (The suit was settled out of court on undisclosed terms in 1998.) “My initial feeling was I would write a tell-all and put it in a vault that no one could get in until after I died,” Cole says, laughing.
But with her son Robbie Yancy now 23 and a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, the time felt right. “When you reach 50, what you care about is being honest, being accurate and being an example,” Cole says. “When I finished the
book, such a burden came off of me. I hope my story will offer hope to people who need it. If I hadn’t grown from those experiences or triumphed over them, I wouldn’t be smiling.”
Today Cole lives by herself in a French-country-style villa surrounded by gardens in Beverly Hills. The woman with eight Grammys and eight gold and three platinum albums to her name no longer churns out the hits (“This Will Be,” “Our Love,” “I’ve Got Love on My Mind”) with the frequency she once did. But her career is humming along nicely: Her latest album, Greatest Hits—Volume I, will be released this month, The Natalie Cole Story (in which she plays herself) airs on NBC on Dec. 10, and she is almost perpetually on tour.
She’s happy with her personal life as well. “I’m dating like crazy, and it’s wonderful, ” she says. But after two divorces, even Mr. Right would be “hard-pressed to convince me to be in an exclusive relationship. ” A devout Christian who credits God—the title’s angel on her shoulder—for her triumphs over adversity, Cole makes a point of reading the Bible daily and praying each morning with friends over the phone.
She often sees her homemaker sisters Cookie, 54, Casey, 39, and Casey’s twin, Timolin; Robbie visits on school breaks. “She was brutally honest in it,” he says of his mom’s book, “and I applaud people who can do that.” Natalie’s own mother has yet to weigh in. “I sent her a galley, but I don’t know her reaction,” Cole says. “I would hate to think she would react badly. There’s a lot of love in this book.”
When people ask me if my father sang for me as a child, they seem disappointed by the truth: He never sang us romantic ballads like “Mona Lisa.” He sang gibberish songs that gave us kids the giggles. I cherish those memories, and I love the fact that when he was home, he was just being Dad. He really spent what has become known as quality time with us. The flip side of that was that he was gone for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. When you make your living as a singer, you have to go where the gigs are.
We lived in Hancock Park, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of Los Angeles. So exclusive that the neighbors tried mightily to exclude my parents when they first bought the house in 1948. The neighbors actually told my dad they didn’t want any undesirables moving in. “Neither do I,” he responded in the oft-repeated family story, “and if I see any, I’ll be sure to let you know.” By the time I arrived, the neighborhood had adjusted to us, more or less, but we were still the only black people for miles around.
I had a happy childhood, in the sense of creature comforts—pretty clothes, ice skating lessons, horseback riding lessons, piano lessons. I loved to perform, but singing was not something I dreamed of doing as a grown-up. The first time I was ever onstage with my father, I definitely did not sing. It was the summer of 1957 and he was onstage, performing at the Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe. I just wandered out from behind the curtain, a little seven-year-old in pigtails, looking lost. The audience was in hysterics.
As I became older, I got a big kick out of sitting in the audience, watching the people react to that person who was my dad onstage. When I started performing, one of the things I wanted most of all was to be able to make the room so quiet and rapt with attention that you could hear a pin drop, because that’s what my dad was able to do.
It was a given that my mother traveled with Dad as often as she could. It may have preserved their marriage, but it was painful for us kids. We learned to make adjustments for the pain we felt, and some of that deferred pain came back to haunt me later in life.
The last time I saw my father relaxed and happy was September 1964, when he took me to register for my freshman year at the Northfield School for Girls, a prep school in Northfield, Mass. As he had done many times before, he sat beside me in the limo, smoking nonstop. Diana Ross and the Supremes crooned “Baby Love” on the radio, the fall colors flew by, and I was happy to have Dad to myself. He never once mentioned the excruciating back pain he was already suffering.
When we arrived at Northfield, his presence nearly caused a riot. I was grinning from ear to ear with pride. Yes indeed, “the daughter of” was a good thing to be that day. Dad helped me get settled, and then with a hug and a kiss and a “Bye, Sweetie. See you at Christmas,” he was gone.
Natalie found adjusting to boarding school difficult, and she looked forward to returning to L.A. for “a classic Cole family ‘chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire Christmas.’ ” Instead, she found her father ashen and skeletal. The longtime heavy smoker had advanced lung cancer.
