Farewell, Natalie: A Look Back at an Unforgettable Life

Photo by Stefan M. Prager/Redferns via Getty Images
ESSENCE pays tribute to the great Natalie Cole.

“Natalie Cole, Dead at 65” 

Seeing those five words displayed across the computer screen last Friday was quite jarring, especially on the first morning of this new year. She’d passed away the day before. But while those five words are technically true, what’s also true, and what we must remember, is that her timeless music will always live on. And thankfully so. That’s the power of legacy and Natalie Cole was—is—a legend, in every way.  

In 1977, when Don Cornelius introduced her to the Soul Train audience before her performance of I’ve Got Love On My Mind, he kept it real, and simple. “Our next guest is probably the most important talent discovery of the decade,” he began, “and as the old saying goes, she got it honest. Let’s welcome not only the daughter of the immortal, Nat King Cole, but in her own right, an incredible talent…Ms. Natalie Cole.”

Following her first chart topper, 1975’s This Will Be, the hits just kept coming—from "Our Love," "Sophisticated Lady" and "La Costa" to "I Can’t Say No," "Pink Cadillac" and "I Miss You Like Crazy," among the many. Along the way, she won nine Grammys, sold millions of records and earned a devoted fan base that defied demographics. She was beloved for her talent, of course, and while it seemed as though she’d been born into such a charmed life, it wasn’t always so easy for her.

Natalie Cole's Life in Pictures

Astounding success was coupled with incredible darkness in the form of addiction, which she remained honest about in the years following her successful rehab stay in 1983. She also detailed her many struggles in the best-selling memoirs Angel on My Shoulder and Love Brought Me Back: A Journey of Loss and Gain, the former being the basis for the Lifetime biopic, "Livin for Love: The Natalie Cole Story." Actress Theresa Randle portrayed Cole as a young woman, while Cole, herself, narrated the story and slipped into the role at the end. In addition to the very sad times she endured along her journey — including her father’s death, just nine days after her 15th birthday, her spiral into drugs and the breakdown of three marriages — there were triumphs, too. Cole, who is survived by her son and two sisters, always triumphed and fought her way back to music and to herself.

The pinnacle of her recording career came in 1991 with the release of "Unforgettable…with Love," a tribute album dedicated to her father. For the updated version of the title track, which he originally recorded in the early 50s, the father-daughter duo’s voices were merged and the ever-touching video featured footage from the family’s home movies. The album sold over 14 million copies and scored six Grammys, including the coveted award for Album of the Year. “I didn’t shed really any real tears until the album was over,” she once said of the experience. “Then I cried a whole lot. When we started the project, it was a way of reconnecting with my dad. Then when we did the last song, I had to say goodbye again.”

She had such a lush voice and could sing any kind of song, but what endeared her to so many people was the fact that she continued to stand up no matter how long, or how far down, she’d fallen. In 2008, she was diagnosed with hepatitis C and spoke openly about how the disease, which had been dormant in her system for over two decades, was linked to her past intravenous drug use. She fought the good fight to survive and after undergoing treatment, her kidneys began to fail. What followed was three-times-a-week dialysis and in 2009, she had a kidney transplant. Even as she battled serious health issues, she continued to record and perform for audiences around the world. Her final album, "Natalie Cole en Español," was released in 2013 and garnered her three Latin Grammy nominations.

One thing that’s certain about Natalie Cole is that she will not be forgotten. She left us with beautiful music to cherish and also, a few life lessons to ponder. “I think that I am a walking testimony that you can have scars," she told CBS Sunday Morning in 2006. "You can go through turbulent times and still have victory in your life."

Thank you for your contributions, Ms. Natalie. Rest easy…

— Regina R. Robertson

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