David Foster Remembers Natalie Cole on the 30th Anniversary of 'Unforgettable... With Love' : 'A Really Good Friend to Me'

"We had a real sort of brother/sister relationship," Foster tells PEOPLE about his relationship with Natalie Cole

David Foster
Photo: Getty Images; EJ Camp

Thirty years after the late singer Natalie Cole celebrated the rich musical legacy of her iconic father Nat "King" Cole on her album Unforgettable…With Love — including a then-pioneering digital duet between father and daughter on his signature song — renowned music producer David Foster recalls how the wildly successful album, which started simply as a loving tribute, changed the course of his friend's life and career.

"She didn't try and reinvent herself: she just went to the kind of music that she loved, that she'd always loved," Foster tells PEOPLE of his longtime friend and collaborator, who died in 2015. "Some people learned how to do this kind of music, and a few people live this kind of music."

"She obviously had a great pop career," he says, recalling how Natalie had surprised the recording industry while launching her career in the early 1970s by bucking expectations: she'd steadfastly avoided the music of her father, who died of cancer in 1965 when Natalie was 15, following a phenomenal pop and jazz career charting over 100 songs, creating enduring standards and breaking color barriers in performing venues and on television.

Instead, Natalie shrewdly focused on contemporary pop, rock and R&B music, scoring the hit "This Will Be" in 1975 and going on to amass more top-selling albums and collecting several Grammy Awards over the years. But by 1991, after her highly publicized struggles with drug addiction, Cole's heat had cooled; at age 41 she was looking to explore new creative ground by revisiting his father's classic music catalog.

"There might have been a little bit of, 'The pop thing is getting a little hard for me, so maybe I'll try this,' but I think it was honestly just a true love of this music that brought her to this point at that time," says Foster, who would soon find himself marveling at just how suited to the material she was.

In his earlier days as a songwriter, session musician and emerging producer, Foster and Natalie had "hung out in the same group," ("Natalie was one of those people that always loved being around musicians," he notes) but they began collaborating on Unforgettable…With Love, even he was not prepared for her mastery of music from The Great American Songbook.

"I didn't know the depth of how well she could do the material until we started recording," he recalls. "From a very young age, Natalie was around that kind of music her whole life, so even though, to her credit, she could be such a great pop singer, what she really lived and breathed was her father's music, because that's what she was around all the time. It was really a natural progression."

Natalie Cole 1991
Natalie Cole. EJ Camp

Foster remembers divvying up 22 of Nat "King" Cole's standards among his fellow producers, Tommy LiPuma (Natalie's husband at the time) and Andre Fischer, spreading the songs out on a table over lunch, with each picking the ones they felt an affinity for. Along with classics like "Mona Lisa," Foster couldn't resist "Unforgettable," the tune most associated with Cole since charting with it in 1951. "I was like, 'Oh, man. I love that song — I want to do that," says Foster.

As recording sessions got underway, Foster says Natalie casually dropped an inspired notion. "She said, 'By the way, I want to do 'Unforgettable' as a duet with my father,'" he recalls. "I didn't pick it because it was going to be a duet – I picked it because I love the song, which helped me be the right producer for it. When she told me that it was like, 'How's that going to work?'"

Foster took up the challenge: technology had only just emerged that would allow an upgrade of Nat's original recording, and then add it into the faithfully recreated orchestral arrangement backing Natalie's vocal for a back-and-forth exchange. "There was a lot of trickery involved…but we did our best," says Foster. "He sings, then she sings, then she answers him, then they sing together. But the real magic, something that I came up with, was I figured out a way to have him answer her. And it doesn't sound like much now, but 30 years ago it was really hard to accomplish!"

Foster quickly recognized that they'd created something special. "I started playing the cassette of a rough mix for a bunch of people that were over for dinner, and they were literally spellbound," he says. "These people were standing around my car – the only place you could play at cassette – and their mouths were hanging open. It was like, 'What is this? I've never heard anything like this before.'"

But the most significant reaction, says Foster, was that of Natalie and her mother, Nat's widow Maria, when he played the near-finished song for them in studio for the first time. "That moment when they were both listening, it was great," he says. "Their eyes were closed. The moment when Nat answered Natalie, they both started crying. It was as though he was right over her shoulders."

Even then, Natalie and her collaborations had no expectation that the album would become an international chart-topper and win 1992 Grammys for Album of the Year and Best Engineered – Non-Classical among other honors, while the "Unforgettable" duet won four additional Grammys: record of the year, traditional pop vocal performance, song of the year and arrangement accompanying vocals. It would also provide a welcome change of career course for Natalie Cole.

"That could have been a top 10 pop hit was not even anything we were thinking — we truly did it for the love of the music," says Foster. "We obviously were thrilled beyond belief. I was happy for her, because she had come out a fairly tough period in her life, which I don't think is any secret."

"To have this, she was energized, she was happy, she was thrilled," he adds. "It gave her a 25-year direction: otherwise, she would've been doing the pop tour, and she wouldn't have been playing with symphonies and doing orchestra concerts all over the world. It really gave her completely new life in the most organic way."

Foster would continue to periodically reunite with Natalie, producing various albums and appearing together for performances at various concerts, events and charity functions. Throughout it all, their friendship flourished as much as their creative partnership, until her death at age 65 on Dec. 31, 2015, the result of a long series of kidney problems after she contracted hepatitis C, which she attributed to her history of intravenous drug use.

"We were close. We were really close," he says. "Her very last gig was with me — we did a show in the Hamptons together and from there, she went into the hospital, and sadly never came out."

Today, with Craft Recordings releasing a newly remastered 30th-anniversary edition of Unforgettable…With Love — now certified platinum seven times over — with liner notes by Foster, his warm memories of Natalie linger.

"The biggest thing she was for me was honest: always busting my balls about if I was doing something wrong, if I was dating the wrong woman, getting married when I shouldn't be," he says. "She was always busting me on that kind of stuff, and I was doing that to her, too… We had a real sort of brother/sister relationship. I can honestly say that she was a really good friend to me, and you can't say that about everybody you work with."

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