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Natalie Cole: She Survived The Worst

June 09, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN

I let people down. I wore the crown

of being the biggest fool.

--From "The Gift," a song on

Natalie Cole's new album.

Imagine the shame when her mother had to step into a L.A. Superior Court three years ago and declare Natalie Cole no longer able to "take care of herself."

Maria Cole told the court that her daughter was under severe mental stress because she feared that an operation to remove a nodule from her throat might end her career.

But there was a second reason that Cole's mother filed a petition for conservatorship: drugs.

Shortly after the hearing, Natalie Cole--the daughter of one of the most distinctive and admired pop singers in history--checked into a drug rehabilitation center for three weeks to battle cocaine addiction.

This dark story took a heartwarming twist the following spring when Cole resurfaced with a new album, optimistically titled "I'm Ready."

At the time, she went through numerous interviews, explaining how she had overcome both the drug and throat problems. "Singing a Happier Tune," declared the headline of a Newsweek article that concluded by quoting Cole: "I managed to survive the worst things any entertainer could possibly go through."

The singer even went on "Good Morning America" and told David Hartman and his huge TV audience about her wonderful recovery.

But it was a sham.

Cole now admits that she was "probably" high during the live Hartman interview and that she excused herself during several other meetings with the press to snort cocaine in the bathroom.

About those days, Cole said during a recent interview: "I remember hearing my mother on the radio when she came out of the courthouse. She said, 'My daughter has been under great strain and so forth.'

"I was thinking, 'Poor mom. She's trying to uphold the family name.' That was a hard thing for her to do, but there was no one else I could turn to. I wasn't a vegetable by any means, but I just wasn't able to take care of things in the way they should have been. I was negligent about a lot of things. . . . I was spending totally too much money."

Cole laughed at the irony of the "I'm Ready" album title.

Looking back on those recording sessions, she said: "I was a nervous wreck. I had never been so depressed. I kept telling the people at the record company not to call the record, 'I'm Ready,' because I wasn't.

"I really hadn't made up my mind then that I was going to turn my life over. I was being dishonest during some of those interviews. That includes 'Good Morning America.' I have to make amends to David (Hartman) about that. I have to make amends to a lot of people about that."

Cole, 35, was exuberant as she sat on the couch in a West Hollywood office. She looked the picture of health, mugging for a photographer. "Let's make it upbeat," she said, good-naturedly. "These are good times."

The singer, who was in equally good spirits during an hour interview, says she feels better about herself than ever--even better than in the spring of 1976 when she won two Grammys: one for best new artist of the year and one for best female R&B vocal.

Those awards were especially satisfying because Cole's entry into pop had been greeted with the usual skepticism facing children of famous performers. Growing up in the Hancock Park section of Los Angeles, she loved music--especially powerful, high-intensity singers like Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. But she had no early interest in show business.

The move to singing was accidental. Cole was a pre-med student at the University of Massachusetts when a friend--who was singing with a local group--got ill the night of a show and asked if Cole would stand in for him. He had heard her sing informally at parties. She ended up taking his place in the group and setting medicine aside.

Cole's name helped and hurt. It resulted in a lot of club bookings, but also led to embarrassing moments like the night one club marquee read, "Appearing tonight: The daughter of Nat King Cole."

Cole's ace in the hole was the fact she really could sing. On "This Will Be," her first Top 10 hit, she exhibited a gutty vocal style closer to the earthy intensity of Aretha Franklin than the smooth, controlled tones her dad. Other Top 40 hits followed, including "Inseparable," "Sophisticated Lady" (which earned her a third Grammy), "I've Got Love on My Mind" and "Our Love."

Despite frequently glowing album and concert reviews, however, Cole didn't establish the commanding presence in pop that her talent suggested. The fact that she was Nat Cole's daughter may have led both critics and fans to underrate her. Her success may have looked too easy.

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