Natalie Cole was a singer who found success as a singer in her own right, being able to avoid the looming shadow of her father, Nat “King” Cole, by mostly avoiding recording music that is largely associated with him, namely the Great American Songbook. When her first album was released in 1975, her sound owed more to Aretha Franklin than Nat “King” Cole. Her early singles, including “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” and “Mr. Melody” were funky, soulful affairs, her large, expressive voice adopting the gospel-hewn call of R&B singers.
But by 1991, after nearly two decades of recording soul and A/C pop, Cole finally embraced her birthright and legacy and recording an album devoted to pop standards. Unforgettable… with Love would become Natalie Cole’s biggest-selling album and would reset her career, recasting her as a prime interpreter of the American Songbook. And she would become a legend in her own right.
By 1991, Natalie Cole was a music veteran, releasing a series of albums and winning a handful of Grammys. She even broke the Queen of Soul’s eight-year winning streak in the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, winning in 1976 for “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love).” By the late 1980s, she survived severe health problems, dips in her career to come back with a series of hit singles, including the top five dance hit “Pink Cadillac” (1988), and the top ten smash “Miss You Like Crazy” in 1989. As she was rebuilding her career, she was about to embark on what would be her biggest career, finally relenting and embracing the rich material of the Great American Songbook. Though she would occasionally lard her studio LPs with a pop standard, she devoted the lion’s share of her work to soul and contemporary pop; Unforgettable would be her first LP wholly dedicated to pre-rock pop music and jazz.
The switch worked because Unforgettable was a gigantic hit, hitting number one, selling over six million copies and winning Cole four Grammys, and cementing her comeback. The centerpiece of the album was a reworking of the title track as a duet with her late father. Instead of merely taking on her dad’s music, she would also join him in song. The duet was a top 20 hit and highlighted Cole’s ability to adapt her contemporary, soul-singing to urbane, sophisticated pre-rock pop music. And though the duet garnered most of the attention (and some derision, as evident in a particularly brutal Saturday Night Live sketch that had a fake Natalie Cole duet with other dead performers), the album was the debut for Cole’s most enduring musical persona: that of a song stylist and chanteuse.
After the success of Unforgettable, Cole would carry that success throughout the rest of her career. Though she recorded more pop and R&B albums (even scoring a huge house hit later on), her work with Unforgettable would dominate and overwhelm everything else that she did. And though many of her peers would look to the Great American Songbook for career rejuvenation, she was one of the precious few who could tackle those songs with grace, ease, and aplomb.
The album opens with Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You”. Cole’s high, clear voice is controlled and smooth, her delivery effortless. The song’s thoughtful pace allows for Cole to explore the subtler, more languid notes in her voice. Where before she would wow listeners with soulful wails and spontaneous shouts, she chooses instead to simply allow herself to be led by the slow, measured swing of the song’s arrangement. Her singing has a pleasing height with an understated vibrato. Pre-rock pop standards require more than just good singing, but also an ability to adapt to lyrics written decades ago. Although Cole, a Baby Boomer, was a contemporary soul singer, with “The Very Thought of You”, she re-introduces herself as an old soul – someone who could’ve easily have been performing these songs in the midcentury.
Cole worked with some legendary, iconic musicians, including some jazz greats like Ray Brown, Larry Bunker, and Marty Paich. The resultant sound is a clean, elegant, jazzy record that has a glossy sheen. Though the careful, rehearsed, and orchestrated sound doesn’t give the record a jazz club feel, it still is a fantastic contemporary take on songs from the midcentury. But the distinction is important – this isn’t a jazz singer finding her authentic voice, but a contemporary pop singer who has been able to bend and shift her sound to become an almost-perfect facsimile of a jazz singer.
The song selection on Unforgettable is an homage to her father’s work. Alongside the title track, Nat “King” Cole was known for his velvety versions of “Mona Lisa” or “Nature Boy”. His voice was thick, luxurious, smokey. It’s a very different voice than his daughter’s; her voice was a lively instrument, soulful, vivacious, but it just missed his distinct uniqueness. It just glanced by the unique genius of his voice. It contained a spirit all of her own, but one that worked to achieve the brilliance that came so easy for him. But her renditions of her dad’s songs work because even if there is an element of dress-up, it’s very convincing.
The duet is the track that got the most attention from the album, and it set a recurring theme for the rest of Cole’s career. “Unforgettable” is Nat “King” Cole’s signature tune, one that he performs beautifully. Conceptualized as a call-and-response duet, with Cole’s creamy voice finding its place comfortably by her dad’s satiny croon. The technology makes the two singers’ voices meet seamlessly. There’s chemistry despite the yawning gap that lies between the dates when both parts were recorded. It’s a love song – a romantic song, though it loses the romance because it becomes a lovely duet about familial love.
For so much of her career, it seemed as if Cole was trying to wrest away from the looming shadow of her dad. That could explain why it took so long for her to record material so associated with him. There seems to be a triumphant peace that comes from Cole embracing her legacy instead of trying to escape it. Cole would revisit duetting with her dad a few more times in her career, singing with his resurrected vocals on “When I Fall in Love”, “The Christmas Song”, “Walkin’ My Baby Bach Home”, and “Acércate Más (Come Closer to Me)” which appeared on her last album in 2013 before her premature death in 2015.
Though Cole appeared in music videos in the past, she wasn’t a music video artist in the same way as say, Madonna or Michael Jackson was. But the video for “Unforgettable” was imaginative and clever, reflecting the then-inventive technology of pairing the voices of two singers from different eras. The video begins with the stately, elegant piano intro before Nat “King” Cole’s voice, disembodied, floating, is heard, as he sings the opening verses, as the camera spans through an empty room, before the camera stops at a reclining Natalie Cole, resplendent gown, looking glamourous to match the sumptuous, classy music.
Archival footage of the older, legendary singer is used purposefully, closeups of his crinkly, smiling eyes juxtaposed with Cole’s bright eyes, doe-eyed, staring off into space as if she was conjuring up proud images of her dad in her mind. Though the adult Natalie Cole never got the chance to perform with her dad (the closest was putting in a guest appearance on a 1983 Johnny Mathis TV special honoring her father), through the magic of video, she appears alongside him in glorious black and white.
Because of the success of Unforgettable, Cole would revisit jazz and pop standards repeatedly throughout the rest of her career. Though she never abandoned contemporary pop and R&B, she had built a reputation and a career as a contemporary jazz-pop singer, in much the same way her father had. She explored the great composers her father – and his contemporaries – had admired and recorded the kind of rich, expressive material that defined his work. No longer seemingly worried about being seen as a ‘nepotism’ case, Cole opened up a vibrant and fruitful career by embracing her legacy and birthright. Though always a stunning woman, she emerged from this moment in her career to become an icon of grace and elegance. “If I continue to keep my standards high,” Cole once said, “I will hopefully continue to do things that are above and beyond the norm. And that’s what legends are made of.”