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Natalie Cole’s prodigal journey through fame to faith

Funeral services for Grammy Award-winning singer Natalie Cole were held Jan. 11 at the Los Angeles at West Angeles Church of God in Christ, where Cole was once a member. The services included star-studded musical performances by Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan celebrating her career.

Cole died on New Year’s Eve at age 65 of pulmonary arterial hypertension, which led to heart failure. The daughter of legendary crooner Nat King Cole battled drug addiction throughout her life but credited her eventual redemption to the intervention of God and others. “God surrounded me with people of faith, people of strong faith, people of power, spiritual power, and I saw little miracles happen in their lives,” Cole said

She was born Natalie Maria Cole, in Los Angeles, on February 6, 1950. Her mother was Maria Hawkins, a former singer for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Growing up in the affluent Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, Cole called her family the “Black Kennedys.”

Cole was away at a boarding school at the age of 14 when her father died. In a CBN Radio interview, Cole said her dad’s death was devastating, eventually leading her to grief-fueled addictions to cocaine, heroin, and “toxic people.” In 1975, she was arrested in Toronto for heroin possession on her 25th birthday.

“Lord, please. If you get me out of this, I will never put myself in a position like this again. I will turn myself around. I’ll be good. I’ll be really good,” Cole prayed. She said an aunt on her father’s side influenced her faith: “She brought the knowledge of Jesus as a person into my life, and I started looking at faith in a whole different kind of way.”

Cole was nominated for her first Grammy 10 years after her father, legendary crooner Nat King Cole, died of lung cancer in 1965. She won nine out of 21 nominations. She was known for such R&B hits as “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love),” “Inseparable,” and “Our Love.”

In 1976, Cole married Marvin Yancy, an R&B musician and ordained minister at Chicago’s Fountain of Life Church. Yancy became Cole’s producer. The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1980, where both began using drugs. In her autobiography, Angel on My Shoulder, she attributed Yancy’s drug use to his stepping down from the pulpit and her own to rebellion. They divorced shortly thereafter. Yancy sought help, but died four years later. Cole had two other marriages that ended in divorce.

Cole’s second descent into drugs included her refusal to leave a burning hotel room in Las Vegas in 1981 and the near-drowning of her young son, Robert. After a six-month stint in rehab in 1983, Cole eventually reached the music charts again with such hits at “I Live for Your Love” and her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.”

In 1991, she intertwined her musical legacy with that of her dad’s to make his “Unforgettable” a Grammy-winning duet through technological wizardry. The album went platinum, selling over 7 million copies.

In her later years, Cole viewed technological reunion with her father on the “Unforgettable” project as a cathartic moment in her journey of grief. She said she never really cried over her father’s death until they recorded the last track, then she had to let go of him again.

Cole continued to fight battles, but of a different sort. In her 2010 memoir, Love Brought Me Back, she documented the grace she experienced dealing with heath issues.

In 2008, she began treatment for Hepatitis C.  After four months of treatment, she experienced kidney failure and began dialysis. This led to a broadcast appeal for a kidney donor on Larry King Live in March 2009.

One of the viewers was Esther, an El Salvadoran immigrant working as a nurse one day when Cole was in for dialysis. Esther turned toward her niece, Jessica, and said, “She’s so nice. I wish I could help her find a kidney.” Jessica, an organ donor, passed away unexpectedly a couple months later. Her family asked if one of Jessica’s kidneys could be donated to Cole. It was a perfect match.

According to Cole’s website, this act of kindness by a stranger caused her to increase her pursuit of Latin music, something her father had done in his famed Havana sessions. Some of her final recordings are Latin songs recorded by her dad. In 2013, Cole added three Latin Grammy Award nominations to her resume.

Cole said she had often thought of producing a gospel album. She wanted to call it To Sing for the Master.  She liked the title because “that’s who I really sing for.”

— by Jim Long | WNS

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