Making preparations for the wedding, the bride-to-be suggested that we make a mix CD of love songs that we both enjoyed. Given my love for music, I figured this was a worthy challenge; not only picking the songs, but also figuring out which ones should be included, and what would fit the nearly 80 minutes of run time on a CD. I remember it being a fun game as the two of us went through song after song, until we finally settled on the ones we thought best. I can’t remember all the songs we picked, but the three I do remember: “You’re All I Need To Get By,” by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell; “When I Said I Do,” the Clint Black/Lisa Hartman Black song that was covered by then-married couple Kenny Lattimore and Chanté Moore; and “Inseperable” by Natalie Cole.
I fought hard to include Cole’s song; I remember my soon-to-be spouse not being familiar with it. Once I played it for her, and she listened to the lyrics; she too agreed it had to be on the playlist. And when I heard on New Year’s Day that Natalie Cole had passed away at age 65, it was “Inseperable” that I gravitated toward instantly. It’s almost a wisp of a song; clocking in at just a shade under two and a half minutes; but what she does with that simple backing in that allotted time has stuck with me long after the marriage ended.
As the daughter of the renowned Nat “King” Cole, I would guess when Natalie decided to make singing a career, there was quite a bit of speculation as to how she would do in comparison to her father. It turned out that she was every bit as talented as her father was; even if she started out singing straight R&B, rather than the jazz and pop tunes that her father specialized in. Beginning with her Inseperable album in 1975, Natalie scored many hits in both pop and R&B; though she had her struggles with drugs mid-career, she came through the other side and had her biggest triumph with her Unforgettable With Love album-a tribute to her father which included their “duet” on Unforgettable with her dad’s voice punched in along with Natalie’s vocal.
For me, as it is with most female vocalists, it starts with the voice. Natalie was capable of singing just about anything you threw at her. It seems crazy to me now, but when she first came out, she was compared to Aretha Franklin. I always say: there’s Aretha Franklin—and then there’s everyone else. But that’s no knock on Natalie; she was a very, very good singer. As a child, my mom would sometimes get the old 45s from the jukebox from the old beer garden she used to go to, and one of the first ones I remember her getting was her #1 R&B smash “I Got Love On My Mind,” which topped that chart for five weeks.
Her early Capitol records recordings remain a snapshot of my childhood: “Our Love,” “Sophisticated Lady (She’s A Different Lady,” “Mr. Melody,” “Annie Mae” (which formed the base of Syleena Johnson’s “He Makes Me Say,” a favorite of mine), “I Can’t Say No”—the list goes on and on.
When I was in college, and Natalie’s comeback was beginning to take shape, I bought her Everlasting album. I bought it for the single “Jump Start,” but her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” was on there too. The album version was fine enough; good enough to get her a top 5 pop hit in the spring of 1988, but it was when Robert Clivillés and David Cole (the C + C of the C + C Music Factory) took the track and remixed it for the dance clubs that I really took notice of the song. In fact, I danced so much to that remix, I went out and bought it. It looked just like the one playing in the video below.
And yet, she had a second career as a jazz vocalist once she won the Grammy for “Unforgettable,” showing her chops in that genre as well. I remember snapping up the follow-up albums to Unforgettable With Love, Take A Look and Stardust, without hesitation. Both were chock full of great performances of songs in the great American Songbook and standards often associated with other singers. Natalie performed them with class and style.
Hearing on the first day of a new year that Natalie Cole had passed away certainly wasn’t the news I wanted to hear. But heaven gets another voice in its great choir. RIP, Ms. Cole—may you enjoy your sweet, sweet rest, no longer struggling with illness; free from pain. Those of us who remain earth-bound will always have your voice, and songs that will always be around.