Oct. 30, 2000 -- With more than 20 million albums sold and multiple Grammy awards to show for it, Natalie Cole, the daughter of legendary singer Nat King Cole, has made a name for herself.
But her amazing success has been accompanied by years of desperation in a world of drugs, crime, prostitution and failed marriages.
“I have been to hell and back,” she says. “I have seen the edge. I have seen the dark side of life.”
In her brutally honest new autobiography, Angel on my Shoulder, Cole looks at the often self-destructive path she has taken and how she has lived to share her inspiring recovery and comeback.
“Where I’m at now helps me to look back on my life and realize that I’ve really had quite a colorful and rich life,” she says. “I really could have turned out to be a different person. I’m so grateful for the way my life has turned out … It almost seems miraculous that I would come to the station that I’m at now.”
Her Father’s Daughter
As the second daughter of Maria and Nat King Cole, Cole had as normal a childhood as was possible for a little girl whose father spent much of his time away from home.
With hopes of one day becoming a doctor, she left her family in Los Angeles to attend boarding school on the East Coast. When she was 14, she came to the shock of her life: Her father had been deathly ill with lung cancer.
Less than two months later in 1965, Nat King Cole was dead at the age of 47.
“I don’t think that any of us really realized how much it would fragment us afterwards,” says Cole. “It unraveled my mom and trickled down to us. And we never healed again.”
During her college years at Amherst, Cole began to experiment with drugs.
“Doing acid or downers or uppers or whatever all that stuff was, Yellow Sunshine, Orange Sunshine … that was part of what everybody did,” she says.
The drugs didn’t keep her from the lure of music. She had joined a band and played in small clubs on the East Coast, but also entertained hopes of becoming a child psychologist.
Then came heroin.
Her boyfriend, she says, was a drug addict who shot up heroin regularly, and she wanted to try it. She says she was intrigued, curious and perhaps rebelling, telling the world: “Maybe I’m not who you want me to be, I’m who I want to be.”
She first snorted it and was soon injecting it.
“It takes over your life. It takes over your brain. It takes over your body, and it takes over your soul,” she says.
Without enough money to pay bills and support her drug habit, Cole resorted to desperate measures, like forging checks, and — for a short time — working as a prostitute.
“I was just on that self-destructive path. And anyone who is an addict will tell you this same thing,” she says. “No matter what is at stake, the only thing that you want is to get high.”
Despite her drug habit, Cole managed to keep her troubles quiet and was still on the road to fame. But in 1975, police found heroin in her hotel room in Canada. Cole was arrested and given three months probation by a sympathetic judge.
Six months later, still using heroin, Cole got so violently ill from the drug that she decided to go cold turkey. She says it was a miracle — the work of an angel on her shoulder.
‘Pure, Fresh, Almost Heavenly Air’
Her drug habit kicked, Natalie’s career began to really take off. Two years after walking the streets of Harlem as a come-on girl and also as a prostitute, Cole’s first album, Inseparable, won two Grammies.
In 1976, she married Marvin Yancy, her songwriter and producer. Together, they had a son, Robbie, and Cole’s life seemed to be coming together.
“Marriage to Marvin, and Robbie, was like a breath of pure, fresh, almost heavenly air,” she says. “It was a man that I loved who loved me … we were just so close.”
But it wouldn’t last. After four years of sobriety, Natalie discovered cocaine. “Again, it was during a time when everybody was doing it,” she says. “It starts off fun.”
But in no time, she was hooked.
“She knew that if she didn’t do something to correct this awful illness,” says her former manager Dan Cleary, “that not only could she not perform, she probably wasn’t going to live much longer.”
So in 1983, Cole went into rehab for six months at Hazelden and in 1991 she was finally ready to embrace the very image she had spent years trying to escape. She decided to record her father’s greatest hits, including an ingenious duet with him that became a phenomenal hit. “Unforgettable-With Love” won seven Grammy awards and sold more than 14 million copies.
If her father could see her now, she says, “I think that Dad would have wept, laughed and wept again … from sad to funny to tears of joy. And one of the things that I needed to do for Natalie was to release her and to release him, so that I could live my life.”