Joey, where are you going
Where will you sleep tonight
Will you be alright?
Some people can tell you exactly where they were when certain artist have died; Lennon, Elvis, Tupac, Michael, Teena.
I will always remember that I was in a department store when I saw the Facebook post from my friend Jerome Noble that Natalie Cole died. When I saw the post, I took it like I have taken many tragedies initially in my life; I went into a robotic mode mentally, and shut down mode internally as a coping mechanism. I pushed away that thought that such an important figure in my life was suddenly gone and went on about my day. I understood that as time went on I would have to grapple with it. This is a way of attempting to start the process of doing that.
My entire life story can be described with the music I have grown up with. There are certain artist that helped shape particular aspects of my way of looking at things. Natalie Cole was pivotal in shaping my views and perspectives on love, communication, intimacy and vulnerability. This was before I had a single girlfriend. Her words and expression were what I imagined love should be. And thus what I wanted. Her voice alone is right up there with Aretha’s. But if I could compartmentalize, Aretha was like that chick you heard about. She was/is a legend that everyone knows and yet you were lucky to see live if given the chance. Aretha is a legend. For me, Natalie Cole, no less legendary in stature was still that chick you knew from around the way. She lived in my neighborhood. My family went to her house for back yard cookouts. Through her music I felt as if I knew her personally. Even as a child her deep and thoughtful lyrics were totally relatable. That is amazing to me when you consider that this is a woman who grew up in a home where on any given day Sinatra, Davis Jr. Ellington, Fitzgerald, and Basie would be just hanging out with her parents.
Getting to the music, I would be remiss to not mention the brains behind the lyrics and music that Natalie gave life to. Chuck Jackson and (former husband) Marvin Yancy were a dynamic team that brought out Natalie’s own signature style. The game changers for me were two LPs released both released in 1977, “Unpredictable,” and “Thankful.” I listened to the former time and time again via 8 Track living in South Bend, Indiana. My mother played it every weekend when we were doing the detailed cleaning in the house. While the radio played hits like, “I’ve Got Love On My Mind,” I was blessed to hear the rest of the songs like, “Still In Love,” featuring a soft melodic guitar not at all common in R&B music. Then there was “Peaceful Living,” which compared the inner workings of a loving relationship to living in a land of paradise. “Your Eyes,” is a beautiful compliment to a man who eyes she finds so captivating, not recognizing that the man was also blind.
And here we are in utopia where the sun never seems to go away
And the moon is our friend, hmm
Looking out on a starry night and the sky is like a slate for writing on
But you don’t need a pin, you don’t need a pin
Precious one, you’re a joy to me
And I know that there’s no place else I’d rather be
Peaceful living is here
The most impactful hit on, “Unpredictable,” was “I’m Catching Hell.” This was an anthem in which the likes of Mary J. Blige would go on to follow in the footsteps in. Here she opens with a monologue talking to women, encouraging them not to make mountains out of mole hills when it comes to small conflicts in their relationships. The message is simply, “If you got a good man, you’d better keep him!” She addresses the potential resistance to her message by acknowledging that she isn’t privy to each and every situation. But if its not a deal breaker, stick to it. From there she sings her ass off to her man acknowledging that devastating results of her rash emotionalism leading her to put a period where a comma should have been.
If I could replay, if I could replay ,that whole scene again, oh well
You know that I would never, never say it again, that our love, our love is at its end
And oh, you know that I would kind of ease on back, yes I would
And let confusion pass on by, I took a fools’way out, oh yeah
Without one good reason why
“Thankful,” was introduced to me in the outer suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA from my grandfather whom I visited most summers as a youth. He had the cassette tape and played it when we rode in his 1978 creme colored fully loaded Lincoln Continental Town Car. That car was an immaculate beast! Whether it was around town or on road trips to Meridian, Mississippi where he was born, like “Unpredictable,” I listened intently and learned every word to every song. “Thankful,” is nothing like “Unpredictable.” To this day I am still amazed that she released two totally different iconic albums in one year. Who ever does that?
You’re my morning star shining brightly beside me
And if we keep this love
We will last through all eternity
Again doing what normal R&B divas didn’t, she jazzed it up from the start with the up tempo swinging, “Lovers.” Without pause she soon gives us a calypso ladened and poetic La Costa. “Nothing Is Stronger Than Love,” is sang like a cross between a church service and the signature song in a Broadway play. “Annie Mae,” is a powerful tribute to the young girls struggling with life on the streets. Both of these albums played like an opera for me, each song a scene in the lives of my mother and other adults I looked up to; waiting to play my own part in my own life as an adult.
When I became an adult and no longer had access to my favorite Natalie Cole works, and with the release of CDs I looked for years with great displeasure learning that every piece of work she had up to that point were not released. For some reason Capitol Records was holding out. Eventually I found the single LaCosta on a Capitol compilation. Then eventually I purchased both Thankful and Unpredictable three years apart from Japan. (Thank you Ebay) Thankfully with the internet and some streaming services these songs are easily accessible.
I find it ironic that I was recently watching an old episode of Grey’s Anatomy and noticed Natalie was playing a heart patient with little chance of living long into the future. I am so disappointed that I never saw her perform live.
Natalie reinvented herself plenty of times. From R&B to pop, then following in her father’s footsteps in recreating his works in Unforgettable. Unforgettable is so amazing because she not only does the standards her father mastered, she managed to still make them totally her own. She went on to do several classical jazz standards and her voice was always astute for the occasion. I love those works, but it was those two 1977 releases that changed my life. Listening to those jams last night my mood started to lighten a bit. Instead of falling into despair, I will simply say, “Thank You for blessing me with your gifts, that voice, that heart. You may be gone but your music will last forever in the playlist of my heart. It would be selfish for me to ask you to stay forever. You are allowed to take your rest for a job well done.”
When the snow falls on the Sahara, ‘And the sun freezes over,
When the Mojave red turns into blue.
When the music’s no longer playing and the faithless start praying,
I’ll stop loving you.
Your #1 Fan