There was a time not too long ago when singer Natalie Cole did not have a producer, a minister or a husband. Now the daughter of the late Nat King Cole has all three. Their names are Marvin Yancy, Marvin Yancy and Marvin Yancy—and she didn’t come by any of them easily.
Cole was late for her first appointment with Yancy the composer-producer; but he failed to show up at all. Then finally, one day in the fall of ’74, they auditioned for each other as performer and producer, mutually approved and went on to other things. “Marvin and I didn’t really hook up emotionally until halfway through the first album we did together,” Cole recalls. “He just told me one night, ‘Now that business is over, I want to tell you that I really dig you.’ ” What her new producer and boyfriend didn’t tell her was that he was also an ordained Baptist minister. Under his influence, Cole, a lapsed Episcopalian, soon became a devout Baptist.
Still the relationship faltered. “We had a feeling about each other that was like nothing we ever had,” Cole recalls, “but we couldn’t get it together.” Finally, after months of on-again, off-again courtship, Natalie began dating a member of her band; then they were engaged. Marvin, too, made plans to marry someone else. That brought Cole around. Unknown to Yancy she broke her own engagement, then flew to Chicago where at first she “agreed to some kind of arrangement that even if he got married, we would still see each other.” She soon reconsidered, however, and told Yancy so. That convinced him to cancel his wedding. During that premarital cold war, he remembers, “She would appear on television singing my songs and I was so badly in love, I couldn’t watch.”
Their other complication at the time was that Yancy’s former fiancée was pregnant. Marvin says, “I never denied the baby was mine. But thank God, Natalie was in my corner.” Cole notes softly, “I had to bite my tongue a lot of the time, but I told him that whatever the outcome, I’m here. I had to be strong for him.” There was a paternity suit, which Yancy settled by agreeing to child support payments for his son, now 15 months old.
Finally, in July 1976, they were married while rolling down Chicago’s Lake-shore Drive in the backseat of a white Eldorado. Marvin was on his way to conduct a funeral, and Natalie had a plane to catch for L.A., so a minister friend performed the ceremony while his wife drove. “When God is in the plan,” smiles Cole, “it’s jazzy all the way.”
Their professional relationship was by then already flourishing. Cole’s first record, This Will Be (written by Yancy and his partner, Chuck Jackson), was a bonanza, earning gold records for both the single and her album (Inseperable) and winning two 1975 Grammys. Her four subsequent albums were all successful, and she has been near the top of both soul and pop charts for three months this year with a single, Our Love (a Yancy-Jackson tune) and its accompanying LP, Thankful. Last week on CBS she headlined in her first television special. Even her long-standing feud with Aretha Franklin over who is “Queen of Soul” has calmed—”We have no reason to dislike each other,” says Cole.
One of Nat’s five children, Natalie grew up in L.A.’s posh Hancock Park section, and their crowd included Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Harry Belafonte. It was only after entering the University of Massachusetts, where she earned a degree in psychology, that Natalie raised her racial consciousness in black studies classes and dabbled in acid and mescaline. There she also began taking singing seriously, playing small clubs and accepting both the indignity as well as the advantage of being billed as “Nat King Cole’s Daughter.”
Yancy, as the second of eight children of a preacher father and a gospel singer mother, also had a legacy to live up to but in a meaner environment. He had to battle his way through Chicago’s Cooley High and the dismal Cabrini-Green housing projects. “I did what was necessary to survive,” he says, “but I have no battle scars. I had that special knack of hiding.”
After attending the Moody Bible and Chicago Baptist institutes, Marvin went back to his dad’s tiny ghetto storefront church and took over the pulpit in 1969. He stayed involved in music, too, composing and producing for Chicago soul groups. “There really isn’t any difference between pop and gospel,” he figures. “One is just more commercial than the other. If you love your wife and you tell her, what’s wrong with singing it? It’s about love and it gives inspiration.”
Last October he and Natalie had a son, Robert Adam. The baby now goes on the road with Natalie, who laughs, “He’s just part of the entourage. Just one more bag.” When she isn’t touring, the three divide their time between Los Angeles, Chicago and Manhattan. Marvin makes it back to Chicago every Sunday for church services, though, and is seeking a larger building to accommodate a rapidly expanding congregation. He says, however, that it will remain in the ghetto. “You have to preach where you were brought up.”
Playing the role of minister’s wife without upstaging the minister isn’t easy for Cole. But she tries: “I’m new at the Baptist religion, but I give him a lot of inspiration as far as writing his sermons and dealing with his staff. I can’t get the guilties about being an entertainer; I sing for the Lord.” Yancy has his own cross to bear. “Some people call me ‘Reverend Cole,’ ” he sighs, “but it doesn’t bother me. That’s my wife and I’m proud.”
Mutual admiration doesn’t prevent occasional spats over what Natalie calls “trivial” things: “I get on his case about picking up his clothes and he gets on my case about getting on his case.” But they don’t overreact. “Our marriage is a joyous experience,” says Cole. “Sometimes we are just so kissy and huggy, everybody thinks, ‘Isn’t that sweet?’ It is like that 70 percent of the time—and that’s enough for me.” She glances at her husband, smiles and adds: “For both of us.”