I was numb with fear. My mother hadn’t
prepared me, probably because she was having trouble coming to grips with what was happening. And nobody told me he was dying. To the contrary, back at Northfield after the holidays I kept getting optimistic reports about his progress. After they operated to remove his left lung, I got a telegram saying that the surgery was “successful.”
On the fifteenth of February, somebody came into my first-period biology lab and said that I was wanted back at my dormitory. As soon as I walked in, I knew something was seriously wrong. Our housemother’s eyes were brimming with tears. At first she couldn’t say a word. She didn’t have to. I knew.
More than 400 friends and colleagues—Jack Benny, Frank Sinatra and Robert F. Kennedy among them-paid their respects at Cole’s funeral in L.A. on Feb. 18,1965. But what Natalie remembers most about that day is her mother’s stunned sorrow and her own sadness at not having had the chance to tell her dad goodbye.
I don’t think any of us realized what a cornerstone my father was until he was gone. My mother was so devastated. Her whole world had revolved around him. Since I’d been at boarding school, I knew nothing of Gunilla Hutton, the woman Dad had been having an affair with, but my mother certainly did, and it must have made dealing with the aftermath of his death even more difficult for her. Our family just fragmented into little pieces.
In 1968, Cole enrolled at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she majored in child psychology—and discovered sex, drugs and rock and roll.
At UMass I met a boy named Jimmy, who became my steady boyfriend. He was from the projects in Springfield, and he was very cool. He helped me overcome some of the emotional baggage I carried about sex. As a child, I had been fondled several times by a male family member—someone we all loved and trusted. But those early confusions faded away in the pleasure of Jimmy’s love. Jimmy loved being black, and I learned a lot about being black from being with him. I guess you could say that I went from being a little white girl in black skin to being a serious black sister. I grew this Afro that went out for days. My mother almost had a heart attack.
I also began to sing—but just a little. One weekend a friend asked if I would rehearse with his band. I belted out everything from “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” to “Proud Mary,” and afterward all my friends gathered around me and said, “Girl, you oughtta sing—you really are good!” It was the first time anyone had ever suggested I was cut out for a career in music.
I spent the first couple of years in college fairly sober—a little marijuana, the usual college drinking parties—but as a senior, I got into LSD. I almost became a statistic one night on the twentieth floor of one of the UMass high-rise dorms. I was so juiced up that I thought the laws of gravity didn’t apply to me. I believed I could fly—yeah, me and Dumbo with the magic feather. I was halfway out the window and spreading my wings when some friends hauled me back in. People often ask me why I got into drugs. I think they were just waiting to happen, a culmination of not having resolved things. My father’s death was the beginning—it wasn’t till years later that I was able to understand that I was still grieving, and that as “the daughter of,” I was still walking in his shadow. I was adrift, without a dad and without a good solid relationship with my mom. I really can’t put a lot of blame on her—nurturing was just not something she was capable of.
Cole began singing with a band called Black Magic at the Pub, an Amherst restaurant. The group became a campus sensation, and after graduating Cole found an agent and landed other local singing gigs. She was rethinking her plans to become a child psychologist. She was also getting deeper into drugs.
One day my boyfriend Ricky gave me a little mound of heroin to snort. Now almost everyone who snorts heroin for the first time gets violently ill. But not me. For better or worse, I am blessed with a garbage can constitution. The only reaction I had was to get deliciously sleepy, feeling warm and flushed, without a care in the world. I loved the feeling and wanted to go to the next level. Within a month or so, Ricky showed me how to shoot up.
Eventually I got hooked. I no longer saw any of my old friends from UMass. One new pal was a hooker named Peaches. She took it upon herself to instruct me in the fine art of extricating welfare checks out of folks’ mailboxes. When I turned out to be useless as a thief, Peaches found me another assignment: counterfeiting and check fraud. I lived a schizophrenic existence—felon by day, singer by night.
It was as if I’d turned into another person—and for a time, I even started calling myself “Lee Cole.” Honey, I sure wasn’t “the daughter of” now. Never mind Unforgettable—try Undesirable. I’d become the kind of person those Hancock Park neighbors had worried about.
Even though I was still living in Massachusetts, a lot of my gigs were in New York, and I was often traveling between Springfield and Manhattan. One night in New York I needed to get back to Springfield, but the car was out of gas, and I was out of stuff. I was faced with a nasty dilemma—gas or dope. I had twenty bucks. I gassed up and started driving. Somehow I got home, but not without throwing up out the car window all the way up the New England Thruway.
