Before she was known as an Unforgettable jazz diva and took to starring in duet standards with her famous Pops, Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole was a bonafide, gut-bucket soul singer. When she was first introduced as a singer in her own right in 1975 with Inseparable, one heard the jazz influences of her father but also the belting gospel inspiration of her self-professed singing model, Aretha Franklin. Four albums deep, by the time 1977’s Thankful was released, Cole had settled nicely into her own unique voice, one neatly sitting at the apex of jazz, gospel, and ol’ fashioned soul sangin’.
Before she was known as an Unforgettable jazz diva and took to starring in duet standards with her famous Pops, Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole was a bonafide, gut-bucket soul singer. When she was first introduced as a singer in her own right in 1975 with Inseparable, one heard the jazz influences of her father but also the belting gospel inspiration of her self-professed singing model, Aretha Franklin. Four albums deep, by the time 1977’s Thankful was released, Cole had settled nicely into her own unique voice, one neatly sitting at the apex of jazz, gospel, and ol’ fashioned soul sangin’. Arguably one of the most comprehensive albums in Cole’s run of strong back-to-back hit-making projects, Thankful, with its then pioneering soul/jazz/gospel blend, may also go down as more than just one of the classic albums in the American songbook, but also one of the early successes in hybrid, genre-mixing “soul” music.
Natalie Cole was on fire in 1977. Unpredictable released earlier that year resulted in a platinum album, a gold single in “I’ve Got Love On My Mind” and a sold-out international concert tour. Pregnant by her hubby collaborator, Marvin Yancy, Cole and her label, Capitol Records, agreed to get another album in the can and out to her fans so that Natalie and her husband could take 1978 off to be with their newborn, without missing a beat career-wise. Throughout these recordings, Cole’s voice was effortlessly strong from recent touring and filled with the warmth that enriches and colors female singers’ tones when pregnant. The commercial results of the Billboard Top 5 R&B and Top 10 Pop Thankful were undeniable, with the million-selling “Our Love” becoming a #1 R&B hit. Several other tracks enjoyed -- and still enjoy -- high rotation radio play, including: “Be Thankful,” “Just Can’t Stay Away,” and the album zenith, “La Costa.” The album’s success also led to Natalie Cole receiving her first television special, The Natalie Cole Show, another fan hit.
Artistically, the album is a landmark in its expansion of the amount of cross-genre music passed off as simply soul, elbowing the definitions of what was considered traditional R&B. The sounds of “Lovers” and “La Costa” are far from what was being done by Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, or Stevie Wonder or their many imitators at the time; not better per se, but certainly different. For instance, the opener, “Lovers,” is a return to the Savoy Ballroom with Cab Calloway flavors and Duke Ellington swing. The cut begins with a brassy-voiced intro that would have been right at home in front of the floodlights of Black Broadway in shows like Bubbling Brown Sugar and Ain’t Misbehavin’. “Lovers” slides into a boogie woogie rap before vamping out in an Ella-worthy scat. “Our Love” also undergoes several rare transitions over its four and a quarter minute running time. Creating something melodically different than any of the ballads of the day, co-writers, arrangers, and producers Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy daringly mash-up lush, classical orchestrations with R&B crooning and a rambling bassline that keeps one foot in the streets and one at the symphony. Switching gears, “Keeping a Light” is a gauzy pop confection with a rather old fashioned “he’s bad for me, but I love him still” message; its cooing delivery given some soulful gravitas by a sweetheart call and response that is pure ‘60s girl group doo wop.
Jackson and Yancy’s work with Cole consistently ensures there are other fine musical marriages of distant cousins, even on songs they didn’t write, like Cole and Linda Williams’ “La Costa.” The island breezes and sunrise sounds of “La Costa” unfold to dramatic keys, shimmering strings, discreet percussions, oddly peppy horns, and a scatting doo wop that know no Caribbean origins but nevertheless feel authentically tropical. Williams’ and Cole’s lyrics are an invitation to paradise but the production is its own oasis destination, briefly whisking listeners away to white sands and wrapping them up in its warm amber glow.
There is traditional blues and gospel soul on Thankful. You can’t get more church than “Just Can’t Stay Away,” a song contemporary audiences will know from EnVogue’s legendary cover on their debut project. The blues ballad is all piano and layered harmonies with a melody line that could have been plucked straight from a Pentecostal hymn book. The song’s build takes the church to the juke joint with splashy backgrounds, a seductive trumpet, and a pathos-pumped vamp out of a woman trapped in a bad love. Co-producer Gene Barge’s alto sax co-signs Cole’s testimony, bringing a drunken cry to the song’s pews. Only the atmospheric “Nothing Stronger than Love” with organist Sonny Burke gets more indigo in its dirge blues.
If “Just Can’t Stay Away” is church, then “Annie Mae” and “Be Thankful” takes it to the dance floor. The harp-accented, guitar-driven rhythm section on the disco-light single, “Annie Mae,” definitely delivers its cautionary tale of a good girl gone wrong with plenty of churchy gusto. “Be Thankful” continues the moralizing of “Annie Mae” and broadens it with a funky jam that begs for its own Soul Train line. Like all the songs on this and most of her ‘70s projects, both songs highlight Natalie Cole showing off on backgrounds as the credited “Colettes” and “N Sisters” and sounding like a full choir all by herself (though Yasmine “Sissy” Peoples and Anita Anderson also do some heavy lifting on “Just Can’t Stay Away”).
Thankful is considered by some fans and critics to be an unmatched pinnacle of three artists at the height of their powers, with Jackson, Yancy, and Cole operating on all cylinders—before the drugs, divorces, and premature deaths. Guest turns by future guitar superstars in their own right, Ray Parker Jr. and Lee Ritenour, and organist/composer virtuoso, Reginald “Sonny” Burke, only brighten the bow on this gift wrap. All of this talent coming together and challenging one another to birth something new to American music under the auspices and traditions of soul is truly a gift for all of us and future generations of hybrid musicians to be Thankful for. Highly recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson