A sophisticated soul diva. A regal jazz vocalist. A sugary synthesized pop babe. Natalie Cole was all of these things. She was also a swaggering, strutting, stage stalking frontman extraordinaire. Come now as we explore the rock ‘n’ roll heart of Natalie Cole. “Then she blew my mind”…
Forget the infamous opening anecdote that kicks off Mötley Crüe’s horrifyingly readable bio,The Dirt. The fact is when it comes to awful, absurdist, WTF remembrances, the tale that opens Natalie Cole’s 2000 autobiography Angel On My Shoulder is the indisputable winner. It was February 10, 1981, and Natalie had just finished a performing engagement at the Las Vegas Hilton. She and her six-foot ten-inch ex-NBA-playing bodyguard found themselves confined in her room due to what they assumed was a small but isolated fire down the hall on their floor. There was a bit of smoke seeping under the door but Natalie reasoned, if the fire were a real issue, the front desk would surely call. Besides, they’d just had food delivered and she was hungry. And so they ate.
As they did, the smoke grew thicker, and it became clear something wasn’t right. Natalie rang the front desk and alerted them to what was happening (unsurprisingly, they already knew). She was told not to worry that someone would come to evacuate both of them as soon as possible and just to stay put ’til then. As a means of defense, she and her bodyguard decided to wet themselves down fully clothed in the shower. They then lay down on the floor where “the good air” was and waited for someone to save them.
It was at this moment her protector decided to come clean and confess to Natalie that he’d been in love with her from the moment they’d first met. Their lives were in peril, they were all wet, so what better time to make his move. “We ought to make love here and now because it’s the last chance we’re going to get,” he ominously pleaded to her. Natalie’s first thought was of the “are you freakin’ serious” variety. Still, she went the kind and gentle route, telling him she was flattered but like no, wryly noting in her book, “testosterone should be considered a controlled substance.” Anyway, if this was the end, she wanted to use these final earthly moments to indulge in her favorite activity, namely getting wasted. While her horny roommate looked on in disbelief, she got up, grabbed her cocaine and freebasing paraphernalia, and began the set-up process in earnest while what was now officially an inferno raged. Yes, folks, it is then the fire brigade axed down the door and saved Natalie and her thwarted suitor.
This story features the kind of tragedy (people died in this fire), absurdity (libidinous bodyguard), and disgraceful behavior (Natalie’s) we’ve come to expect from a standard-issue, rule-breaking, rebellious rock star memoir. It’s not the kind of thing you’d expect from a markedly sophisticated, music for grown-up making, private school educated, daughter of a legendary crooner.
But Natalie Cole wasn’t quite who she seemed to be on the surface. She’d been winking and sending covert signals about her true self throughout her career. The thing is, you had to dig a little deeper than what was played on the radio to catch them. And more often than not, you had to be in the right place at the right time.
These signposts came in self-penned deep cuts on her albums, cover songs, and one-off live performances. There was a distinct and specific message hidden within all these scattered bits and pieces. That message was I am Natalie Cole and I am here to f-ing rock.
Don’t be fooled, this girl could rock and roll…
At the time of the incident above, Natalie was already a burgeoning musical superstar who’d scored several Top 40 hits, including effervescent evergreen soul sweethearts “This Will Be” and “I’ve Got Love On My Mind”, as well as a handful of Gold and Platinum albums. She’d already won multiple Grammys, including the fabled and feared “Best New Artist” and had hosted her own network TV special. She was also in the throes of an uncontrollable cocaine addiction - which had come on the heels of a recently ended heroin addiction ( started with snorting, progressed to shooting). To summarize, in the early ’80s, Natalie Cole was a mess.
But she got through it. Natalie entered the Hazelden rehab clinic in 1983 and, after a six-month stay, emerged, according to her account, “fat and afraid but sober” while emphatically stating it was “the best thing I ever did.”
