Hepatitis C and a kidney transplant may have left Natalie Cole somewhat frail and weak, but oh that lady still has an incredible set of pipes. Her voice is smooth as a spoonful of honey, rich like a piece of dark, decadent chocolate, powerful as a freight train barreling through your mind, sensual like your man’s lingering caress, warm like a sip of brandy, and divine as an angel who takes flight on the wings of love..
Music is in Natalie’s genes which she inherited from her father, the late, great, Nate King Cole who she adored. After he died from lung cancer in 1965 at the age of 46, Natalie was sent away to boarding school by a mother she wasn’t close to. Being only 15-years-old and away from home, it was a difficult time for the teenager to deal with such a devastating loss.
That may explain why Natalie turned to drugs to numb the pain and perhaps deal with the success she’s known ever since she came on the music scene in 1975.
Since then she has been mesmerizing audiences with bluesy ballads, scat-singing jazz like her idol Ella Fitzgerald, and performing signature her hits that include “Mr. Melody,” “Inseparable,” “Our Love,” and “I’ve Got Love On My Mind,” as well as “Unforgettable,” the duet she sings (thanks to film and audio splicing) with her father, and the finger-snapping, toe-tapping, tongue-twisting, “This Will Be” (An Everlasting Love) co-written by Natalie’s ex-husband Marvin Yancy, who died of a heart attack in 1985 at the age of 34.
Here is a clip from the 1992 Grammy Awards that features Natalie singing “Unforgettable,” for which she won “Song of the Year.” It’s a beautiful tribute.
My husband Steven and I met Natalie years ago when she performed at the Las Vegas Hilton from 1985 – 1989. Steven was an audio engineer and he mixed her shows at the Hilton and, for a while, on the road. Whenever she came in for a week long engagement I would often sit in the sound booth to watch her show. I never tired of hearing her sing a mix of contemporary, upbeat songs like “Pink Cadillac” and “Miss You Like Crazy,” along with beautiful standards like “The Very Thought of You” and “When I Fall in Love.” She is a master at singing scat – an art form of vocal improvisations with wordless syllables and riffs that few artists attempt. Each song she sang either had me gyrating in my seat or spellbound by each note.
Natalie knew that Steven was one of the great audio engineers. Unlike some of them who believe louder is better who have damaged not only their own ears, but those in the audience, Steven could mix a 26-piece orchestra with meticulous finesse. Every string, horn, percussion, guitar, every tinkling of the ivories was audible and layered to perfection never overpowering Natalie’s voice.
After each show we’d hang out backstage in the Green Room with six or seven of Natalie’s band members and backup singers. I remember how magical it was when Steven and I joined the band on the road for three days at the Paul Masson Winery in Saratoga, California, a lovely venue in the foothills of the Bay Area. We were also invited to Natalie’s second wedding on September 17, 1989.
Unfortunately, after she stopped performing at the Hilton we lost track of each other. We saw her at Caesars Palace in 1999, but it wasn’t the same as the old days. You know how it goes – time passes, things change, people go their separate ways.
In 2008 we heard that Natalie had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C, which she had contracted 25 years earlier while using heroin, right around the time she won her first Grammy for Best Female R&B Performance for “This Will Be.”
As the doctor explained to Natalie, even though she had quit using drugs years earlier, the Hepatitis C virus, which attacks the liver, can remain dormant in the body for decades.
The diagnosis came while she was in the middle of making a new CD “Still Unforgettable” so she postponed treatment for months. When she finally started giving herself the weekly interferon (chemotherapy) injections she says they made her feel like she was dying. In a matter of weeks, Natalie went from looking and feeling healthy to being incredibly sick and looking emaciated after losing 20 pounds.
Despite pleas from friends and family, Natalie did not want to disappoint her fans and she refused to cancel her trip to Japan in June 2008. It was tough, but she felt if she didn’t push herself she would either die or just crumble. Somehow she got through ten shows before returning to the U.S.
LIFE LESSON: We all do things that are harmful to our health. Probably not heroin or cocaine, but millions of people are addicted to prescription pain killers, sleeping pills and over-the-counter medications.
We abuse our bodies by overeating and consuming foods that are processed, have chemicals, artificial sweeteners, and food coloring. We kill off our cells quicker than necessary when we overload the body with alcohol, smoke cigarettes, don’t get enough sleep, become couch potatoes and allow ourselves to get stressed out. Sadly we often ignore the damage our bad choices cost us until it’s too late. Natalie never imagined that what she did 25 years earlier would gravely affect her health, and neither do we. Like ostriches we bury our heads in the sand. We don’t want to think about it. We don’t want to know the consequences of our actions.
Our bodies are amazing machines. But we only get one, and when we’re done trashing it we can’t trade it in for a new model. Sometimes it’s possible to get a new liver, a new kidney or a new heart, but there is a shortage of donors. And for those who are lucky enough to receive a transplant, they have to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of their lives. Doesn’t it make more sense to take care of our bodies in the first place and treat them as if they were more valuable than all the gold in the world?
