Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Gone Too Soon

Around lunchtime on New Year's Day, I hit the "Publish" button on my post that looked back at influential people who died in 2015. In it, I noted that Wayne Rogers had been claimed by pneumonia on the year's final day.

Little did I know that news was about to break that Natalie Cole had also passed away on the year's final day.

Although she deserves her own post and own recognition, it is impossible to mention her without mentioning her father -- and the good news is that I think she would like it that way.

They both died before their time, he at 45 and she at 65, yet they left such deep footprints in American culture that they will never be forgotten. Both of them had perfect timing and overflowing talent, both of them impacted several genres of music -- and most importantly, they both transcended race without sacrificing one bit of their true selves.

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Nathaniel Adams Cole was born in Alabama one year after the end of World War I and started becoming nationally known during the World War II era. If you've noticed that some writers refer to him as Nat King Cole and others simply as Nat Cole, you might be interested to learn that the word choice usually reflects the writer's perception not just of Cole, but of himself.

The majority of people think of him as the mild-mannered crooner whose silky baritone wove tunes like "Too Young" and "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" into the American songbook. There is nothing phony about that image, and the people who hold to it always refer to him as Nat King Cole; however, many of them forget (if they ever knew) that he was a superb jazzman who ranked as one of the best swing pianists of the twentieth century.

Conversely, people who pay homage to the jazzy Cole tend not to use his royal sobriquet when they refer to him, presumably because they consider it too "commercial." As far as I'm concerned, they need to dial back their elitism and be reminded that Edward Ellington went by "Duke" and William Basie went by "Count."

Although Cole performed with a big band and came of age in a time when big bands ruled, he put his shoulder against the tide by making the jazz trio his forte. Specifically, he championed and pulled off an unconventional threesome of instruments that consisted only of a piano, guitar, and bass. Cole always played the piano while the latter instruments were usually played by Oscar Moore and Wesley Prince, respectively.

When he began performing more as a crooner and appealing to whiter wider audiences, he often recorded with a lush string section. Far from being some kind of betrayal of his background, his use of strings was but a faint echo of his diverse tastes and deep schooling. In Cole's own words, his study of the great composers of European classical music ranged "from Johann Sebastian Bach to Sergei Rachmaninoff," and in that regard he was similar to Miles Davis.

While doing all this, Cole had scuffles with bigotry and he effectively faced it down, which makes it odd that he is seldom mentioned when people talk about the Civil Right Movement... When he purchased a house in LA's prestigious Hancock Park neighborhood, the property owner's association approached him and said it did not want any "undesirables" moving in. He responded by saying "if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I'll be the first to complain"... While performing a concert in Birmingham, AL, less than 100 miles from where he was born, three members of a KKK faction rushed the stage in an attempt to kidnap him. He responded by never again performing a concert anywhere in the entire South.

Nat King Cole died of lung cancer in February 1965, nine days after his daughter Natalie's fifteenth birthday. She would later tell the Wall Street Journal that his death "crushed me. Dad had been everything to me."

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Natalie Cole's musical rearing was, like her father's, a rearing steeped in diversity.

She soaked up her dad's stylings, learned from her mother (who had sung with the Duke Ellington Orchestra), and was raised personally knowing Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, and many other luminaries. When Natalie reached adulthood and sought a record deal, pretty much every label was happy to listen to her self-recorded works -- given her name, they surely had dollar signs swimming in their eyes -- but when their listening was done, every label except one turned her down after realizing that she was also strongly influenced by the likes of addled rocker Janis Joplin and aggressive soulster Aretha Franklin.

The only label willing to sign her was Capitol Records, which probably shouldn't be a surprise. Nat King Cole had recorded for it and earned it a fortune, and its higher-ups knew enough about the relationship between cart and horse that they still referred to Capitol's distinctive Hollywood office tower as "The House That Nat Built." So, it made sense that they refused to turn down his talented daughter even when he was no longer around to advocate for her.

Once under contract with Capitol, Natalie Cole hit the ground running. Her debut album, Inseparable, was released in 1975; went to #1 on Billboard's soul chart; generated a pair of hit songs; and resulted in her winning Grammys for Best New Artist and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance (for the single "This Will Be").

Recording and performing at a dizzying pace, she released three more albums in a span of 19 months between April 1976 and November 1977, followed by a live album in 1978 and new studio albums in 1979, 1980, and 1981. Throughout that period she collected five more Grammy nominations, another Grammy win, and was awarded a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame one day shy of her 29th birthday.

But burning the candle at both ends while being besieged by personal demons often takes a big toll, and Natalie's struggles with drug addiction -- which had been foreshadowed by her 1975 arrest in Toronto for heroin possession -- spun out of control in the early 1980's. Hooked not "only" on heroin but also on coke and booze, she largely shrank from the public eye and checked herself into a rehab facility in 1983, remaining there for six months.

Her first album after overcoming her addiction, 1985's Dangerous, had low sales and none of its singles received much play on the radio. Then, her trajectory started to rise again with 1987's Everlasting, which was her first album with Capitol Records since 1981; it spawned a top ten single with her infectiously dancy cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac."

In 1991 Natalie released the album Unforgettable...With Love, in which she lent her smooth crystalline voice to standards previously recorded by her father. Its pinnacle was the creative rendering of Nat's signature tune, "Unforgettable," with verses of his voice from his 1951 recording dubbed around her contemporary singing, thus creating a touching duet with the deceased.

Unforgettable...With Love went platinum seven times over, won six Grammys, and cemented Natalie's return to the music scene as a force to be reckoned with. It also increased young people's knowledge of Nat, since many of them previously knew him only as a dead guy who had sung about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

In the years following it, Natalie released ten more albums, won three more Grammys, was nominated for yet another four Grammys, and toured extensively. Proof of her versatility can be found in the fact that she won vocal Grammys in three different categories: R&B, jazz, and pop.

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Natalie Cole's death last week caught me by surprise.

I knew she had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 2008. I knew that she suspected she had contracted it decades before when she was on drugs, and that she suspected the infection had just been lying low during the intervening years.

But I also knew that lots of people with Hepatitis C get along well, and I knew she had been quite active since her diagnosis.

What I did not realize is that her kidneys had been faltering for a long time and were in such bad shape that she had been undergoing dialysis while on tour. Those issues did not lack for publicity -- in fact, publicity about them resulted in her getting a transplant when a donor family specifically requested that she receive the kidney of their deceased loved one -- but somehow, inexplicably, those news stories slipped by my radar without me seeing them.

Looking back, I am thinking of March 27, 1999, the day Erika and I got married. At my request, the DJ played "Unforgettable" towards the end of our reception. It was the Nat-only version from 48 years earlier, and the dance floor filled with all generations when it came on. Erika and I danced to it and were in our late twenties. Ten or fifteen feet away, my Great Uncle Tom and Great Aunt Helen danced to it and were in their sixties (though, now that I'm thinking about it, that vivacious cradle-robbing Helen might have already burst into her seventies by then!).

But the bottom line is this: That song is universal and timeless in the way it speaks to the human heart, and were it not for the Coles, father and daughter alike, it might never have become or remained popular.

I did not need the duet version of "Unforgettable" to make me aware of the song, and I'd like to believe that I would have thought to include it in our wedding repertoire even if Natalie hadn't recorded it; but if I'm being honest with myself, I know I probably would not have. And, I know without a doubt that our reception was elevated by virtue of "Unforgettable" being played.

So, Natalie, I thank you and pray that you rest in peace.

And you too, Nat. You and her both uplifted American culture, and without you there would have been no her.

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