Rant ‘N’ Roll: Close Encounters (Natalie Cole)

By the dawn of the 1980s, the Aquarian Weekly was affording me the opportunity to meet my heroes, and I was loving every minute of it. Kris Kristofferson talked for hours. Wilson Pickett told me he meant to murder one of The Isley Brothers when he shot at them with his handgun in the desert outside of Las Vegas. The Grateful Dead’s manager pleaded with me not to publish a story about Jerry Garcia’s heroin use (I did as asked, then regretted it). Waylon Jennings didn’t think much of Merle Haggard. Eagle Joe Walsh let me ask him a few questions as we both took a leak in side-by-side urinals deep inside Giant Stadium. I learned right quick that my allegiance was not to the artist but to the reader. These stars, as fascinating as they were, were not my friends, although in the midst of getting them to bare their souls it was hard to distinguish a burgeoning relationship from their need to sell records.

In the midst of her heroin and cocaine addiction, I watched Natalie Cole rehearse, bossing her band around like an out-of-control diva in the middle of the afternoon at New York City’s long-gone Savoy. To her credit though, once she commandeered the stage, she was in total control, like she was born to front a hard-rocking band. Hard rock? You got that right. The song she was rehearsing was from Aretha’s older sister, Erma Franklin. “Piece Of My Heart,” by Jerry Ragavoy and Bert Berns, was a Grammy-nominated hit for Erma in 1967 before Janis Joplin popularized it a year later. Cole was so out-of-control that her mother had to get a court order to take control of her finances and custody of her son.

The daughter of the much-beloved jazz piano player and vocalist Nat King Cole (the man even Ray Charles sought to imitate early in his career), she finally got help in 1983 and has had a long and fruitful career ever since.

There’s an awful clip going around you can see on YouTube of a train-wreck of a performance by the poor, staggering, pathetic Amy Winehouse on “Just Friends.” Winehouse, a great talent, obviously has management that is letting her kill herself while shoving her out on European stages. It’s a sad saga unfolding right before our eyes. Well, Cole, on this night, obviously cranked, did no falling over, no slurring, no eyes rolling up in the back of her head, no incomprehensible raps and stopping the song in mid-verse. Cole, unlike Winehouse, was driving her band harder, faster, whipping herself into a froth, but a musical froth, one born of triumphant survivalism and funky-edged soul. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She took that song everybody knew from Janis and made it her own. She had a habit of doing that. She did it with Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac,” The Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and even Bobby Troup’s 1946 “Get Your Kicks On Route 66” that everyone from her own daddy to Chuck Berry (1961), the Rolling Stones (1964) and Depeche Mode (1987) did. Yeah, Cole could sing some rock ‘n’ roll all right.

Anyway, on this afternoon, she finishes, yells at her band some more, then comes to join me for our interview, which was published in this newspaper in January of 1982. She’s popping kiss after kiss of Hershey’s in her mouth and my half-hour has been reduced to 10 minutes. After complaining about critics who liken her to Aretha, and complaining about how she’s not her father’s daughter, at least musically, she tells me of her acting ambitions (which never came to fruition) and before I can get a question out, she’s off to yell at her band again.


For life advice send Mike Greenblatt an email at mg2645@ptd.net.