In September 12, 2008 Natalie had trouble breathing. Luckily a friend insisted she go to her doctor. After a quick exam, the doctor immediately sent Natalie to the hospital where they found that her lungs were filled with fluid and her kidneys were rapidly deteriorating. The interferon treatments, which had saved Natalie’s liver and probably caused her kidneys to fail, were discontinued.
In March 2009, the media announced that Natalie Cole was on dialysis and needed a new kidney. She went on TV and sat down with people like Mary Hart on Entertainment Tonight, Harry Reasoner on the Early Show, and Larry King.
No matter where she was in the world, Natalie underwent three-hour dialysis sessions three times a week. She says the treatments were arduous. They went into her jugular with a catheter to draw blood. She was hooked up to a machine that mimicked the kidneys and washed her blood, then pumped clean blood back into her body.
She said she wasn’t angry and didn’t feel like a victim. “Hell, it was my dope addiction that created this mess,” she said knowing that the waiting time for a kidney can take up to three years.
In May 2009, while Natalie was waiting for a kidney, her older sister Cookie was diagnosed with lung cancer. Two weeks later Cookie slipped into a coma. Natalie was at her bedside when she received the call that they had found a matching kidney donor.
It so happened that a 32-year-old Latino woman named Jessica who suffered from pre-eclampsia had died shortly after giving birth. It also happened that the young woman’s aunt was Natalie’s nurse during one of her dialysis treatments. The aunt recalled how she and her niece had seen Natalie on Larry King Live and that they’d talked about wanting to help her, never imagining the tragedy that lay ahead.
LIFE LESSON: There are no coincidences. All of our lives are intertwined. You never know where help or a solution to your problems may come from; how a chance meeting or encounter with someone may change your life.
“I can’t deal with this now, I’m here with my dying sister,” Natalie told the woman from the transplant unit. With only two hours to decide before the kidney would be given to someone else, friends and family convinced Natalie that it was what her sister Cookie would have wanted. On May 22, 2010, Natalie was on the operating table receiving the life-saving organ when her beloved sister passed away.
Natalie has known the loss of many people close to her – her father, her ex-husband, her brother, and the nanny who took care of her son Robbie, but losing Cookie was the hardest thing she says she’s gone through. “There’s a part of me that’s missing now. I don’t expect I will ever totally get over it,” she’s admitted.
LIFE LESSON: We’ve all heard that it’s not what happens to you, but how you deal with what happens that determines the outcome of your life. Of course it’s easier to give up, to pull the covers over our head, to feel alone and despondent when we’re going through difficult times. It’s hard to think positive when things seem bleak. But we can’t move in the right direction out of the mire and darkness if we give up. We have to dig deep and focus on the blessings and gifts we do have. It helps if we reach out to others less fortunate.
Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have – life itself.”
– Walter Anderson
With a healthy liver Natalie had a new chance at life. She seemed to make a miraculous recovery. Natalie says looking back she can see the hand that plucked her out of or put her into special situations. “I don’t really understand it. I know that God had my back, even when I was screwing up. And I know he has a plan for me.”
Perhaps part of the plan is for Natalie to help educate the public about the necessity of becoming an organ donor. Since her transplant, Natalie has become an advocate for kidney research and organ donation. “We are born with two kidneys and we only need one to survive,” she says. “Maybe God gave us the other one so we could give it away.”
Fifteen months after her operation, in October 2010, Natalie performed at the David Foster & Friends concert at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. I was there as a member of the press and I was relieved to see that Natalie looked gorgeous in a skin tight black and white gown, and she sounded just like I remembered.
Steven didn’t go with me to the David Foster & Friends concert so when Natalie came to The Cannery in North Las Vegas on May 21, 2011, we went. We had great seats close to the stage and we could see that when Natalie walked out she seemed a bit frail. After a couple of slow-tempo ballads, she reached for a high-back stool that had been placed nearby. “I have issues, so I hope you don’t mind if I sit down,” she said.
Of course the audience understood what those issues were. It was bittersweet as Steven and I watched Natalie sing while perched upon that stool. We squeezed each others’ hand and remembered those special moments we shared with her.
Watching Nat perform that night we could tell that while she looked fragile, she seemed strong in spirit, uplifted by the music. I wanted to really understand the journey she’s been on these last few years so the next day I went and got her new book, Love Brought Me Back: A Journey of Loss and Gain. In it Natalie gives an honest, heartfelt account of where’s she’s been, what she’s gone through, and what’s she’s learned.
There are so many things in this world that I don’t know or understand. But I do know this in the core of my being. It was love that sustained and uplifted me during a fragile and frightening time in my life. Love led me when I couldn’t see my way out. Love carried me when I couldn’t take another step. When my hunger was insatiable, love fed and filled me. Love comforted me when I was sick and hurting. Love kept me sane, focused, and steady – all day long, all night through. Love brought me back.”
– Natalie Cole
LIFE LESSON: If we can only heed Natalie’s eloquent words. She knows first hand that love is the most powerful emotion on earth. Love of God, love of self, and love for and by another.
I am so grateful that Natalie Cole is still with us. She brings such joy and pleasure to anyone who hears her sing. She truly is a gift.