To characterize the Cole career trajectory over the decade that followed as a “rebirth” would be seriously underselling what unfolded. Beginning in 1987, she scored four slick ‘n’ synthy top 20 pop hits, including her perky, slightly subversive if you think about it, a cover of Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” and embraceable cornball ballad “Miss You Like Crazy”. But those confections were mere appetizers for what happened next. In 1991 Natalie released what was to become the best-selling album of her career, a behemoth known as Unforgettable, an album of standards first performed by her late father, legendary crooner Nat King Cole (better known as that CD your Dad was always playing in the car back in the day). The album went to number one, selling over six million copies. The three albums that preceded it in the number one album spot, in order, were by NWA, Skid Row, and Van Halen. The album that followed it was by Metallica. I’m not sure what that says about the state of music back then. Still, holy hell, you’ve gotta love that Natalie in her gorgeous evening gown with her huge orchestra in tow was able to interrupt the chart dominance of the rebellious boys club for roughly an entire month and a half. Take that, you rapscallions.
The irony, of course, is that Natalie Cole was herself a real dyed-in-the-wool rock star who even on her worst night could have blown freakin’ Sammy Hagar or Sebastian Bach off the stage. She was, in fact, a fist-pumping, fire breathing, mike-stand straddling, stage stalking frontman with swag and attitude for days.
There was no actual schedule as far as when rocker Natalie would rear her head. You could sometimes find her hiding in the form of a fiery deep-cut wolf or two among a studio album full of sheep. But she primarily came out in live settings; the stage is where Natalie Cole Rock Star™ did her killing. Whether guesting on an anodyne TV talk show or doing a cameo at a tribute concert, when Natalie was in her rock guise/persona, all previously conceived notions you may have had about her went right out the window. It never failed. She’d walk onstage, wail, flail, destroy the emotional hotel room, then dash away into the mists. I have no doubt there were many “what the hell, I had no idea Natalie Cole could do that” conversations happening after witnessing one of these performances.
Case in point, her ridiculous performance of “Ticket To Ride” at the John Lennon Tribute Concert that was held in Liverpool back in 1990 ( he was her Beatle of choice). While she’d been including a staggering cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” into her live set for years (watch here), this romp through “Ticket” is her finest foray into Beatle-dom. She absolutely, unequivocally crushes it (and looks fierce and fabulous as f*ck while doing it). What she does in the last half alone vaults this version to the top of the massive “Ticket” cover pile. Seriously, it’s one of the best. Check this out…
Yeah, damn. Just think, only a few months after this, she began recording the Unforgettable album. That’s some teenage getting into bed, Mom coming in wishing you goodnight, and you climbing out the window to go party shit in reverse.
Natalie’s rock inclinations were not an affectation. She had credentials y’all. In her college days at UMass Amherst, she’d been the lead singer in a band, backed by four white guys, called Black Magic, whose set consisted of covers by Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, CSNY, and James Taylor. She was a regular at the SF Fillmore who saw and worshipped Janis Joplin (she often referred to her in interviews as “my favorite rock ‘n’ roll singer of all-time”) and Grace Slick. The first demo tape that she presented to the record labels featured not only Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” but Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” (a big fave of hers). During her career, she covered everyone from Joni Mitchell to the man himself, Bob Dylan. And get this, when Bob got word that Natalie wanted to cover his “Gotta Serve Somebody” in 1999, he wrote two new verses to replace the ones in the original he thought might be too specific to him. That’s right, Bob, or “Mr.D,” as she calls him in her first memoir, customized a song for her exclusive usage.
Here is Natalie manifesting, channeling, and testifying in honor of Janis. It is crazy:
As one YouTube commentator so eloquently put it, “she sang the fuck out of that song.”
The most fun you will see Natalie having in any of the countless YouTube clips of her live performances is when she is given the opportunity to rock. She commands the space; she ad-libs, she struts, she just plain works it. Minus the satin evening wear and regal surroundings, Natalie morphs into a completely different performer. When she’s got the pants on, she freakin’ means business.
As far as her studio recordings, you have to do a little digging to find the rock ‘n’ Cole (sorry, still you knew I was gonna do that at some point). While there are some excellent covers, including an especially fine and moody version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Daddy” (listen here), the two best rock-flavored tracks in the discography were written by Natalie herself. They are both straight-up old-school FM radio chestnuts and coincidentally come from the same damn album, 1980’s Don’t Look Back.
The nearly six-and-a-half-minute-long “Danger Up Ahead” sits somewhere between late ’70s era Toto and the Eagles around their 1979 album The Long Run. It is a slickly melodic, epic piece of rock candy with an awesomely idiosyncratic vocal from Natalie full of hot sass and attitude. She stretches notes, quirks up pronunciations, and closes things out with some show-off shredding in the coda. Listen to how much fun she is having singing this thing; it positively brims with joy.
