She's All Nat
Natalie Cole has experienced the growth of black music from two sides, first as the daughter of singing superstar Nat "King" Cole and then as an "Unforgettable" hit-maker herself. Here she explains the influence Aretha Franklin had on her career, and remembers the difficulties of growing up in a country that sang along to her father's records but couldn't see past the color of his skin.
VH1: Tell us how your career got started.
Natalie Cole: I was performing in a little club off-campus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the summer of 1971 and I had stolen this band from a friend of mine. We worked on weekends and this agent had heard about this little black girl with this all-white band, which was a little unusual, singing rock music, and he came down to the club. He said, "I think you're great and I can make you a star." I worked very steadily for a good year before I actually had my first record. Then I got a manager and one of the first things he said was, "You've got to stop sounding like Aretha." 'Cause she was always a big influence. The truth is, they had always wanted to write for Aretha Franklin, and they could never get to her, so here I am and they said, "We found our surrogate." The first single I did with Capitol Records was "This Will Be" and a lot of people thought that it was Aretha and the rest kind of took care of itself.
VH1: So why did you always want to be like Aretha?
Cole: Passion. I always marveled at that vulnerability that came through on her records. She just bared her soul; she exposed herself, she did everything but get on the floor and scream and cry. She just had that special something that people respond to and I was one of those. Unlike myself, she was raised in church so there's the gospel foundation. She was raised Baptist, I was raised Episcopalian. Plus her father was a Baptist minister, so it makes a lot of sense that she would never lose that foundation. Aretha has evolved musically but her gospel sound is always a part; it's her signature. I don't think she could ever lose it. I think that she can take the most pop song and make it the most soulful version and that is her magic, that's her gift, and that's why we love her so much.
VH1: It's interesting you have such a similar sound and yet you didn't have the same upbringing.
Cole: I remember once listening to "Day Dreaming" and "Until You Come Back to Me" and I must have taken those songs and played them over and over and over again. I was trying to will myself into just getting that sound. Girl singers in that day, we all wanted to capture that melody in her voice, that emotion, and a little of that gospel tone. But it is interesting that people would think that I sounded like her when I was still very young, even before I started recording, and I considered that a huge compliment. So when my manager told me I had to stop sounding like her, I was like "No way."
VH1: What did you think of Aretha's song "Respect"? What did that song mean to you?
Cole: I wasn't very political when "Respect" came out, so I just thought it was a cool song. I chanted along with everybody "R-e-s-p-e-c-t"; I don't even think I had a man so I didn't know what she was talking about. There were other songs of Aretha's that touched us in a much more significant way, like "Young, Gifted and Black" and "Do Right Woman." The song that was the first thing I ever won was a talent contest in Springfield, Massachusetts, Aretha's "Rock Steady." I just love that song to this day.
VH1: Can you talk about that song "Young, Gifted and Black"?
Cole: "Young, Gifted and Black" is a precious song, and at that time in my life I was discovering my own blackness. I was raised in a wonderful environment but certainly not a very black-based environment. I went to a lot of private schools and most of my friends were Caucasian. So when I got to college I broke out and life to me became entirely different; I made different kinds of friends and I really entered a different kind of world. When "Young, Gifted and Black" came out I just related to it and I thought that it was important to know that even though you're young you can be beautiful and that was so important to young black women at the time. Some of us just didn't feel very beautiful and so that was a really uplifting song for me.
VH1: And did you ever try to address things like that in your music?
Cole: There was a song that I did that Aretha had recorded called "Take a Look." It really wasn't necessarily addressing color as much as it was addressing humanity. The singer talks to society: Look at the kind of world that you're creating, look at how you're loving or not loving your children, look at what you're doing to yourself and not helping one another not lifting one another up.
VH1: Can you talk about your experience in the business of music? Did you feel like you had a lot of creative control over your music and your career?
Cole: When I started in the business I thought naively where I needed the control to be was in the studio. I felt that I had a pretty good amount of control in the studio. But I needed to have more control on the business end and I unfortunately went through some times of being taken for granted, being taken advantage of, being ripped off by accountants and record companies. That's what show business is all about and you end up learning the hard way. I think the amount of control that artists have now coming out is amazing. They're writing their own things, they're in the studio producing their own things. They don't have that authoritarian hand over them. In some ways it's excellent; in other ways it's not so good because they also don't have anyone to guide them. We don't groom artists anymore; we just let them do their own thing. A lot of them don't know about contracts. I've always thought that there should be a school for those of us in the entertainment industry because we really are the wheels. Without the talent there is no music.
