The Cole Family
Children of The King
The Cole Family
by Mark Ruffin
2001 has been a great year for the ongoing legacy of the Cole family. Natalie is back on the charts with both an album and a book. Freddy Cole has a new album called Rio De Janeiro Blue and is touring extensively. Even the death of Ike Cole, who died April 22nd, has proven to be a positive chapter in the long musical history of the Cole family.
Freddie said that Ike’s funeral was a sort of passing of a torch for the Coles. It was a joyous occasion that befitted the honored deceased with words of praise and humor to accompany an ample amount of music. The two reigning stars of the clan, Natalie and Freddy were among the voices heard, but it was the coming out of young Eddie Cole Jr. that caught the family’s attention.
“It turned out to be a beautiful ceremony,” Freddy said of the service. “It was upbeat and there wasn’t a lot of mourning. It was like a homecoming celebration.
“Even the minister remarked that he’d never been to a funeral where people applauded,” Cole remembered with a laugh.
“My son, Lionel sang, but it was Ike’s grandson that really was the surprise. He’s 16 years old and he can really sing. You’re really going to hear about him one of these days.
It was certainly a time for personal reflection in the lives of the Coles.
As sure as young Eddie Cole may have had the family stargazing into the new millennium, certainly Natalie and Freddy imaged snapshots from their respective 25 and 50 years in the music business.
Because of their enormous stature in the record business, the Cole family has been fighting myths, rumors, innuendos and other demons for decades. The biggest mythical image was not a myth at all, but a real man reared on the south side of Chicago, Nathaniel Adams Cole.
“My desire for some kind of closure with my father may well be what was behind the attempt to do my father’s music,” Natalie said in her 345-page tome, published by Warner Books. “I had spent the first part of my career rebelling against it. I was trying to stay as far away from it as possible.”
Ever since she first recorded, at the age of six, I’m Good Will, Your Christmas Spirit, with her father for Capitol Records, Natalie’s life has been something of an open book. In addition to the films and books on or about her and her father, there are countless magazine articles and websites detailing the singer’s wild ride after he died in 1965, when she was only 15.
“Grammy after Grammy didn’t mean s**t,” the outspoken singer said on the E! Online website. “The extreme significance this man had in the music business was just so incredible that no matter what I did, it became very, very difficult to get away from being his daughter.”
Losing her father early and following in his chosen profession had a profound effect on Cole. To say she was a wild child before she came to grip with her father and his music for the now legendary Unforgettable With Love recording would be a major understatement.
She was very adventurous with both sex and drugs, including a brief affair with former NBA star Julius (Dr. J) Erving and numerous near deaths experiences involving heroin and cocaine. The singer has flipped a car on two separate occasions, been arrested for drug possession in a foreign land, suffered spousal abuse and many more incidents ripe for tabloids.
“I wanted approval really badly, and I could only get it from my father when he was around,” she commented. “That led me to doing all my crazy stuff.
“A girl losing her father at a young age is the pits,” she continued. “It affects the way they deal period in their adult life, whether it’s relationships, children, peers or bosses. They always feel they have to prove something.”
Along with rehabilitation at the famed Minneapolis-based Hazelden clinic, Unforgettable With Love, was a cathartically life saving experience for Natalie Cole. Fueled by the then novelty effect of singing with and appearing in a video with her late father, the ten year old album sold 14 million copies worldwide, and raised the singer’s stature to that equal to her father; an icon.
As anyone who was around should remember, the song and the video was everywhere in 1991. Unforgettable was truly ubiquitous. Ironically, the music of her father, the exact thing she was running from in her career is what made her a bona-fide superstar.
“By the time I came around for the Unforgettable album, I felt comfortable with myself, with my ability,” the singer said of the seven-time Grammy award-winning album. “I was ready for the onslaught.”
Natalie’s own legacy has always been built on a fierce dedication to her craft. Her insistence to distance herself from her father’s music early in her career led to an open mindedness about song selection that led to some of the most memorable Black pop music of the 70’s.
