Being the Show Biz offspring of a Show Biz legend is a hard row to hoe. Nobody stood up to a truly legendary legacy better than Natalie Cole, whose father, in addition to being one of the great boogie piano players and jump band leaders in post-war R&B was the first black man to truly cross over into super-stardom singing romantic ballads that sold in sufficient numbers to guarantee white women were listening.
It’s a sad commentary on our present state that his daughter, having done more than her share to maintain the bridge between cultures he helped build, died in an America where that bridge stands on shaky ground at best. When she burst on the scene in the mid-seventies, after slogging through the night-club circuit on the way to developing a fusion of pop and modern R&B that would mark a distinct path from her father, she became a fundamental part of an era that seemed to promise permanent crossover, one where the tribes would one day actually get along.
Instead, of course, the tribes soon began running back to themselves and continued doing so through Natalie’s decade and a half of hits which, from “This Will Be” to her incendiary cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac,” continually demonstrated that it need not be so.
Her career climaxed, in what amounted to a combination of sweet irony and desperate times calling for desperate measures, with an album of duets electronically arranged with her long deceased dad. In the seventies, she had been the first female performer to have two platinum albums in the same year (a list I’m guessing never grew very long). In the nineties, she went platinum seven times over singing with a beloved parent she had initially tried to distance herself from musically.
Not too surprisingly, there were demons, including long bouts with heroin and crack addiction.
Though she eventually shook free, the damage done was doubtless at least part of why she collapsed from congestive heart failure on New Year’s Eve.
Every step along the way, she gave this world a lot….
….I hope we don’t live to see the day the world takes every bit of it back.