With a father like jazz legend Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole was always going to have an extraordinary life.
The nine-time Grammy-award-winning singer, who died on Thursday at 65 due to complications from ongoing health issues, had a life of extreme ups and downs, from decades-long battles with addiction to chart-topping success.
One of five children, Cole grew up singing songs with her father in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Hancock Park. In her autobiography, Angel on My Shoulder, she describes her father singing “gibberish” songs to her and her siblings.
“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,” she wrote. “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.”
While she loved to perform, singing had not yet become a passion.
The first time she was onstage with her father, in the summer of 1957 at the Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe, she had wandered out from behind the curtain, just 7 years old and very confused. (The audience loved it.)
When her father took her to freshman year at Northfield School for Girls, a boarding school in Northfield, Massachusetts, in 1964, it was the last time she saw her father relaxed and happy – when she returned for Christmas, he was skeletal, having developed advanced lung cancer as a longtime heavy smoker. He died in February 1965 at age 45.
“My dad was so much fun. I just wish he could be here. That’s the hardest part of this,” she told PEOPLE in 2008, after she was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. “I think of him every time I sing. My father led by example. He wasn’t much of a talker – he walked life. That means a lot to me.”
Cole enrolled at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1968 to study child psychology. After dating a boy named Jimmy, she began singing and rehearsing with his band – and also experimenting with drugs. As a senior, she began taking LSD, once almost jumping off a dorm high-rise because she was so high she thought she could fly.
It was then that her lifelong battle with addiction truly began.
“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,” she wrote in her memoir.
She began routinely snorting heroin, which left her feeling sleepy and warm, rather than violently ill. As she got hooked, she dabbled in extricating welfare checks out of mailboxes and check fraud.
A Singing Career on the Rise
While still a student in Massachusetts, she started playing gigs in New York, where she moved after graduating. As her drug use increased, her career took off – she signed a contract with Capitol Records in 1975.
Her first chart-topping single, “This Will Be,” won her two Grammys. Her second album, Natalie, went gold. After a friend overdosed that year, the singer decided to quit heroin. It was the same year she met producer-songwriter Marvin Yancy, whom she married in 1976, and they moved into a Beverly Hills home. She had her first son (and only child), Robert, a year later.
Despite the positive streak, drugs drew her back in. This time, the substance was cocaine, which her and her husband began taking excessively.
The cocaine, and her enormous success, put strains on their marriage, leading to their ultimate divorce – which Cole called the biggest regret of her life. Her addiction also affected her career, as she increasingly blew off concert dates and gave lackluster performances.
A Wake-Up Call
1982 was a wake-up call; Cole realized she had become a negligent mother, once even taking Robbie with her to go pick up drugs, which she put in his diaper bag for safe transport. Her family – and everyone who cared about her – were begging her to go to rehab.
In 1983, Cole’s agent, business manager and attorney went to her Beverly Hills home and persuaded her to check into the Hazelden rehab clinic outside Minneapolis – which she said was the best thing she ever did.
“They all came to my house like the undertakers – they were all in dark suits and they were very serious and very sober,” she said in 2014 of the intervention. “They looked at me and they said, ‘We just know you’re going to die.'”
After six months in rehab, she began the process of rebuilding her life, moving with Robbie, “nearly broke,” to a Studio City townhouse. In 1985, she released her 12th album, “Dangerous,” which only sold 150,000 copies. While performing a concert in Dallas that year, she learned that her first husband, Marvin, had had a stroke and died, another blow during an incredibly difficult year.
After getting her career back on track with the album Everlasting, Cole remarried in 1989, to record producer Andre Fischer, even though she said her mother’s bad feeling about him ended up being correct. All the same, it broke her heart that her father couldn’t be at the wedding.
An Unforgettable Musical Triumph
Her desire for closure with her father led her to attempt to do his music, she wrote in her memoir, even though she admitted to spending the first part of her career rebelling against it. Her Unforgettable album, which features a virtual ‘duet’ with her father, was a tribute to him.
Cole won six Grammys, including Record of the Year, though her husband, Fischer, became increasingly resentful. Their marriage began to fall apart around 1992, just as her brother, Kelly, fell victim to AIDS. And in 1995, her attorney called her to tell her that her mother, Maria Cole, was suing Capitol Records and all her children to take control over revenues from Nat’s estate.
When she finally split up with Andre, longtime friend Whitney Houston called her to say that she’d never liked him. (Houston had never stopped calling him “Tick-Tick-Boom,” her way of reminding Cole that he was trouble.)
Cole’s professional success continued despite personal setbacks; her duet with her father, “When I Fall in Love,” won a Grammy in 1997. Yet she soon found herself in yet another toxic relationship.
“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,” she wrote in her 2000 memoir.
An Alarming Diagnosis
In 2008, Cole was diagnosed with hepatitis C. Chemotherapy treatments left her weak, and she soon developed serious kidney problems, which required dialysis three times a week.
“My life crumbled before my eyes. I never had symptoms. I didn’t know anything about it. Would I still have a career? Was I going to die? How long did I have? I was devastated,” she told PEOPLE in 2008. “I had to let it sink in for six weeks while they ran more tests.”
In 2009, she received a life-saving kidney transplant, but woke to learn that her sister, Cookie, who had been battling lung cancer, had died that day.
“This was a very joyous moment where I’ve got new life. It was also a very sorrowful moment, where my sister had gone on, and the family that donated the kidney had lost their daughter as well,” Cole told AARP The Magazine in 2009. “My first reaction was that I wished I were back on dialysis to have my sister,” she said. “These two people had left this earth and I was here. Why? I feel like I don’t deserve it.”
Cole’s mother, Maria, died three years later at 89, following a brief battle with cancer.
“Our mom was in a class all by herself. She epitomized class, elegance, and truly defined what it is to be a real lady,” said Cole and her siblings, Timolin and Casey Cole, in a statement.
Her siblings, along with Cole’s son Robert Yancy, would eventually pay tribute to Natalie herself, in a heartfelt statement released shortly after her death.
“It is with heavy hearts that we bring to you all the news of our Mother and sister’s passing. Natalie fought a fierce, courageous battle, dying how she lived..with dignity, strength and honor,” her family said. “Our beloved Mother and sister will be greatly missed and remain UNFORGETTABLE in our hearts forever.”