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Multiple Grammy-winning recording artist Natalie Cole was just 8 years old when her father, legendary crooner Nat King Cole, recorded his first album in Spanish, scoring an unexpected international smash in 1958. Her father’s foreign-language success was a culturally captivating experience for little Natalie, who got to travel outside the country for the first time with her famous father. She vividly recalls a trip to Mexico during which she saw her first piñata, posed for pictures “as a señorita” in folkloric dress, and most memorably, witnessed first-hand the adulation and esteem that Latin American fans showed for the King, a pioneering African-American superstar.
“They loved, loved, loved him,” she recalls. “And I loved what he loved. So
I fell in love with the culture.”
Now, 55 years later, the accomplished R&B and jazz vocalist breaks new ground of her own with her first Spanish-language album, “Natalie Cole En Español,” released June 25 on Verve/Universal. In this, her first new studio album in five years, Natalie revisits the rich repertoire of ageless Latin standards that once opened new vistas for her father. The 12 lushly orchestrated tracks, produced by Rudy Perez, Billboard’s Latin Music Producer Of The Decade, features Natalie’s distinctive take on some classics from her father’s catalog, plus several other carefully chosen selections from the Latin American Songbook.
The album features a haunting father/daughter duet on the sensual bolero “Acércate Mas,” employing the same recording techniques used for their posthumous pairing on 1991’s “Unforgettable,” which won Record of the Year for the singer and producer David Foster. Now, as chairman of Verve Music Group, Foster was instrumental in bringing to fruition Natalie’s long-time dream of making a Latin album.
This project, which Natalie has envisioned for at least the past decade, marks a stunning accomplishment for an artist who has never before sung in Spanish. Although her new album borrows the Pan-American spirit and the alliterative title of the Nat Cole original, Natalie’s personal, committed performance earns the right to stand on its own.
“This album is not so much a tribute to my father as it is to Latin music,” she says. “My whole thing was, if I’m going to do this as a first-timer, a non-Spanish-speaking American, I need to pay tribute to the music. I need to honor it because I’m not entitled to just sing it any kind of way. I have a duty to make it real, to pick authentic, beautiful, traditional Latin songs. And that’s what we went for.”
The road to making this record, however, was far from easy. Natalie, like her father, had many obstacles to overcome.
Nat King Cole was a trailblazer. He went from playing LA beer joints for $5 per night to scoring chart-topping hits (“Ramblin’ Rose,” “The Christmas Song,” “Mona Lisa”) that put him on a par with superstar peers such as Frank Sinatra. Starting as a jazz pianist in the 1940s, his King Cole Trio was the first African-American act to have a sponsored network radio show. And in 1956, he became the first African-American performer to have his own network television show, on NBC. He also appeared in films, including the comedy Western “Cat Ballou,” completed just before his death. In its obituary, The New York Times called him “one of the most durable figures in American popular music.” Yet, even as an established celebrity, Cole faced racism at home and abroad. He wasn’t allowed to perform in certain clubs, especially in the South, and in 1948, when he bought a new home in LA’s upscale Hancock Park neighborhood, racial epithets were left in his yard, his dog was poisoned and neighbors signed a petition against “undesirables.” (To which he famously responded that he’d be the first to report any undesirables if he found them.)
Despite all the adversity, Cole continued to build his remarkable career. His pioneering foray into Latin music set a bilingual trend that would be imitated by many of his fellow American singers. Cole made his first Spanish record, 1958’s “Cole Español,” at the urging of his Honduras-born manager, Carlos Gastel. Its success led to two well-received sequels, “A Mis Amigos” (1959) and “More Cole Español” (1962). The trio of hit albums on Capitol Records added “cultural ambassador” to his accomplishments. He was embraced by Latin American fans, despite his marked American accent in Spanish. They found his “gringo” lingo endearing, because it underscored his effort at cultural outreach. In short, remarks Perez, Latinos loved him for trying.
Cole did not survive to see his daughter follow in his footsteps with her own solo career. He died of cancer in 1965 at age 45. Ten years later, Natalie won the first of her nine career Grammy Awards as Best New Artist of 1975, the year she debuted with the hit “This Will Be,” which also won for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female. In 1991, her tribute album, “Unforgettable… With Love,” won Album of the Year and marked a mid-career comeback.
In the wake of that album’s success, Natalie kicked around ideas for a follow-up, along with her cousin, Carole, who was also her adoptive sister. They wondered: “What else can we do that dad did that was kind of interesting and different?” Their answer: an album of Latin standards.
But hardship, loss and tragedy would get in the way before their plans could be finally realized.
Four years ago, Natalie was diagnosed with kidney failure and started getting dialysis treatments three times a week. Appearing on “Larry King Live,” she made an appeal for a kidney donor. Watching at home was a nurse named Esther who “serendipitously” had been on duty at the hospital one day when Natalie was in for treatment. “Oh, I took care of that lady,” the nurse told her niece, Jessica, who was also watching. “She’s so nice, I wish I could help her find a kidney.” Less than two months later, Jessica, who was only 30 years old and eight months pregnant, died unexpectedly of a stroke. Her aunt came forward and offered the kidney, because her niece was an organ donor. She was a perfect match with Natalie.
As fate would have it, the donor and her family were immigrants from El Salvador. The experience brought Natalie even closer to the culture.
