“I was just ready.”
In 1991, after more than 15 years in the music industry, Natalie Cole dug into her roots and found the biggest success of her career. The one thing Natalie Cole avoided early on in her career was her father’s music, she was determined to be her own musician. She achieved that, and emerged in 1991 with a 22-song album dedicated to her father: Unforgettable… With Love.
The mid-1970’s were Natalie’s coming out party as a musician. She was a force to be reckoned with in R&B, a far cry from the jazz & pop standards her father championed in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Her success positioned her as vying for the crown against the biggest female names in R&B at the time: Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. Fueling her ascent, she famously ended Aretha’s undefeated 8-year winning streak of Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance with “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love),” her now-signature song.
Natalie continued to shine until addiction reared its ugly head and sidetracked her throughout much of the 1980’s. Less-than-stellar musical pairings also did not help keep her career on track. Albums such as Dangerous and I’m Ready, have some quality material, but failed to ignite a lasting spark. 1987’s Everlasting found Natalie returning to the charts thanks to a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac,” but when 1991 rolled around, Natalie’s career would change forever.
“(I)t took 15 years into my career before I felt comfortable and confident enough to even attempt at singing my father’s music” she would later say. Much of the album was recorded at Capitol Records studios in Los Angeles, where her father recorded many of his own hits. It was clearly the magic touch. “I felt my father everywhere” she told Ebony Magazine in 1991 of the recording sessions.
The album is nothing short of a masterwork and a testament to the talent gene being passed from parent to child. While Nat’s voice is unmistakable and inimitable, Natalie’s holds a certain tonal quality that recalls her father. Not only is the album powerful, it’s dense, clocking in at an impressive 22 songs. Recording the album however, presented a few challenges.
First off, there were the label issues. Her label at the time, EMI was scared shitless to let her go off on what they considered a musical tangent. They felt that going so far left would alienate her audience and destroy her career. Suffice it to say they ate their words when Natalie struck a deal with Elektra Records and went full-steam ahead turning her tribute to her father into a reality.
Second, there were the vocal challenges. As Natalie said in 1991, she had to “throw out every R&B lick that I had ever learned and every pop trick I had ever learned. With him, the music was in the background and the voice was in the front.” It is an impressive feat for her to seemingly transition from R&B/pop to the much more challenging techniques and accuracies required in a jazz/pop/standards world of music.
Many of these songs are, for all intensive purposes, Nat’s songs. He sang them first, and he made them the hits they continue to be. Natalie’s renditions and arrangements are more than quality, but Nat’s versions remain superior. Those include “Nature Boy,” “Smile,” and “Mona Lisa.” “L-O-V-E” however, is a par for the course example of Natalie delivering a performance memorable enough to challenge her father’s. “Paper Moon” and “Lush Life” also fall into this category.
Interestingly, there are songs where Natalie outshines her father’s originals, most notably “Orange Colored Sky.” The arrangement she bestows, combined with her spot-on rapid delivery of the lines “’Cause the ceiling fell in, and the bottom fell out, I went into a spin, and I started to shout, “I’ve been hit, this is it, this is it!” upstage Nat’s original vocal performance. Not only that, but her delivery recalls the climactic “Hugging and squeezing, and kissing and pleasing, Together forever throughever whatever” & “So long as I’m living, true love I’ll be giving, To you I’ll be serving, cause you’re so deserving” from “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)”.
The crowning jewel of course, is the title track and album closer “Unforgettable.” It created a revolution in the recording industry, pairing Natalie with her late father, for a chilling, incredible performance. It was a transcendent experience for all involved. As producer David Foster recalled, “the orchestra… could barely play… they were gasping when his voice came in and hearing her sing. It was almost like he was alive again.”
To call the success of Unforgettable… With Love ‘massive’, would be an understatement. The album became Natalie’s first number one record within a few weeks of being released. The single “Unforgettable” shot from number 78 to peak at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in a single week. As Natalie said at the time, “It’s absolutely shocking to see it between Van Halen and Skid Row on the charts, totally out of its element.” The album went on to be certified 7 times Platinum, the single “Unforgettable” Gold, and the video for “Unforgettable” Platinum. It also landed at number 47 on the Billboard 200’s End of Decade Album Chart.
At the Grammy Awards in 1992, the album swept. Including David Foster’s win as Producer of the Year, Non-Classical Unforgettable… With Love walked away with 7 Grammy Awards. It also achieved the rare feat of winning Album, Record, and Song of the Year. The Song Of The Year win was so controversial (due to the song being written 40 years prior) that the rules were changed for the following year.
As a result of the massive success of Unforgettable… With Love, Natalie continued to drift towards the Great American Songbook. She released two more albums in its vein along with two Christmas albums. Her return to R&B and pop came with 1999’s magical Snowfall On The Sahara. Another few albums passed through a variety of musical styles, although her final two releases both returned to focus on her father.
2008’s Still Unforgettable was billed as the official sequel to the 1991 album. Her final album, 2013’s Natalie Cole En Español paid homage to her father’s catalog of Spanish music. Both contain a new duet with her father, and their pairings have never tired on listener’s ears. Her death earlier this year was a tragic loss to the music world, but like her father, she will remain ‘unforgettable.’
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