On February 6, 1975, her 25th birthday, Natalie had no idea she would be one of the top acts of the decade. It was the day she was arrested for heroin possession in Toronto, and only days after she had met Chicago singer Jerry Butler, who told her about his famous songwriters workshop.
After extracting herself from that situation, the singer moved in with her Aunt Bay in Chicago. The reason for the move was that the then struggling singer was to meet two writers Butler told her about, Marvin Yancy and Chuck Jackson.
Jackson and Yancy, who became Cole’s first husband, and who died in 1985, were moderately successful musicians whose biggest success was the group, the Independents. Their fateful meeting led to a fruitful collaboration, as the pair produced all or part of her first six albums.
Miss Cole’s career took off in 1975 when her debut effort, Inseparable, was an instant smash garnering her first gold album, her first two Grammy awards, including Best New Artist, and her first Top 10 hit, This Will Be.
Before the decade was over, she had two more gold albums and two platinum albums. Chronologically, the albums were Natalie, Unpredictable, Thankful and I Love You So. They produced the platinum singles I’ve Got Love On My Mind and Our Love, as well as the dusty favorites La Costa, I’m Catching Hell, Sophisticated Lady and Mr. Melody.
She continued her amazing climb in the 1980’s with more Grammy awards, a Soul Train Award and an NAACP Image award for the albums Everlasting, Dangerous, and Good To Be Back, as well as the singles Miss You Like Crazy, Wild Women Do and Someone’s Rocking My Dreamboat.
She spent a majority of those years on drugs.
“Most of my life, I spent wondering if people liked me because of who I am,” she told divastation.com, “and the more successful you become, the worse it gets.
“I was consumed by guilt,” she commented in Angel On My Shoulder. “I had guilt over not being Black enough. I had guilt from having too much and over being my father’s daughter and over the pain and embarrassment I put my family through when I was in my altered state, and the list goes on.
“I was hell-bent on the road to self-destruction,” she said of the years before she found the right recovery hospital in Hazelden.
“Afterwards, just to get me career back (leading up to Unforgettable) I had to kiss ass for a while,” she was quoted on another site. “I had to be humiliated, but you know, I did it.”
She went from the top to the bottom and back to the top before getting her life together.
After all that and selling a total of more than 30 million records, Cole then met the challenge of acting in 1992.
That year she was in a critically acclaimed performance on the NBC series I’ll Fly Away. Two years later she starred in the title role of the USA Network original movie Lily In Winter. She also had a short recurring role in the CBS series Touched By An Angel and was in the TNT broadcast of a special Lincoln Center production of The Wizard of Oz.
In 1998, Natalie appeared with Laurence Fishburne in the HBO movie Always Outnumbered, based on a short story by Walter Mosely, and the following year, she followed that up with the Showtime movie Freak City.
Freddie Cole is not nearly as visible as visible as his famous niece, who he loves, worships and adores. He did show a blip on the pop culture radar screen when he appeared, ever so briefly, on the Grammy Awards broadcast earlier this year.
Arguably, the youngest of the Cole brothers is at the height of his long career.
He’s on the largest biggest company he ever been signed to in Telarc, and each new record brings him greater exposure, and larger record sales. The singer/pianist’s 2000 release, Merry Go Round gave him his first Grammy nomination, and he insists that his new record, Rio De Janeiro Blue, is the best album he’s ever recorded.
It would be a total however misnomer to suggest that the youngest and last surviving member of the five Cole siblings is finally escaping from under the shadow of his most famous brother. He has taken the insistent questions on the subject with a great deal on nonchalance and even humor, as one of his biggest hits is a very funny song he wrote ten years ago titled I ‘m Not My Brother, I’m Me.
“That’s one of those many myths that come up in people minds,” Freddy said when asked again about the huge legacy cast by his brother. “Take Ike for instance. He lead a great life and the people who knew him early in his career loved him for who he was. He was a well thought of individual.”
