Anthology recalls the Natalie Cole who stole the show

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

April 24, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN STAFF

She was too old for me -- old enough to be my mother. But my crush was deep, and I thought she was so refined. Her style was uptown, but a little funky, too. And it was something in the way she smiled at me from the pictures adorning my bedroom walls that made me feel appreciated and understood. At night, her buttery ballads lulled me into the sweetest sleep. When my mood was up, I sang along (way off-key) to her ebullient jams as my sister banged on my door, demanding that I shut up.

But this sophisticated lady, Natalie Cole, did a 360 on me. After she took home a truckload of Grammys for her 1991 tribute-to-dad album, Unforgettable With Love, she left the funk behind, hung up the vampish dresses. And she no longer invoked Aretha, Etta, or Chaka with primal wails flung out into the universe.

In concert these days, she glides into glittery standards -- her weave and makeup immaculate, gowns flowing and hugging every curve -- and she never breaks a sweat. I've seen her show three times in the past two years and was bored out of my mind. (I actually nodded off at a performance in Manhattan last fall.) But the woman looked magnificent, better than she did in her '70s heyday.

On the new two-disc Natalie Cole Anthology, those years when she was trumpeted by some critics as the "princess of soul" are revisited. During those not-so-bright days when Cole was singing and living the blues -- wrestling with a much-publicized drug addiction she eventually overcame, the music crackled with life. A startling vitality and soul-richness permeated such hits as "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)" from '75, "Mr. Melody" from '76, and the aching "I'm Catching Hell (Living Here Alone)" from '77. A pop gloss shone over such chestnuts as "Our Love" and "I've Got Love On My Mind" both from '77.

Like Hal David and Burt Bacharach did for Dionne Warwick in the 1960s, Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy (Cole's first husband) crafted a string of evergreens for Nat "King" Cole's daughter. Streetwise Donna Summer may have been the chocolate-skinned goddess of pop in the late '70s. But in R&B, Natalie Cole was Miss It, winning Grammys and selling platinum when most black female artists barely reached gold. In 1976, she broke Aretha's nine-year run at the Grammys in the best R&B female category. Afterward, a few critics messed up and called Cole "the new queen of soul," and I hear Miss R-E-S-P-E-C-T is still sour about that.

But if you're only familiar with Cole's nostalgic, sometimes overbearing renditions of tunes made famous by dead pop/jazz stars and those sappy, kinda creepy duets with her dad, you'd be surprised by the gems in her old Capitol catalog. Because she hasn't recorded such zesty, gospel-spiked songs in years, it's easy to forget the kind of music Cole made from 1975 to 1981. In concert, she may do a quick medley of her big crossover hits from her early years, but she's not going to get too uncoiled in the performance. No soul shouting, no testifying like she did on 1978's Natalie ... Live!If you read Cole's revealing 2000 tell-all, Angel On My Shoulder (or saw the overwrought NBC version starring the overwrought Theresa Randall), then you know that the mid- to late-'70s isn't a time she cares to relive in song or otherwise. And besides, the woman is making a killin' crooning for the Geritol-popping, orthopedic shoe-wearing crowd. So she's unfazed.

But one listen to her churchy takes on "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" and "Something's Got a Hold On Me" on Disc 2 or the oh-so-funky "Sophisticated Lady" and the disco-friendly "Party Lights" on Disc 1 and you wonder if Cole can still get down like that, if she can still cut loose with such abandon. Ultimately, what the Natalie Cole Anthology shows is the singer's dazzling diversity and willingness to go where ever the spirit leads her -- from the wistful, Minnie Riperton-like "Peaceful Living" to the stomping groove of "Be Thankful." It was Natalie Cole at her best.

It was the Natalie Cole I used to love.

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