Withdrawal from heroin—there’s nothin’ like it. You throw up, you sleep, you sweat. You’re delirious, you’re cold, and some folks even start hallucinating. If you get through it without killing yourself or somebody else, it’s no small miracle. It took me fourteen hours, and I felt as though I had been jumped on by an entire football team.
Soon afterwards, I moved to New York and met a guy named Ronnie who was a pimp and wanted to “help me supplement my income.” I was hired as the come-on girl who would pique the attention of potential Johns. Once I’d made contact and Ronnie had concluded the financial transaction, the real business would happen under the bridge—without me. I froze my ass off out there in Harlem, USA, in the winter of 1973.
But as her drug use was increasing, Cole’s career began to take off. Capitol Records gave her a contract in 1975. Her first single, “This Will Be,” topped the charts and won her two Grammys; her second album, Natalie, went gold. Frightened by a friend’s overdose death, Cole quit heroin also in 1975. By then she had fallen in love with producer-songwriter Marvin Yancy, who had cowritten, with Chuck a Jackson, most of her hits. The couple wed in 1976, moved into a Beverly Hills home and had a son, Robbie, a year later. But the good times weren’t to last.
I don’t remember the exact moment when I got back into drugs, but I definitely shifted back into self-destruct mode. I must have been restless or bored. I forgot what was important. I started snorting cocaine at one of the parties I was invited to, and then I turned Marvin on to it. Virtually overnight, cocaine was everywhere. It was like a snowstorm had descended on Los Angeles.
Eventually Marvin and I started freebasing coke. I set up my own little laboratory in our home. I got so good at it that I developed a reputation as a “gourmet cocaine chef”—I was called the Base Queen. Marvin and I actually tried dealing. We were awful at it. We would smoke up half the inventory before we ever got around to selling it.
It was around that time that Marvin started to get paranoid, a typical effect of cocaine use. He got this idea that I was cheating on him with a band member. It was never true, but the devil was busy killing this marriage, and us. We were twenty-eight, successful, and rich. And sadly, we couldn’t handle it.
I was the one who wanted this marriage to be over. If I had to regret anything about my life, it would be divorcing Marvin, because I believe that he and I were truly meant for one another. I don’t know what I was thinking, except that once drugs entered our house, everything changed. It was the biggest mistake of my life.
My career gradually went into the toilet because of my drug use. I was starting to pile up a string of disappointing performances and blown concert dates. In 1981, Capitol informed me that they were not going to renew my contract.
By 1982, I had reached a point where I stopped paying attention to anything or anyone but myself. I had become a negligent mother. I remember my son knocking on the bedroom door as I stayed in the bathroom for hours, just getting high. He’d knock on the door, “Mommy, please come out.” In my insanity, I believed that if he didn’t see me getting high, somehow that made it not so bad.
One day I sank to such a low that I took Robbie with me to go pick up drugs. I was to meet my dealer on a Sunday morning, and I didn’t even take the time to get us dressed. I just got in the car with my son—Robbie in his PJs, me in my PJs and robe—and drove off to make the score. Afterward, I put the drugs in his diaper bag for safe transport.
Behind the scenes, my mother, my sister, my brother and pretty much anybody else who cared about me were begging me to go into drug rehabilitation. But no one could get through.
One night in 1983 Cole’s agent, business manager and attorney made an unannounced visit to her Beverly Hills home to tell her they were afraid for her life. They persuaded her to check into the Hazelden rehab clinic outside Minneapolis.
At Hazelden, I wrote to Robbie and told him Mommy was sick, that I loved him, and would be with him as soon as I could. My cousin Janice, who helped take care of him during my absence, wrote to tell me that when she read the letter to him, he took it over to the corner and just stood there staring at it. God, the shame of it all—picturing him doing this, my heart broke. I finally stopped fighting the program. I absolutely knew that if I didn’t get my life back on track, I was going to lose everything—my son, my career, my life.
Cole’s stay at Hazelden—”the best thing I ever did,” she says—lasted a full six months. Rebuilding her life took much longer. Nearly broke, she moved with Robbie to a Studio City townhouse and took to “working the lounge” at clubs like the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. Not until 1985 did she work up the nerve to record her 12th album, Dangerous, which sold 150,000 copies.
