In her book, Angel on my Shoulder, Natalie Cole tells the story of her parents’ move to a posh, all-white suburb of Los Angeles in 1947. Residents promptly informed Nat King Cole that home ownership was restricted to whites who celebrated Christmas. People of color or diverse faiths weren’t welcome because neighbors “didn’t want any undesirables moving in.” Cole nodded. “Neither do I,” he assured them, “and if I see any, I’ll be sure to let you know.
The Coles stayed put, fending off lawsuits and enduring cruel signs posted on their lawn. “My parents were very strong people,” says Natalie. “My dad wasn’t about to let anyone tell him where he could sing, where he could eat, or where he could live.”
Natalie was only 15 when her father died of lung cancer at age 45—he was a three-pack-a-day smoker—but she shares many of his traits. A gifted singer, she has 21 albums and eight Grammy awards to her credit; she’s a devoted Christian who admits that when she looks back on her life, “I see the many times I’ve been saved from bad situations.” And, like her dad, she refuses to back down, regardless of the challenge. Diagnosed with hepatitis C last year, she underwent painful treatment for the virus and emerged virus-free but with damaged kidneys. Her jam-packed performance schedule to promote her new CD was scrapped in favor of a new schedule. She is now on dialysis three days per week for three hours and 30 minutes per session. This regimen will continue until her kidneys regain their function (a long shot) or she decides to have a transplant. “I’m still thinking about that,” she admits.
Her latest album, Still Unforgettable, has done well in spite of her limited visibility. Now she is stepping up her public appearances, taking care to arrange for dialysis on the road between engagements. The Post caught up with her a few days before she departed for a major concert in Milan, Italy.
First of all, how are you feeling?
My energy is back, and my stamina is great. In many ways the chemotherapy (for hepatitis C) and dialysis (for kidney disease) have saved my life. The treatment schedule is a chore, but once you realize that dialysis is a part of your routine, you just do it. I was able to go back to work a couple of weeks ago, and although I was looking forward to it, I was a little nervous. We did two shows, back to back, with a full orchestra. It was great! The audience was really, really responsive.
The Post interviewed your dad in 1954 when he was preparing to record a children’s album with you and your sister. You were 4 years old, and he was concerned about your habit of yawning whenever you sang. Your new CD has you doing a virtual duet, Walking My Baby Back Home, with Nat King Cole. Yawning isn’t a problem, but how difficult was it to blend two voices, one of which is preserved on a recording that dates back 57 years?
My father had a very special sound, and thank God I inherited some of that. Not everybody can sing with Dad, which is why a lot of people didn’t attempt to record some of his songs until I did the Unforgettable: With Love project in 1991. I had been singing with him since I was a little girl, so I wasn’t intimidated by his voice, although his phrasing made me crazy. That’s when I realized what a great singer he was. As for the technical part, our engineer, Al Schmitt, was amazed at how well our voices blended. Al would look at the graph on the mixing board and the lights were exactly at the same level. He had never seen anything like it. I guess that’s part of my heritage, and it’s not something that I had to work at too hard. Singing with my dad is fun…a labor of love.
How did working on the new album help you emotionally deal with what was going on outside the studio—the hepatitis C diagnosis?
Music has always been a healing balm for me. It’s the one thing that really makes me very happy. I was grateful when we were working on the album that my voice wasn’t affected by my diagnosis or by my illness. The hepatitis didn’t get severe until I was finished in the studio, so I was able to work steady, work well, and keep my focus. Of course I didn’t have much of a choice since I was the producer of this project; I needed to be in charge. But for all of us in the business, music is what can get us out of any kind of funk that we’re in. It takes over, and that’s a beautiful thing.
You’ve been very candid about tracing your hepatitis C to the heroin addiction that you overcame more than 25 years ago. How have you made peace with your past?
I think it started with learning to be honest with myself. I had the privilege of spending six months in rehab, and it changed my life. One of the things that the twelve-step program teaches us is to be brutally honest. When you’ve been into drugs and you’ve almost lost your life and almost ruined other people’s lives, you have to take responsibility for it. A lot of people aren’t able to do that, especially in show business where there’s a compulsion to cover up everything and try to come off as if you are perfect. But people like you better when they find out that they can trust you. Now I can look at myself in the mirror and know that I’ve done the best that I can, and I don’t have to cover up anything. I think that’s why people respond not just to my music but to me as a person. They feel there’s something behind the song; they understand that I’m not faking anything.
How has your illness affected you aside from the predictable physical changes—the fatigue and weight loss?
I’ve become more of a day-to-day person. With a disease like this, you don’t take life for granted; your mortality becomes very much a part of who you are. I didn’t realize how close I had come to dying when I had the episode with my kidneys failing. Now I’m not in a panic to get things done. I have more clarity. My attitude has changed; I’ve got a little more patience and a lot more compassion for others. God has been really good to me. I’ve had a great life, and for the most part, I’ve been a healthy person. In two years I’ll be 60, and I look at my mom—she’s 87—and I think, “I hope I have some of her genes!”
Speaking of genes, some people say that as we get older we become more and more like our parents. Can you relate to that?
Hmmm…I think I’m a people person like my dad. He was very warm with people, and in return, people gravitated toward him. Also, my dad’s faith was important to him. His father was a Baptist minister, and his whole family was very active in the church. There was a time in my life, back when I was in my 20s, that I was on probation (for drug use). I could have gone to prison, but God looked out for me. Instead, I ended up staying with my aunt in Chicago for several months. She was such an important influence on me. Being with her put me in a spiritual environment at a very critical time in my life. Since then, even though I’ve continued to go through a lot of issues, I’ve known that God has his hand on me. There have been so many times that I’ve felt covered by God.
Last year had its highs and lows for you. As you look ahead, what is your hope for 2009?
Good health is always my first hope. After that, I would love to see our country become more spiritually minded. We need to lose our materialistic ways and reach out and help other people. As Americans, we need to see more of the world and understand how the world sees us. Sometimes we get confused. …We think we’re here to make ourselves happy, but that’s not it at all. We’re here to be of service to others, and that ends up making us happier than we could ever imagine.
What is Hepatitis C?
Deaths due to the hepatitis C virus (HCV) are likely to double or triple in the next 15 to 20 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reason? Most HCV sufferers—an estimated 150 million worldwide, 4 million in the United States—aren’t aware that they have it; therefore, they don’t seek treatment until it’s too late. Here’s what doctors know about the elusive virus:
- A blood-borne disease, HCV often goes unnoticed because victims experience no symptoms for many years.
- Needle sharing among drug users is a common mode of transmission.
- Left untreated, HCV can damage the liver and is the leading cause of liver transplants.
- Successful drug therapy is available, although the FDA-approved antiviral medicine can cause side effects.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now