The gall of a new singer calling herself Natalie Cole on Capitol Records, the label that the late Nat King Cole built! It smacks of sacrilege comparable to the stripper who worked as Norma Vincent Peel—with the saving exception that Natalie is Nat’s daughter and a worthy and talented throwback.
Her first Capitol single, “This Will Be”—a bouncy pop-soul paean to first true love that is now bulleting to the top of the charts—is in no way a rip-off of Nat’s sound or name. “I’m part of him,” she explains, “but I’m an extension in another direction. Daddy was mellow, laid-back, conservative. I get down. I’m campy, vampy, crazy.” Natalie indeed owes less to the foggy, froggy voice that sold over 50 million records like Too Young or Nature Boy than to the rocking, bluesy style of Aretha Franklin and Nancy Wilson.
Not to mention the driving intensity of gospel. “Everyone thinks that all black singers started singing in church,” says Natalie, and in a way that was the case with the Coles. Nat’s father was a Baptist minister, and Natalie’s own career has now only really begun, at age 25, when she returned to that faith after years as a nonpracticing Episcopalian. Of her own youth in L.A., Natalie recalls “I was brought up more like a middle-class white child than a black. I didn’t know what black awareness was until I went away to college. I came back after the first year with an Afro, and my mother almost had a heart attack—she thought I had turned militant.” Cole was the first black to headline a network TV series, but it lasted only a year because no company would sponsor it. Yet in his lifetime—he died at 45 of lung cancer a decade ago—Nat refused to be what he called “a crusader.” Politically or musically. “Dad used to say, ‘Mr. Cole will not rock’n’roll,’ but he would bring me home every album the Beatles ever made.”
Natalie started singing after her junior year at the University of Massachusetts and toyed with the idea of dropping out. But after being warned by her mother, a former vocalist with Duke Ellington, not to expect any help if she quit school, Natalie went back and got her degree in sociology. Following graduation, she began playing clubs “that hired me strictly for my name. Anyone who has gone through that knows it’s an insult, but it was a step.” The breakthrough came last year when two songwriters, Marvin Yancy and Chuck Jackson, helped her cut a demo tape. Yancy, who weekends as a Baptist preacher, invited her to one of his services. Remembers Natalie: “It was almost like the Lord turned me around and said, There’s something for you to do.’ I was almost in tears.” About that time, the demo, which had been buried in in-boxes at five record companies, finally sold itself. She was baptized in June and travels with (in addition to her seven-piece band) a “spiritual advisor,” a first cousin on her father’s side.
Befitting a young star on the move, Natalie’s church is in Chicago, her apartment is in Manhattan (she lives alone but is not without men friends) and her savviest adviser is her mother, now living in Massachusetts. “My mom did a hell of a job of raising us without a father,” says Natalie. (She has four siblings, including Carol, 30, an actress who has made it to Broadway.) “She’s a businesswoman,” reports Natalie, “and if it hadn’t been for her, my father’s business would have really been messed up. She taught me to keep my stability, be strong and to get a lawyer every time someone sticks a piece of paper under my nose.”
Pardon the expression, nose, a sore point for Natalie. “I paid $600,” she grouses, “and that doctor still didn’t fix it the way I wanted. He said it was my ‘destiny’ to look like my father.” And, just possibly, to succeed like him.