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In the realm of the female artists who first began recording in the 70s, few had the kind of impact that Natalie Cole did. While her pedigree - as the daughter of the legendary Nat King Cole - certainly didn't hurt in gaining the immediate attention of the media and the public alike, Natalie quickly established herself as very much her own singer, more akin in style to Aretha Franklin rather than artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington who were her father's musical contemporaries. Ironically, as her career has progressed, Natalie herself has developed more as an interpretative song stylist leaning more towards the classic work of Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and, of course, her own father as a source for material to record, distinct from her role as a purveyor of gospel-tinged emotive pop-flavored soul music that formed the basis for her â€˜70s work for Capitol Records.
Surprisingly, the Los Angeles-born entertainer did not plan a career in music in spite of a family environment that would have made it a natural choice early on. Although she did sing with her father on a 1956 Capitol recording ("I'm Good Will, You're Christmas Spirit") at the tender age of six and appeared on television with her father on a couple of occasions, Natalie had determined by her late teens that she would pursue other interests. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1972 with a B.A. in child psychology and had it not been for some performing during her summer break at college, Natalie's life might have taken another direction.
Her increasing confidence in her own vocal ability prompted Natalie to begin performing on a regular basis but her initial experiences were sometimes less-than-inspiring: club owners would often emphasis the family â€˜connection', even promoting her simply as â€˜the daughter of Nat King Cole' without even stating her name. Eager to create her own identity, Natalie geared her stage performance towards material with a decidedly R&B â€˜feel' and it was after appearing on a show in New Jersey with soul man Jerry Butler that Natalie got to meet two men who would definitively change her career path.
Both raised to sing in church from an early age, Marvin Yancy and Chuck Jackson had been friends and musical associates in Chicago for a few years prior to meeting Natalie. The pair had formed the creative nucleus of a vocal group known as The Independents who scored R&B hits in 1972 and 1973 for Wand Records. Jackson (no relation to the renowned '60s soul singer of 'Any Day Now' fame) and Yancy - an ordained minister - were also part of Butler's Windy City-based songwriting workshop and after Butler met Natalie, he suggested the duo might have some material for her. According to her account in the first of many interviews we have done over the years, the burgeoning producer/songwriters saw Natalie perform at a club called Mr. Kelly's in Chicago and then got together with her in October 1974 in New York. The first song the trio tried was "You" which would become a key cut on Natalie's Capitol debut and would later be the title track for a 1976 Aretha Franklin album, ironic only because Jackson and Yancy had supposedly originally written several songs that Natalie recorded with 'The Queen Of Soul' in mind; in Franklin's own autobiography, she notes that the team presented her with tunes like "I've Got Love On My Mind" and "This Will Be" that would be among Natalie's biggest hits.
Indeed, when released in July 1975, "This Will Be" became an instant smash, rising to the top of the R&B charts and reaching No. 6 on the pop charts. The buzz was out about Natalie's debut album for Capitol Records and in another touch of irony, Capitol would be her recording home as it had been for her late father who had made some 25 albums for the label from 1943 until his untimely passing in 1965. As Natalie stated in her own autobiography (the 2000 Warner Brothers publication "Angel On My Shoulder"), a demo tape financed by then-manager Kevin Hunter featuring songs written and produced by Jackson & Yancy had made the rounds to companies like Columbia, RCA and Motown but it was Capitol - and specifically executive Larkin Arnold, who had formed the first black music department at a major label - who heard the potential in Natalie's demo and gave the green light for the team to complete an album.
Disc jockeys and press alike were excited about "Inseparable" which had critics raving: Natalie's soulful vocalizing drew immediate comparisons with Aretha even though she herself would downplay the notion that Franklin was her main musical influence. In a November 1975 interview with Britain's "Blues & Soul" magazine, she responded, "...I would never dream of trying to sound like...Aretha or anyone. I sing the way that comes naturally to me. It's interesting though with Aretha because her life-style roots are in gospel whereas I've never been involved in gospel at any stage in my life..."
While media pundits were quick to proclaim Natalie's emergence as the â€˜new' soul queen, the record-buying public was simply enjoying the freshness and energy Natalie exuded on "Inseparable": the album - with standout cuts like the emotive "I Can't Say No" and the jazzy "Joey" - went gold while the classic title track was issued as a single in December 1975 and matched its predecessor in topping the R&B charts.
Even before Capitol could release Natalie's much-anticipated sophomore set in May 1976, she had walked away with two prestigious Grammy Awards, one as "Best New Artist" and one for "Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female" for "This Will Be," breaking a run by - who else - Aretha Franklin who had the category locked down for some nine years. Intent on demonstrating that she was no â€˜one hit album' wonder, the team of Jackson, Yancy and Cole ensured that her second album was as strong as her first. By the time the first single from "Natalie," the perky, 1976-Grammy winner "Sophisticated Lady" had topped the R&B charts in the summer of '76, Natalie had become Mrs. Yancy and as she noted in her autobiography, "You can hear the love in those first few albums. He and I truly did make beautiful music together..."
"Mr. Melody" became the second hit single from Natalie's second set which included the haunting "No Plans For The Future" and a version of the Billie Holiday classic, "Good Morning Heartache"; years later, Natalie would admit that her own problems with drug addiction would give her interpretation of the song special meaning. At the time, only those closest to Natalie knew of the personal battle she was waging: to the public, she was a new artist would just kept better with each new album. Proof positive came with "Unpredictable" which surpassed the sales of Natalie's first two albums, reaching platinum status, thanks in part to the runaway success of the gold single, "I've Got Love On My Mind" which would earn the distinction of being her biggest pop hit during her six years with Capitol. For the first time, Natalie exercised her own creative muscle by penning "Your Eyes" and "Peaceful Living," two of the best songs on "Unpredictable," an album that also included the heart-wrenching "I'm Catching Hell," acknowledged as a true classic among Cole aficionados, and "Party Lights," an uptempo cut that seemed a perfect fit for the dominant disco fever of the late 70s.
