Editorial: Natalie Cole foresaw hard life in music business, but enchanted millions

When she was 20, Natalie Cole believed the family business would be no good for her. The daughter of jazz legend Nat King Cole and big band vocalist Maria Ellington, Cole saw that show business could be a hard life.

“I don’t want that feeling of not knowing what will happen tomorrow, the uncertainty of show business. And I don’t know if it’s worth all the pain.”

She spoke those words to a Gazette reporter in 1970, when she was ensconced in Amherst at the University of Massachusetts studying to be a psychologist and working as a cashier downtown at the former Louis’ Foods. She was a college sophomore then and said she intended to be in school for another decade.

But it seems those sentences had hardly left her mouth when her powerful talent took over and led her down a road she had planned to avoid. Shortly thereafter she put a band together — Black Magic — and, singing at The Pub on East Pleasant Street and the former Chequers (now Rafters) on Amity Street, she was hooked and on her way to a brilliant recording and performing career. That choice not only brought her accolades and fulfillment, but drugs and disease, which ultimately led to her death last week of congestive heart failure at age 65.

Five years after her Gazette interview, Cole won Grammy awards as Best New Artist and Best Female R&B Performance. And she was already in the thick of drug problems.

Nat King Cole died, still at the height of his fame in 1965, from lung cancer. But Natalie Cole, who became addicted to heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol, succumbed to sickness that started, she said, with her intravenous drug use. She was diagnosed in 2008 with hepatitis C, a liver disease spread through contact with infected blood. She was treated with chemotherapy and within months her kidneys failed. That led to dialysis treatments three times a week, and ultimately a kidney transplant in 2009. She continued to battle health problems until her death.

Seeing the toll addiction took on her body, she used her own agony to try to help others by speaking out about the dangers of drug use in her autobiography “Angel on My Shoulder,” in television interviews and other public statements, calling out the Recording Academy for honoring Amy Winehouse, who was entangled with drugs when she won five Grammy Awards in 2008. Winehouse died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning.

Though she came to western Massachusetts to pursue her education, first at the Northfield Mount Hermon School and then at UMass, Cole discovered here that singing was what she truly loved. Though she had eschewed the calling following childhood performances with her father, getting onstage with her band in Amherst proved irresistible. Dolly Jolly, who owns The Pub with her husband, Jerry, remembers her voice filling the place in the early 1970s. “She loved performing. She loved talking with the audience,” Jolly told reporter Scott Merzbach.

Aside from the honors secured on her own, Cole went on to win multiple Grammy Awards and even more acclaim for the smooth jazz duets she made with recordings of her father’s voice in the 1990s.

Singing was her calling. On her website in 2008 she wrote: “Like my dad, I have the most fun when I am in front of that glorious orchestra or that kick-butt big band.”

UMass has been able to boast of an affiliation with remarkable musicians, including saxophonists Archie Shepp and the late Yusef Lateef and the late drummer Max Roach, who served as professors and mentors. And that includes a fiercely talented young woman who studied in its psychology department, got her degree in 1972, honed her musical chops in the town’s small clubs and became, in the words of mighty Aretha Franklin last week, “one of the greatest singers of our time.”