Early in his career, Ike was asked by the New York Times if he deliberately copied his famous brother’s style, and he said, “perhaps unconsciously, it’s a family trait, because my brothers also sing that way.”
Of course, neither Ike nor Freddy had to deal with the young girl/absent dad complexes that Natalie did. The youngest brother was 34 when Nat died and was already more than ten years removed from his first hit record, The Joke’s On Me, which was made for the now defunct Chicago record label, Topper in 1952.
It was actually the oldest brother, Eddie Cole, who died in 1970, who served as the inspiration for Nat, Ike and Freddy. He was the first one to break into the music business in Chicago as a very successful bassist. It was Eddie who Nat emulated when he snuck out the house at night to hang out on Chicago’s south side to be a musician.
In the early 30’s, it was in the band Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers that Nat made his professional debut. After Nat left home and became a star in Los Angeles, he was known in Chicago as Eddie’s little brother when he scored his first hit Sweet Lorraine in 1940.
Freddy came of age later that decade.
“From the late 40’s into the 50’s, the south side of Chicago was happening,” Freddy remembered. “That was the only part of town where you were just glad to be there, because there was jazz on every corner of every block.”
After finding some success in local nightclubs in the 50’s, Freddy went to Roosevelt in Chicago, then Julliard in New York, eventually earning a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music. He then became one those typical New York stars who was big in the Apple, but heard little elsewhere.
That began to change after he began studying and singing in French, Spanish and particularly Portuguese. It was the Brazilians who drew him out as he developed a huge following in that Portuguese speaking South American country, even scoring a gold record there for his album I Love You.
In 1990, before Unforgettable With Love, on the 25th anniversary of Nat ‘s death, Freddy and Ike toured the world with a show called, We Remember Nat…A Salute To Our Brother.”
After Unforgettable With Love, and his own hit album, I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me, both came out in 1991, Freddy officially became a nationally known jazz singer. He recorded for the New York record labels Sunnyside, Laserlight and Muse, before landing a national deal with Fantasy, for whom he recorded four albums.
Unlike Natalie, the Cole brothers kept their private life just that. which is why even the most ardent Nat and Natalie Cole devotee is surprised at the depth of Freddy Cole’s musical background. He’s not in any of the books, except Natalie’s.
“I don’t pay them books any attention,” Freddy said. “I know I should, but I just haven’t.
“When those writers approach me, I tell them no,” he continued. “I tell them no because they all come up with so much bull crap. That stuff they put in that book about Nat, that’s bs.
I started reading it one day, and thought, no I’m not going to even concern myself because it doesn’t make sense.”
Asked which one of the at least ten books about his brother he meant, he growled, “all of them.”
“They come to relatives and friends and get the pictures and never return them,” Cole said, obviously getting heated with the thought. “They don’t even buy them a f***ing hamburger and go make money off of if. That ain’t right.
“I told one of them that they better not put my name in their book.”
It really didn’t matter which author he was talking about, he not in any of them.
“Except Natalie’s” he beamed with a sense of pride. “Hers is the only authentic one, but it’s really not about Nat.”
Freddy is not only prominently thanked in his niece’s autobiography; his first mention in the narrative is on page three. She starts the book with a story about one of those days she almost died doing drugs. It was a day in Las Vegas that she was to meet her Uncle Freddy.
“That’s another myth that people bring up to me, that Natalie and I don’t get along,” he said incredulously. “I don’t know why people think that. I have no problems with Natalie, we talk all the time.”
The two even did extended tours together in 1999 and 2000. They each play a set, and then they play one together, something they will be doing again three times over the next two months.
Maybe it’s the very public rift that Natalie had with her mother Maria that leads people to believe there’s drama in the Cole family. Freddy says that’s hardly the case and points to the fact that Natalie has always hired her cousins in her band or on her staff, including Ike’s son, Eddie Sr., who was her musical director for years.
Freddy Cole is touring in support of Rio De Janeiro Blue Jerry Byrd on guitar, Herman Burney on bass and Curtis Boyd on drums. Natalie is currently touring with a full orchestra.