Recalling Cole’s Amherst days

AMHERST — As a sophomore psychology major at the University of Massachusetts in March 1970, Natalie Cole had already gained childhood fame by briefly performing alongside her legendary father.

Despite Nat King Cole’s popularity as a singer and entertainer, a show business career was not something Natalie Cole was interested in during her second year of college, telling a Gazette reporter at the time she had no intention of following in her father’s footsteps, instead remaining on track to get a master’s degree and doctorate in psychology.

“I won’t be out of school for the next 10 years,” Cole said. “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.”

Yet Cole, who died Dec. 31 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles due to complications from ongoing health issues, ended up becoming a Grammy-winning singer whose professional career was launched in Amherst, with performances primarily at two restaurants, The Pub, 15 East Pleasant St. and the former Chequers, 422 Amity St., which later became Rafters.

Dolly Jolly, whose family has been involved in owning and managing The Pub for 46 years, said in an email she was sad to learn of Cole’s death and will remember her fondly. Jolly said her husband, Jerry, began managing The Pub in 1970.

“Natalie was a talented young woman with an amazing stage presence,” Jolly said. “Natalie loved singing and performing and audiences loved hearing her. It was a privilege to know her and to work with her at the beginning of her career.”

A March 11, 1970, article in the Gazette about the 20-year-old Cole is illustrated by a photo showing her working at the checkout counter at Louis Foods, the downtown Amherst supermarket, and telling a reporter she was focused on her studies — and seeking a return to the warmth of southern California.

But something happened over the next two years in the college town that put her on the path for musical stardom. She first applied for a waitress job at The Pub, Jolly said. But before working a day serving tables, Cole put a band together called Black Magic and soon was being asked by the Jollys to perform on a weekly basis at the restaurant, which she did for about a year.

“Natalie started work with her band Black Magic at The Pub and she never worked as a server at The Pub,” Jolly said.

Cole had a powerful voice that filled the room, Jolly recalls.

“She loved performing. She loved talking with her audience. She was very engaging,” Jolly said.

“Proud Mary” was among the songs patrons may most remember, with people filling the room and dancing to the song.

“Natalie drew UMass students as an audience, but she also drew people from all over the Valley,” Jolly said.

Even in late winter 1970, when the Gazette reporter spoke to Cole, she reflected on making a record with her father when she was just 6 and a stage show she performed in when 12, and acknowledged that “I do have my father’s voice but I’ve had no training and it’s pretty instinctive.”

There was, however, a hint of what was to come, with Cole saying she had tried out for the musical “The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd” for the Operetta Guild at UMass.

Cole would later return to UMass, as a professional singer, for performances at the Fine Arts Center and the Mullins Center.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.