On March 22, 1985,1 was getting ready to go onstage in Dallas when I got a call—Marvin had had a stroke and died. I didn’t know what to do, so I walked out and told the audience what had happened. They were stunned. I was devastated. I had to tell my sweet little seven-and-a-half-year-old that his daddy was dead. I felt very much alone, grieving, and still trying to find my own way in recovery. Marvin’s death was like a door that had closed.
Everlasting, the album Cole recorded two years later in 1987, spawned three hit singles and eventually went gold. Her career was getting back on track. But she was desperately lonely.
I had been single for almost ten years, and I began to pray for a relationship with a man who really loved me. Record producer Andre Fischer and I started dating, and it wasn’t much more than a month later that he asked me to marry him. I was convinced that this was the man God had sent me. We set the wedding date for September 17,1989.
It was a beautiful wedding and everybody but my mother was smiling and happy, especially me. But this was one of those times when my mother’s instinct was dead on. André was a loser, and she knew it. But you sure couldn’t tell me that.
It broke my heart that my father could not have been there to share my joy. I felt as if he had died almost before life had begun for me. Dad had always said to his friends about me, “She’s got it,” although he never did say that directly to me—not once. But I know that I owe him big-time for my ability.
My desire for some kind of closure with my father may be what was behind my attempt to do my father’s music. I had spent the first part of my career rebelling against it. Back in the early 1980s in Las Vegas, I sang “Unforgettable” live with a tape of Dad’s voice backstage. The audiences were so moved that I backed away from doing it. Singing that song stopped the show. Now, I felt I had paid my dues, had my own hit songs. I was ready.
The Unforgettable album, which included my “duet” with my father, exceeded all of our expectations. All of a sudden my childhood came back and was inside this music. A major demon was laid to rest. I knew Dad was smiling, and that was worth it all.
In the six years the Grammy Awards existed before Dad’s death, he had received seven nominations, but he won only one, for “Midnight Flyer,” in 1960. One thing I knew is that if I did win a Grammy for Unforgettable, ultimately I would be winning it for Dad.
Cole did her father proud, as Unforgettable won six Grammys, including Record of the Year. But Fischer was growing increasingly jealous of her success.
I had seen signs of Andre’s abusive personality, but I had chosen to ignore those incidents. The first time he abused me physically, he pushed me, naked, clear through a wall. By 1992, the number one item on my Christmas list was a way out of my marriage.
André and I were not the only sad family news that year. My brother Kelly was beginning to fall prey to all the opportunistic infections of full-blown AIDS. And in 1995,1 got a call from my attorney, Jeff Ingber. I had been named as a defendant in a lawsuit. The plaintiff was Maria Cole, and she was suing Capitol Records and all her children for control over revenues from Nat’s estate. As our brother lay at death’s door, our mother was preparing to take us to court.
That same year, André decided it was best if we separated, at least temporarily. Even though I knew what kind of man he was, I was still upset that André didn’t want me. I was supposed to be the one to leave. Of course, the pathetic truth is that I couldn’t.
When André and I did split up, there was a tidal wave of people anxious to tell me how happy they were I was rid of him. Whitney Houston, a friend since the early ’80s, had never liked André from the first time she laid eyes on him, and never stopped calling him Tick-Tick-Boom, her way of reminding me that I was sitting on a keg of dynamite.
Cole’s professional triumphs continued: “When I Fall in Love,” a duet with her father from her Stardust album, won a Grammy in February ’97. Her divorce papers arrived the next day.
With all these positive changes in my life, I wish I could say that my taste in men immediately improved, but I attracted another abuser. The relationship didn’t start off bad. But it’s the same pattern: incredibly charming, incredibly good-looking, incredibly manipulative, and finally, incredibly toxic. Same old song.
It took some sound advice from my own son, twenty-plus years my junior, to break the pattern. One day he said, “Mom, why don’t you take a break from dating for a while?” It was the best advice my angel could ever give me.
My life now is filled with friends, love, and laughter—but the best friendship I have is with me. When I started going to events by myself, people would ask, “Who are you coming with?” Well, I’m coming with me, myself and I. And that’s just going to have to be enough.
Where am I now in my life? I still may not be what I ought to be, but thank the Lord, I’m not what I used to be. I am still a work in progress—we all are. I guess what I am trying to pass on to you, dear reader, is this: Don’t give up. . . God ain’t through with you yet.