The glorious force of Natalie Cole

'Unforgettable' Natalie Cole dead at 65
'Unforgettable' Natalie Cole dead at 65

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'Unforgettable' Natalie Cole dead at 65 02:40

Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: Natalie Cole stood up to many difficulties, overcoming addiction, loss, in a successful career as beloved singer
  • He says with her "Unforgettable" album, she kicked off "duets" sub-genre, made crossover from pop to jazz even as she struggled with health

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)Whatever life threw at Natalie Cole, she kept coming back. And hers was not an easy life: There was the loss of a parent during adolescence, the drug dependency and then a series of illnesses serious enough to have put one of the most lucrative and widely beloved music careers in jeopardy.

Yet Cole overcame these tribulations with such glorious consistency that it was a shock to begin the New Year hearing news of her passing the night of December 31 at age 65 from congestive heart disease. There were reports that she'd been hospitalized last month, but somehow we'd thought she'd find a way to pull through again.
Natalie Cole releases Spanish album
Natalie Cole releases Spanish album

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And when she did pull through, as she did after a 1983 stint in rehab from drug addiction (the perils of which were detailed in her 2000 autobiography, "Angel on My Shoulder"), she came back stronger than ever with a string of late-1980s hits ("I Live for Your Love," "Pink Cadillac," "Miss You Like Crazy") whose success came close to rivaling her phenomenal rise in the mid-1970s with "This Will Be," "I Can't Say No," "Be Thankful," "Our Love" and the title track from her 1975 star-making LP, "Inseparable."
    But it was 1991's "Unforgettable...With Love" that elevated Natalie Cole's name to something close to epochal stature. She had for the first two decades of her pop-singing career resisted performing and recording songs closely associated with her legendary father, Nat King Cole, who died of lung cancer in 1965 when he was 45 years old, and she was 15.
    On this album, she fully embraced her father's legacy by performing updated jazz-pop versions of his signature hits, including "Paper Moon," "Straighten Up and Fly Right," "L-O-V-E," "Route 66" and "Mona Lisa" that evoked vivid memories of her father even as they allowed her to reassert her own distinctive style and broad resources as a vocalist.
    This symbiosis of talents reached a technical and emotional peak with an engineered "duet" of father and daughter on "Unforgettable," which led older and younger generations of record buyers to take the album rapidly into platinum-sales status. The Grammys rewarded the risk with six of its top awards, including Album of the Year.
    The "Unforgettable" duet kicked off a veritable sub-genre of albums pairing such elder statesmen of classic pop as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett with a wide range of contemporary vocalists from rock, soul and even country music.
    More important, the album's success established Natalie Cole as a vocal artist who was as credible a force with jazz aficionados as she was popular with pop music lovers. Sinatra and Bennett, along with Cole's father, are among the very few who share that distinction.
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    She continued to successfully mine the jazz repertoire without turning her back on the R&B-Soul music that made her a star.
    And yet...she could never get free of health issues. She announced in 2008 that she'd been diagnosed with hepatitis-C, a liver disease she said came from her years as an intravenous drug user. Treatment for that disease led to the deterioration of her kidneys and she frequently needed dialysis in the last few years of her life.
    Yet, again, despite the setback, she came back swinging, securing yet another Grammy nomination, for Best Latin Album, for her 2013 Spanish-language LP, "En Espanol."
    She was, for a time, not just "unforgettable."
    She was -- until now -- unstoppable.
    .