The 62-year-old musician has been called many things: singer, songwriter, actor, diva and legend, but the tag resonating with her most is that of survivor. She performs on Wednesday at Emirates Palace.
Natalie Cole battled back from illness to keep performing
Natalie Cole has been called many things: singer, songwriter, actor, diva and legend, but the tag resonating with her most is that of survivor.
Speaking before her Abu Dhabi Festival show at Emirates Palace on Wednesday, the 62-year-old expresses genuine surprise that she is still standing when so many of her colleagues are not.
"We lost a lot of people these last 12 months," she sighs. "Great people like Etta James and Whitney Houston. I mean, Whitney Houston I knew very well. I have to say that I don't know why I am still here. I think it just came to a point where I made a decision to do better with my life and health. And that is only by God's grace because there are no guarantees."
Cole confronted life's hard realities four years ago when a routine checkup revealed a diagnosis of Hepatitis C that required immediate chemotherapy.
However, the treatment couldn't turn back years of substance abuse. In 2008, she collapsed from liver failure and it was only through a liver transplant that she got her life back on track.
While a new liver certainly helped, Cole says it was the love of fans that got her through the difficult days.
"I get hugs all the time from strangers," she says. "I do believe that people can feel your persona when you perform live, but it is one of the nicest things if you can translate that on your records. I think people hear the warmth in my voice and the friendliness and they think: 'Oh, she must be a very nice person'."
However, it was more difficult for Cole to be comfortable with her own voice, especially when it's drowned out by the memory of her father - the legendary crooner Nat King Cole. Natalie was only 15 when her father succumbed to lung cancer in 1965.
Although she began college intending to become a child psychologist, once she was attending the University of Massachusetts, the hereditary music bug bit and she started making waves as a promising young rock singer.
While satisfied at the fact she was recognised for her talent and not her family name, Cole remained a talking point due to the musicians she mixed with.
"There were so many groups that I had in college but I was always the solo singer," she says. "But what made it so unusual back in the day was that I was a black girl playing with all these white musicians and I was also singing rock music on top of it."
The producers Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy saw through the novelty and invited the young singer for some songwriting sessions.
Cole vividly remembers that first experience in the recording studio in the early 1970s, a moment she realised she was indeed following in her father's footsteps.
"I just sat there and listened to myself and my voice sounded so odd to me," she explains. "You know, for me I always thought my father was in charge of all that stuff and me ... I was just going to be a doctor and being a singer was outside my realm of thought."
The songs originating from those early sessions became her 1975 debut album Inseparable. Powered by the Grammy Award-winning This Will Be and the title track, the album topped the charts and is still revered today as a soul classic.
What made the success more gratifying for Cole was that her up-tempo R&B sounded nothing like her father; Cole confirms it was a conscious decision.
"Those first years in my career were hard," she says. "It was difficult to climb that mountain. I didn't realise how huge my father was. So I went the opposite way. I chose to do R&B, as the comparison was a little less."
Not so for the already lauded queen of soul Aretha Franklin.
With the press declaring Cole as the princess of soul and in one case "the new Aretha Franklin", the diva wasted no time in declaring her distaste for the young starlet.
Cole laughs when recalling the drama. While she and Franklin patched up their differences recently, Cole blames a combination of overzealous media and managers for fanning the flames.
"Oh yes, there was a real rivalry, but that was something the press were able to create," she says. "Aretha was caught off guard. she was friendly and an icon to me. But people started pitting me against her. I was young and impressionable and people were trying to keep us apart. I think both of us were very impacted: me, out of naivete and she felt like she was being attacked, that I was some chick coming along to take her spot. Nobody takes Aretha's spot."
After more than a decade of hits - including her cover of Bruce Springsteen's Pink Cadillac, Jump Start and Miss You Like Crazy - as well as evolving her sound to include more pop and rock, Cole returned to her father's songbook with the 1991 album Unforgettable ... With Love.
Led by the title track, the album of covers and standards previously performed by her father sold more than seven million copies and won the 1992 Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
Cole said the experience of recording with her father posthumously went a long way to make up for a childhood lacking in "family moments, like barbecues, going to the beach ... they were only on holidays".
She said singing with her father was as much an education as a reconnection.
"It really taught me as a singer. Some of his own techniques, his phrasing, timing and arrangement were so different than any other singer at that time," she says. "Of course, my first wish was that he was still alive so we could have sung it together ... but this is the next best thing."
Natalie Cole performs on Wednesday at Emirates Palace Auditorium, at 8pm. The event is sold out. For more information, visit www.abudhabifestival.ae
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