When the great pop crooner Nat King Cole died of cancer in 1965, at the age of 45, his 15-year-old daughter, Natalie, was in Massachusetts at prep school. "I never really got a chance to say goodbye to my dad," she recalls. "I didn't know he was sick for that long. I found out in December when I went home from school. He was very ill. He did not look good at all. I was shocked. Two months later when he died I was devastated."
Twenty-six years later Natalie, whose own career as a pop and soul diva has soared, dived and reascended like a phoenix, has found a way "to say thank you and goodbye" to her father. On "Unforgettable," her lush, nostalgia-drenched new album, she has recorded 24 of the songs her father once sang in his inimitable crushed-velvet style, from the dreamy "Mona Lisa" to the finger-snapping "Route 66." In the memorable title song--and the haunted video Steve Barron made to accompany it--the magic of digital technology lets Natalie perform a duet with her dad, and exchange a kind of vow. "Unforgettable," her father's voice croons, "that's what you are." "Unforgettable," she sings back to him, "though near or far."
Natalie Cole's deeply personal project was considered a commercial long shot in a contemporary music scene heavily geared toward rap, metal, dance and rock. But since its canny release around Father's Day, the album has seized the country by quiet storm: for the second week in a row it is No. 1 on the Billboard chart, and the duet single, after four weeks on the chart, has already hit number 25. Though Cole had six consecutive gold records between 1975 and 1979--before drugs took their toll on her personal life and career--this is the first time she's had an album in the top spot, with 1.2 million copies sold in just seven weeks.
The music biz is slightly stunned by the numbers. Cole's success is the latest sign of the growing clout of the adult contemporary market, which made surprise hits in the past decade out of Linda Ronstadt's "What's New" and Barbra Streisand's "Broadway Album." As baby boomers go gray, they're rediscovering the music they first heard on their parents' hi-fis. "Its success dramatizes how hungry that audience is for music," says Billboard columnist Paul Grein. "The more pop-oriented older demographic is totally ignored, so when something comes along it goes through the roof."
To help "Unforgettable" along, Elektra devised a careful marketing strategy, including the orchestration of Father's Day media stories. But the secret ingredient in the success story is Nat King Cole himself last year Revlon used his version of "Unforgettable" in the ad campaign for its Unforgettable fragrance. "The fact that a major Madison Avenue commercial was built around a Nat King Cole tune signifies he's still considered hip today," says Grein. Just last year the late singer was awarded a lifetime-achievement Grammy. Further proof of the vitality of his legend is the bottom line: the family reportedly earns close to half a million dollars a year on royalties from Nat King Cole's records.
Since 1980 Natalie has been performing "Unforgettable" live in concerts. But it's taken 15 years for her to feel ready to make this album, she says, to "carry the name ... in a gracious manner. There's a responsibility that I have that I just couldn't carry until now."
In the beginning of her singing career, her struggle was to get away from being "Nat King Cole's daughter." And so the music that she's sung for the past 15 years was her own generation's--and "everything my father couldn't stand. He really didn't like that kind of music." She found herself continually compared to Aretha Franklin. (On the new album there are hints of Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson and Dinah Washington.) What did she learn musically from her father? "Directly very little," she says, "Indirectly probably quite a lot. I learned from my dad through osmosis because I traveled with him and I'd see things and recall those things when I got older ... The only thing I knew for sure is that he didn't like rock."
Constantly touring, her father wasn't around the house very much when Natalie was a child. But she remembers him as a gentle, sweet man. "My father had a naivete that would drive my mother crazy," she says. "He was nice to everybody. He trusted everybody. My mother always used to say, 'Oh, you're just like your father.' I got to thinking, 'Well, I guess that's not such a good thing.' But I'm glad I'm just like my father." Still, she adds, "I think I have a little more aggressiveness than my dad. And I'm much more outspoken."
Before Natalie could come to terms with her father's legacy she went through an intensely self-destructive phase, which finally ended in 1983 when she underwent a six-month drug-rehabilitation program. "When I fell, I fell hard and I fell long," she explains. "I was totally gone. I wasn't involved in the business; I didn't care about any of that stuff and I was taken advantage of... Despite all that I've been through I'm not bitter, but I'm a lot smarter."
Looking back, she now sees that she was using drugs--cocaine, alcohol, mescaline--"to put a huge Band-Aid on a woman who as a little girl had problems with self-esteem. ... I was running away from the fact that I didn't feel that I was worthy. And the worst thing that can happen to you is for everyone to tell you that you're wonderful and you feel inside that you're not." She traces part of the problem back to her privileged childhood in a posh, old Los Angeles neighborhood, as the daughter of a star. "When I was little the friends my mother wanted to put me with were not necessarily the kinds of people I would have chosen as my friends. And those people were not with me because of myself but because of who I was to them. Everyone was always nice to us and you never really knew why."
What she regrets most is that during her drug days she neglected her son, Robert, from her first marriage. He was 6 when he came to visit her at the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota, four months into her treatment. "He was the first one to forgive me," says Cole. "Everyone else I had to beg and plead."
Robert is 13 now and lives in Los Angeles with Cole and her second husband, music producer Andre Fischer, who has three children of his own. She likes to think her son gets the same kick out of watching her perform as she used to get sitting in the audience at her father's shows. "One of the things I noticed about my dad was that he was the same person on the stage that he was off," she recalls. "He did not become an untouchable person."
"Unforgettable" is an unabashed attempt to touch her father again. Listening to the song, "I really believe totally that he was singing this to me, that he could've easily been," she says. "Because I lost him at such a vulnerable point in my life I have to make up a lot of things, ways he would have reacted, things he might have said that I never heard, things that he was getting ready to say before he died. So this is my way of creating my own little dialogue between me and my dad."
Cole pauses and smiles. "I've been up and I've been down," she says. "I still have moments of doubt and uncertainty. I haven't become this strong, perfect person. But the moments of doubt aren't as frequent. It's important for me to keep a clear head. " The clarity and self-assurance are there on the tracks of "Unforgettable." Coming to terms with her past, she seems to have guaranteed her future.
PHOTOS: A pop diva comes to terms with the past: Seven-year-old Natalie joins her father at the keyboard in 1957 (left), reunited with Nat King Cole on the 'Unforgettable' video (below).