“I wouldn’t put it past the possibility that there is a spirit of Latino inside of me, because of this family,” says Natalie. “Ever since then, my passion for Spanish and everything Latin, all of a sudden became more intense. I couldn’t even figure it out myself.”
There’s one final coincidence to add to the saga. When Natalie got the news that a kidney was available, she was at bedside of her beloved sister, Carole, who was dying of cancer. Natalie had to rush into surgery and wasn’t there when her sister passed away. The new album is also a tribute to her. “I know it’s something that she would have loved as well,” says Natalie. “She would be so proud.”
Yet another family hardship came last year. Natalie lost her mother, Maria, who died of cancer at age 89. Under the stress of that difficult time, Natalie lost her appetite and a lot of weight. But she bounced back, as she has from all the challenges in her life. “You know,” she says with a light laugh, “I may be down for a minute, but once I figure it out, I can’t stay there for too long.”
Perez, her Cuban-American producer, marvels at the energy and devotion Cole poured into the new project. At first, they hired a language coach who, coincidentally, is the daughter of the late Olga Guillot, a revered Cuban singer who had coached Nat Cole during his Havana sessions. But the language came so naturally to Natalie, they decided formal coaching was superfluous.
“I found out she has an incredible ability to sing in Spanish phonetically, as you can hear on the album,” says Perez. “I couldn’t believe it, she was so good…She could roll her “r’s”, just unbelievable.”
Natalie says her relationship with Perez was “simpático” from the start. She calls it “a perfect partnering.” Perez, president of the newly formed Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame, sent over 120 songs for Natalie to consider. He gave her background on all the tunes and their composers, then later screened clips for her from classic black-and-white movies where some songs were featured.
“Rudy had a story for every song,” says Cole, still with excitement.
“I mean his knowledge of Latin music is huge. So it’s been educational as well as pleasurable.”
The abundance of riches made the process of elimination excruciating. In the end, a balance was struck between songs her father had recorded (Cuba’s “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” Mexico’s “Noche de Ronda”) and others specifically chosen for Natalie (Argentina’s “El Día Que Me Quieras,” Brasil’s “Mañana de Carnaval”). Latin standards such as “Bésame Mucho,” featuring Andrea Bocelli, will be familiar to music lovers everywhere. And Americans are sure to recognize the melodies of songs popularized in English, especially Maria Grever’s “Cuando Vuelva A Tu Lado (What a Diff’rence a Day Makes).”
Finally, of course, who doesn’t recognize “Oye Como Va,” the Carlos Santana/Tito Puente salsa/rock hit? It was Natalie’s personal choice, which Perez turned into a four-song tropical medley featuring the piano of guest artist Arthur Hanlon. “Bachata Rosa,” another more recent upbeat dance tune, features a duet with its contemporary composer, Dominican superstar Juan Luis Guerra.
The end result is a win-win, in any language.
“I’m very proud of this album and I think it does speak for itself.”
Natalie Cole Career Highlights
Natalie Cole rocketed to stardom in 1975 with her debut album, Inseparable, earning her a #1 single, “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” and her first two Grammy® awards for Best New Artist and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance
In 1977, Cole scored a No. 1 R&B hit with “I’ve Got Love on My Mind” from her third release, Unpredictable, which became her first platinum album. Cole continued her winning streak that same year with her fourth album, Thankful, which also went platinum and featured another signature hit, “Our Love.”
The singer expanded her success with her own TV special in 1977. It was the first of more than 300 major television appearances in her career, including dramatic roles on “Law and Order” and “Touched by an Angel” as well as guest spots on talk shows with Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and Larry King.
In 1979, Cole was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
After overcoming personal challenges, Cole returned in peak form with 1987’s Everlasting, an album which garnered three hit singles: “Jump Start (My Heart),” the Top 10 ballad “I Live For Your Love,” and her dance-pop cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.”
Cole marked a career milestone in 1991 with the release of Unforgettable…With Love, featuring the celebrated duet with her late father, Nat King Cole. The album spent five weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts, earned six Grammy® awards, and sold more than 14 million copies worldwide.
In 1996, Cole released a follow-up album of American standards, Stardust, which featured another duet with her father on “When I Fall in Love.” The album went platinum and won another Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.
Subsequent albums, Snowfall on the Sahara (1999) and Ask a Woman Who Knows (2002), both merited the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist
Cole took home her ninth career GRAMMY® award for 2008’s Still Unforgettable, which won for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. It also earned Natalie a NAACP Award for Best Jazz Artist. As an actress, Natalie starred in director Delbert Mann’s “Lily in Winter” and co-starred with Laurence Fishburne and Cicely Tyson in Walter Mosley’s “Always Outnumbered.”
In 2001, she starred as herself in “Livin’ for Love: the Natalie Cole Story,” based on her autobiography, Angel on My Shoulder, which detailed her harrowing drive to overcome drug addiction. She received the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special.
Cole released a second memoir in 2010 titled “Love Brought Me Back,” the heart-wrenching chronicle of her quest for a kidney transplant.
Natalie Cole now serves as spokesperson for the University Kidney Research Organization, a nonprofit organization supporting medical research related to the prevention, treatment, and eradication of all form of kidney disease. She is also a spokesperson for Tune In to Hep C, an awareness campaign to combat this silent and progressive disease.
— Compiled by Agustin Gurza