1977 would prove to be a banner year for the singer: acknowledging that she was clearly one of their most consistent sales winners, Capitol released the follow-up to "Unpredictable" just nine months later and "Thankful" achieved similar success, selling a million-plus copies and earning Natalie her second platinum record. In a February 1978 interview, she told "Blues & Soul" editor John Abbey that the album was the first of her four LPs to be recorded outside of Chicago: "It was really a dream of mine that we should record in L.A." She added, "The past three albums have had a kind of set pattern as far as the songs were concerned. But this time, there isn't a song in the vein of "Sophisticated Lady" and nor is there a "Joey" type song..."
What there was was another massive hit in the form of "Our Love," a gold single and No. 1 R&B and top 10 pop hit that has remained a staple in the Cole repertoire since 1977. Aside from the upbeat title cut, "Thankful" boasted the funky Cole-penned "Annie Mae"(inspired by a conversation with her then-housekeeper) and another Cole composition "La Costa," a smooth jazz standout (about a Southern California resort) written with Natalie's keyboard player and conductor Linda Williams that has long been considered a favorite among Natalie's many fans from the 70s.
Before the "Thankful" LP hit the streets, the singer had added one more significant accomplishment to a growing list of achievements: she gave birth to a son, Robert, on October 14, 1977; amazingly, just a few months before, Natalie had been giving a rousing performance at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles and songs from her shows at the venue along with a stint at New Jersey's Latin Casino would provide the basis for the July 1978 release "Natalie...Live!"
The album captured the exciting energy and vocal power that had become trademarks of Natalie's onstage performances. The sheer emotional exuberance in her vocal delivery was never more evident than on three cover tunes that were among the highlights of what would become a gold album. "Something's Gotta Hold On Me" had been a showstopper for R&B belter Etta James and Natalie sang it as if it were a stompin' gospel number; in her hands, The Beatles' "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" became another sanctified church shouter; while Doris Day's "Que Sera Sera" (revived by Sly & The Family Stone in 1973) became a call-and-response opus that would might have worked as well in husband Reverend Marvin Yancy's Chicago church as it did at a crowded Los Angeles theater!
Natalie was back in the studio within months of the release of the live album to cut what would be her last gold album for Capitol. "I Love You So" had one bonafide hit single, Natalie's own "Stand By"- which like the LP's title track - was an obvious disco-oriented cut; "Your Lonely Heart," which Natalie had also written, had a country-like flavor to it; while "Sorry" was a plaintive cut that had a personal ring to it.
It would be over a year before Capitol would release a brand new Natalie Cole album: at the end of 1979, eight months after "I Love You So," the label issued "We're The Best Of Friends," pairing their best-selling female star with soul man Peabo Bryson, who had quickly become the label's top black male vocalist thanks to a series of best-selling albums and singles that began after he signed with the company in 1977. There were a couple of chart singles released from the album but the duo did not tour together to promote the album and rumors suggested that the sessions had been less than easy due in part to Natalie's behavior, directly the result of her increased dependency on drugs.
Capitol released the album "Don't Look Back" in the summer of 1980 and it became the first Cole studio record bereft of a Top 10 R&B hit single. At the time she cut the album, Natalie's personal life was in turmoil: her relationship with husband Yancy was on the ropes even though he worked on "Don't Look Back" (without Chuck Jackson but instead with arranger Gene Barge who had worked on all of Natalie's previous recordings). The album's only hit - a Top 30 pop and R&B single - was a non-Yancy/Barge production, the pop-flavored "Someone That I Used To Love," produced by Michael Masser who had co-written the song with Gerry Goffin (of â€˜60s Goffin & King fame). "Hold On" was a decent soul-flavored cut and Natalie's version of "Stairway To The Stars" (a song associated with Ella Fitzgerald which the singer dedicated to her mother Maria) was the first and only out-and-out jazz tune she cut during her Capitol years. It was a harbinger of things to come a decade or so later when she would record many of the jazz standards that she had heard during her early years growing up in the Cole household in Los Angeles.
Natalie's final album for Capitol was the only album she did not cut with Marvin Yancy. The couple had divorced at the end of 1980 and it was left to producer George Tobin (who would later work with Smokey Robinson) to try and continue the magic that had made Natalie the kind of major hitmaker who could boast a coveted star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. "Happy Love" never quite hit the mark even though there were a couple of worthy cuts such as "Nothin' But A Fool" and "You Were Right Girl," both of which were issued as singles. One song, "Sounds Of A Happy Love" was likely the basis for the album's final title but it never made the final cut and remained unreleased until this 2-CD was compiled.
From 1981 to 1983, Natalie Cole's life underwent dramatic change: she dealt with the drug addiction that had contributed to the downturn in her recording career and by the summer of '83, she was back on the charts. Four years later, she was enjoying renewed success with hits like "Pink Cadillac" and "Jump Start" and by the beginning of the â€˜90s - with the release of the multi-Grammy-winning, multi-platinum international best-selling "Unforgettable" - Natalie had reached a new level of worldwide success and acclaim. Her career as a singer and actress has continued to flourish and in 2002, Natalie recorded her first album for Verve/GRP.
Contributed by David Nathan, http://www.soulmusic.com/