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The Memory of Love's Refrain

Pop music: Natalie Cole returns to her father's roots with 'Stardust,' an album of ballads she prefers to most of today's romance songs.

September 27, 1996|CHEO HODARI COKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like her famous father, pop legend Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole has become known for classy renderings of endearing ballads that express the intricacies of romance, whether lasting or ill-fated. But she makes it clear that she's no fan of most of today's pop and R&B romance tunes.

"If love is like a lot of these singers say it is nowadays, I want no part of it," Cole says with a laugh.

"Rhythm and blues nowadays is in a sorry state," the Grammy-winning balladeer says. "It's all about 'Ooh baby, when we get together, we're gonna do this and do that. . . .' No romance. I don't need to know all the details, I want to imagine all of that.

"It's the subtleties of a ballad that truly make it beautiful--and it's all in the way you present it to the listener," the tall, lithe singer explains during an interview in the wood-paneled lounge of a Beverly Hills hotel.

With her hair in a simple bun, a multicolored scarf around her neck, a lime-green silk top and a white skirt, Cole, 46, is dressed in a manner that reminds you of her vocal work: understated yet glamorous, and straight to the point without seeming aggressive.

"That's the [strength] of the songs I'm singing on 'Stardust,' " she continues, referring to her new Elektra Records album that was released Tuesday. (Please see review, F25). "It's soothing music. In a day and age where everything is so crazy and you have to be 'on' all of the time, you can mellow out with this."

The album is a much anticipated follow-up to "Unforgettable With Love," the 1991 collection that restored her to the national Top 10 for the first time since the '70s, when she arrived on the scene with such a splash that she won a Grammy in 1975 for best new artist.

That hit album was highlighted by a duet of the song "Unforgettable" that was created electronically by melding her voice with a recording of the song made in 1951 by her father, who died in 1965.

The album, which also contained such early Nat King Cole gems as "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and "Nature Boy," spent five weeks at No. 1 and sold more than 5 million copies. It won a Grammy for album of the year and the title track won for best single recording.

The surprise is that Cole, a Los Angeles native who will be in concert tonight through Sunday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, waited so long to return to the music of her father. She followed "Unforgettable" with a Christmas album and 1993's "Take a Look," a collection of standards associated with such singers as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

Though there was encouragement from the record company for an "Unforgettable II," Cole felt she wanted to step away from the concept. "I said, 'No way, been there, done that,' " she says now.

She even points to a painful memory of the time when some critics, she says, all but accused her of grave robbing.

"I remember one hurtful cartoon of me sitting in the studio, with a skeleton of my father hanging up outside the vocal booth," she says, with a pained expression on her face. "I don't care though. They don't pay my rent."

So why go back to some of her father's music in the new collection?

Cole acknowledges she is responding, in part, to the wishes of her record company and her fans, who keep asking for more of the cross-generational bonding.

But she says it's a matter of stylistic taste.

"There's lots of room for someone like me to do this kind of music and almost no room to do [contemporary] R&B," she says. "Everybody can do that, but when I start singing that, they'd rather hear me do the old stuff. They're just not writing songs like they used to."

What about working with a contemporary producer-composer such as Babyface, whose music does have the stylish strains identified with classic pop?

"I like Babyface, but he keeps the good stuff for himself," she says with a chuckle. "If he's willing to give his good stuff to me, we'll talk. But it can't be any of his B-grade stuff."

Despite a duet with her father on the song "When I Fall in Love," the new album isn't a total return to the formula of "Unforgettable With Love" because some of the songs were never recorded by her father.

Although she describes the recording of the album as a "pleasurable" experience, times haven't been all good for Cole in recent years. The woman who sings about romance in such a convincing way went through a divorce just before she began work on the new collection.

Her ex-husband, record producer Andre Fischer, was also a musical collaborator who worked with her on the "Unforgettable" album as well as many of her other recordings.

"I was so scared to work on this album," she says. "I felt derailed. I depended a lot on Andre, and when we split, my confidence level was in the toilet. I was depressed and wanted to stop singing, but music has a therapeutic quality. Thank God."

Cole pauses and reflects on the struggle of the last few years.

"I have to admit that, in a strange way, going through this recent ordeal has turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me," she says. "I've learned my needs and what I need to work on. I'm in better shape now than I was 10 years ago, and that's miraculous."

* Natalie Cole performs tonight through Sunday at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, 8 p.m. Tonight and Saturday sold out, Sunday $60-$38. (310) 916-8500.

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