VH1: How has it changed for black artists since the days of your father compared to the opportunities you had in the business?
Cole: We have really changed the face of music in so many ways and we will continue to do that. Ever since the beginning of time black people have expressed themselves through music and we are now more important than ever and the riches that we have are not just in the bank. But we still have an obligation to remember our ancestors, our forefathers, our legends, and to let the new generation know that this didn't just get here by accident, that it does have a beginning. There are wonderful stories that the younger people need to know about so that we can know from whence our history comes, from whence our gift comes and honor that.
When my father started there were just certain audiences he wasn't even allowed to sing to; he couldn't sing in front of a white audience or an integrated audience. And I experienced some prejudice even in the late '70s, early '80s, and it was a very subtle prejudice, but it still exists and we have to be very careful. A white singer can sing certain things; a black female singer can sing those same things and she's called one thing and the white girl's called something else. That's still very real and we need to pay attention to that.
There was one particular incident where my father [was expected] to give two shows, one to the black audience and one to the white, and he refused. They did somehow allow him to do this performance in front of an integrated audience, and there were some whites who were not happy about it and they caused a big riot. I can't even imagine such a thing; we are so fortunate that we don't have that kind of hostility today, but now we have something else going on, so one thing replaces the other.
VH1: Didn't he get attacked once? Is that what you're referring to?
Cole: They may have jumped the stage and tried to attack him and the show stopped for a minute, but he did finish the show. My father was a very determined young man and it took a lot of courage to stand up to the law and to society and say, "This isn't right. I'm not gonna do it. I'm just here to sing some songs," and that's really all he wanted to do.
VH1: What do you recall about your father's TV show?
Cole: My father was the first black to have his own television show. It was on NBC. But before that I remember being in Las Vegas with my dad and even though he was the star performer at the Sands Hotel in the '50s he was not allowed to stay in that hotel. We had to stay in a motel down the street. And at that time going through the kitchen was not a good thing; it was an insult. I remember people burning crosses on our front lawn. We just didn't understand all that he had on him - the burden that he carried. When he did get this TV show it was a sensational thing. When the show was taken off the air it was not because of a lack of viewership, but the sponsors getting nervous about a handsome black man singing with white women such as Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney. He even had the nerve to have background singers that were also white.
This was just a little too much for them and out of that came a statement that my father made about Madison Avenue being "afraid of the dark," and I thought that was brilliant commentary on what was going on.
VH1: With your father was it more profitable to play for white audiences?
Cole: Oh, no question there was more money to be made with white audiences. They could afford the tickets. He did work for a record company and they wanted to make money and those were the ones that ended up being the most supportive. And it's a funny thing because I've talked to a number of people - Quincy Jones and I have actually talked about this as well: that in the long run it was the white-based audience, the white fans that carried my father for years and years. When it looked like he was going in that direction black people took a step back, saying, "Nat 'King' Cole was no longer one of ours" or "We have to let him go and be all that he can be." I'd like to think it was the latter, but the truth is that white audiences kept my father and in many ways contributed to the legendary status that he has today.
VH1: What kind of effect has black music had on the history of African-Americans?
Cole: You might be asking how this new genre of black music is affecting African-Americans my parents' age. It makes them crazy. They don't like it. They think that it creates a bad image, it doesn't represent us well. For people in my generation we're hoping that it will evolve into something that's really going to last. With a lot of the young artists coming out, the hip-hoppers, the rappers, the new music they have, they have to get it out and settle down. It just comes with maturity. With every generation there's always something that makes us all a little bit crazy. Some of it is just venting because there is a lot of anger - there's so much anger in this music that I don't think I've heard in a long time, maybe since the '60s.
VH1: Anger in rap music?
Cole: Anger in the lyrics just attacking so much of the fiber that we value in society, and as black people we understand it, but it makes some of us a little nervous because we don't know where it's heading. If you really want to get heard there's a way to get heard without having to attack everything in sight.