Her optimism amid personal struggles was inspirational. Her voice? Unforgettable.
Natalie Cole has died, reports the Associated Press and TMZ. She was 65.
“I think that I am a walking testimony that you can have scars,” she told CBS’s Sunday Morning in 2006. “You can go through turbulent times and still have victory in your life.”
Born Feb. 6, 1950, in Los Angeles, Cole had music in her genes. Her father was legendary crooner Nat King Cole, and her mother, Maria Cole, sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
At age six, Cole recorded a duet with her father, I’m Good Will, You’re Christmas Spirit. By age 11, she was performing alongside him on his television show.
When Cole was 15, and attending boarding school across the country, her father died of lung cancer. As she grew up without her father’s guidance, Cole never abandoned music. She studied Psychology in college at the University of Massachusetts and sang in clubs on weekends, where she was billed as Nat King Cole’s daughter. Yet she was about to find her own voice.
While performing at a club called Mr. Kelley’s, she was discovered by R&B producers Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy (whom she married in 1976 and with whom she had her son, Robbie, in 1977). In 1974, she had her first hit,This Will Be, from her debut album, Inseparable. The song won her the Best New Artist Grammy in 1975, the first of nine she would win throughout her career.
Hits and awards kept pouring in as Cole released two more platinum albums (Unpredictable and Thankful, both in 1977). On the outside, Cole was fulfilling her father’s legacy and drawing comparisons to Aretha Franklin. On the inside, she was battling drug addiction. In her 2000 autobiography, Angel on my Shoulder, she wrote that her addiction incapacitated her so severely that she was barely able to escape a fire in her Las Vegas hotel in 1981.
In 1983, she spent several months at the Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota and, with her health intact, released her come-back album, Dangerous, in 1985.
As her career progressed, Cole began to drift away from the pop and R&B styles that had defined her early music and gravitated toward a more jazz-oriented style that drew from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald—and her own father. Her best-known album to date, Unforgettable … With Love, featured a technology-assisted duet for the song Unforgettable with her father’s original recording.
Years after reclaiming her life from drug addiction, Cole was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2008. Exhausted, she continued performing until her rapidly declining health was tied to kidney disease, likely a result of the medication she was using to treat her hepatitis C.
Cole continued to tour, receiving dialysis three times per week between performances. During a March 2009 appearance on Larry King Live, her fans’ love for her was apparent. The show received dozens of emails from fans offering her replacement kidneys.
While fighting her own battles, Cole was helping her sister, Cookie, battle cancer. Her sister died the morning Cole got a successful kidney transplant in May 2009.
Her own life saved, Cole was devastated at the loss of her sister, but grateful to the family of the woman whose kidney she received.
“To have your life saved by someone you don’t even know — oh, God. God bless them,” Cole told AARP Magazine in 2009.
Just months later, she was itching to get back onstage.
“The volume of work that I’ve had before, I can’t do it,” she told USA TODAY in 2009. “Instead of 90-minute shows, maybe I’ll only do 60. Instead of dancing around the stage, maybe I’ll just walk elegantly.”