Then there is the delicate power ballad “Beautiful Dreamer” a fantastical blueprint of what it might’ve sounded like had Natalie been asked to join Heart as a third member back in the day. It’s plush and memorable, kinda like if “Dog & Butterfly” and “These Dreams” had each been melted down then gently mixed together. It sounds very, very good.
It took a while, but in 2006, Natalie finally got around to making an actual (mostly) rock-themed album. Leavin’ was an eclectic collection of rock and soul covers featuring songs by Kate Bush, Fiona Apple, and Sting. She offered this bit of brutal honesty to Pop Matters in an interview around the time of release:
“I want to let the jazz people do their jazz thing, so I’m moving on. R&B, rock, and pop have always been my forte. I think that I stayed too long doing the jazz thing. I wish I’d done this record at least five years ago. I like to keep changing it up. I do more than one kind of thing. People started calling me a jazz singer, and I didn’t like that. I don’t like to be labeled “.
She also admitted to being tired and bored with the standards thing and felt that it had become something of a musical straightjacket requiring unnatural amounts of restraint. She shared a few more choice nuggets regarding the motivation for Leavin‘ with American Songwriter magazine in 2006:
“I missed the freedom. I missed ad-libbing and being able to holler now and then. I missed all of that energy, and I just felt like I really kind of, in a way, fenced myself in a little too much.”
One of the album highlights is a sublime cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man”. While the studio version is super-fine, and we get to hear her go down to the basement in the fabulous vocal ( listen here), there is a fan-recorded, live version from a show in Istanbul in 2011 on YouTube that blows it out of the water. It is an epic six-minute, two-drummer-rock-soul sermon with a punchy and powerful vocal arrangement. It comes over like some crazy, lost Fillmore East bootleg from bygone days.
Before you watch it, I need to warn you about one little thing though, an unwelcome guest, if you will. At specific points, you will be assaulted by the sound of a particularly annoying audience member, whom you may want to punch in the mouth retroactively. But seriously, try and ignore this devil and pretend you’re at a show. Just close your eyes and immerse yourself in what Natalie and her band are doing here because it’s crazy good.
Lord, I wish this had been recorded properly, but I guess we have to be thankful it was documented at all.
On December 31, 2015, Natalie Cole passed away at the age of 65 after suffering from a myriad of health issues related to her years of IV drug use (which she was brutally honest about to the end). When I think of Natalie’s career trajectory, the most obvious comparison I can draw is Linda Ronstadt. Despite the personal issues that affected her productivity, she was just as musically restless and chameleonic as Linda. She was just as convincing singing rock songs as pop or jazz or soul or whatever took her fancy.
I want to close this out with perhaps the defining and most poignant ROCK moment of Natalie’s career. In 2011, she joined The Allman Brothers on stage for the Tune In To Hep C benefit show at the Beacon Theater. Both Natalie and Gregg Allman had been diagnosed with the disease a couple of years prior and, at the time of this show, were each wrangling with serious physical challenges.
That night, Natalie Cole, frontman, took the mike and participated in a raucous, manic, and absolutely ass-kicking version of “Whipping Post” with the backing of the great Allman B band. Natalie and the crowd singing together? Chills. What’s funny, though, is that one of the most memorable moments within the performance doesn’t involve Natalie bringing down the house from the center of the stage.
After delivering a gloriously wild and fiery first verse, Natalie hangs back admiringly while the band plays. Then when the vocals are due back in, she walks over to Gregg, leans on his piano, and watches him as he belts out the next verse. With her head resting in her hand, she mouths the words along with him,” look at what you’ve done,” from the best seat in the house. We get the rare gift of seeing Natalie as both a swaggering star and rapturously devoted fan in the span of a few minutes. That look she gives him is just so gorgeous.
Honestly, it’s hard to watch this scene play out without getting emotional, knowing that both of them would be gone by 2017. It’s one of those “just give me a minute to pull myself together” moments. It’s a tearjerker, to be sure…but it’s also heartrendingly beautiful.
And so with that, I ask you to raise your lighters and hold up your devil horns. Bang your head and pump your fist. All hail Miss Natalie Cole. She was and will always be a Rock Star.