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Natalie Cole--a Jump Start On Comeback Trail

September 11, 1987|DENNIS HUNT | Times Staff Writer

"Uggggggggghhhhhh, not another drug story!" Natalie Cole shrieked, nearly gagging on her bacon.

A startled couple in the small, nearly empty corner of a Sunset Strip restaurant turned around to look at the singer, apparently thinking she was choking.

Cole was just being melodramatic. But she did get her point across: Not only is she tired of reading about other celebrity drug problems, but she's also fed up with recounting her own.

She says she's been drug-free since the beginning of her 6-month stay at a Minnesota drug rehabilitation center in November, 1983. Though not as big a star as she was in the late '70s, she has resurrected her career, which seemed over a few years ago. Her frantic dance single "Jump Start"--from her "Everlasting" album--jumped to No. 21 on Billboard's pop singles chart and is likely to make the Top 10.

Cole, who's tall and broad-shouldered but still rather soft-looking, was in a frisky mood--as effervescent as a teen-ager. Though reluctant to reveal her age, which is 37, she boasted jovially: "I look 10 years younger than I am." But then, snickering, she added: "Unfortunately, sometimes I act like I'm 10 years old."

Cole skimmed through her drug period ("I'm leaving out the sordid details") as she plowed through a big breakfast. Though a heart-breaking story, she treated it innocuously, as if she were talking about a vacation. Chuckling through much of it, she defused the inherent drama of the drug tale. She seemed distant from what she was saying, almost as if she were discussing someone else.

"You've heard it before," she insisted matter-of-factly, carefully digging out a scoop of grapefruit. "Same story, different celebrities. It's the same girl-who-has-everything story. You know, the one where she's insecure and scared and unhappy and has marriage problems and doesn't know how to handle stardom and screws up right and left and gets in with the wrong people and goes down the drain. She gets off drugs and-- da - da! --comeback. Crowd cheers, over and out."

Daughter of Nat (King) Cole, one of the great pop singers of the century, she became a major star in the late '70s, with pop-soul hits on Capitol Records such as "This Will Be" and "I Got Love on My Mind." But the ravages of drug abuse caught up with her in the early '80s. Her fall was longer and harder than many because she had much further to fall.

The 30-day stay in a drug rehabilitation center wasn't the solution. "That was a joke," she said. "After all the drugs I'd been doing, stopping for 30 days didn't mean anything."

In mid-1984, after she was finally drug-free, Cole immediately plunged back into her career. She had a bad experience on Modern Records, on the heels of an Epic Records flop, before settling in with her current label, Manhattan Records.

Cole admitted one fear: "I thought people had forgotten about me. I was really paranoid. I thought they'd say, 'Natalie who ? Wasn't she famous years ago? Didn't she used to have a music career?' I went though the struggle, the pain, the embarrassment and here I am."

She emphasized that she's not looking for a pat on the back for kicking the drug habit: "That was a detour, a dumb detour. I just wised up and got sensible. Why should I be praised for getting out of something I was a fool to get into? There are millions out there who are smart enough not to get into drugs in the first place. Pat them on the back."

Suddenly Cole shifted gears: "Enough of this drug stuff, enough, enough." She was chuckling but it was obvious she meant it.

Cole's other '80s albums weren't very good. Her critique of them, however, was a bit stronger: "They were garbage. Even in my drug-fogged mind, I knew something was missing from those records--like good songs, like the real Natalie."

Even when she was "drug-fogged," Cole could still sing rings around most of her competition. Blessed with one of those strong, expressive, fluid, soulful voices, she can sing effectively in almost any style.

Cole's current album, "Everlasting," is by far her best since her glory days at Capitol Records. But it's a hodgepodge of styles and tempos, which is most likely why it's not a big seller despite the hit single "Jump Start." Apparently, dance fans have found out that there's only one of those trendy urban dance tunes on it.

"I would never do an album with 10 songs like 'Jump Start' on it," Cole said. "I'll only go so far to please fans."

Cole hinted that even one "Jump Start" was one too many. It's not the kind of song she's prefers. Cole is best on ballads and medium-tempo songs that showcase her voice. Though a powerhouse dance number, "Jump Start" is not a singer's song--the glory mostly goes to producer-arranger-composer Reggie Calloway. But in this dance-crazed era, it's a perfect record to revive a flagging recording career.

"That song isn't really me, though I like what it's doing for my career," Cole admitted. "Come back with anything , as long as you make that comeback."

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