The greatest tragedy of Natalie Cole’s untimely passing on December 31, 2015 is the fact that despite all she accomplished, her impact is still undervalued and largely misunderstood.
The first black artist to win the Best New Artist Grammy, Cole was the female R&B singer of the late seventies, reeling off a series of gold and platinum albums that flew in the face of the singles-oriented mindset of the period. With the help of Chuck Jackson and then-husband Marvin Yancy, she offered a trove of sparkly pop-soul melodies and beautifully orchestrated ballads: “This Will Be,” “Sophisticated Lady (She’s a Different Lady),” “Mr. Melody,” “I’ve Got Love on My Mind” and “Our Love” brimmed with the sophistication—and aspiration—that underscored the era’s black middle class sensibilities. Still, despite her across-the-board success (she even headlined her own CBS-TV special in 1978), certain segments of the record-buying public still know little to nothing about that hugely important, influential part of her story.
The disconnect, however, is understandable when you consider the years that followed her R&B heyday. Her triumph over substance abuse was just as remarkable as her meteoric rise to fame, and linked her with fans on a deeper level than even her biggest hits. People rooted for her, and you heard that renewed energy during her second act on pop-minded fare like “Jump Start,” “Pink Cadillac,” “I Live for Your Love” and “Miss You Like Crazy.” As the likes of Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul became the new faces of female R&B and dance music, Cole changed lanes again, diving into the pre-rock standards popularized by her late father. The resultant Unforgettable … With Love was easily the greatest comeback album the world had seen since Tina Turner’s Private Dancer years earlier—and proof of Cole’s resilient spirit.
Cole continued to tour, record and win Grammys until losing her battle with complications from Hepatitis C on December 31, 2015. It was devastating to multiple generations of fans, and a sign that 2016 would be marked by the transition of a number of beloved, creative forces. It was poetic in a way, as Cole’s voice was an instrument of genre-defying genius and tenacity.
Her death brought about a much-needed reexamination of her R&B history, restoring the name Natalie Cole to conversations about the great soul divas of our time. Even in the midst of such loss, that is something to be thankful for.