“Bwown Natalie, Mommy!” In the limited repertoire of language I possessed at 2 years old—mostly comprised of pint-sized commands—my mother claims this was the most frequent refrain as she buckled me into the backseat of her Buick back in 1977. Like many children that age, I already knew my colors—even if I couldn’t properly pronounce them yet—and my musical tastes were already becoming quite refined. Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Minnie Riperton, Chaka Khan and any number of the era’s other sophisticated ladies were on regular rotation during our car rides, but I’d already chosen a clear favorite: beautiful, brown-skinned Natalie Cole.
Natalie’s first studio album, Inseparable, and I debuted within weeks of each other in 1975. Only 25 years old at the time, Natalie looked barely out of childhood herself on the album’s cover, her minimally made-up face alight amid a cloud of natural curls, a pink rose tucked into one side. Beaming as she extended her arms toward the camera, she seemed to be captured mid-note—and oh, how those notes floated up and out when Natalie sang. Inseparable’s title song and “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)“ were instant hits, the latter boasting an iconic double-timed post-chorus:
Hugging and squeezing and kissing and pleasing
Together forever, through-ever whatever
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you and me...
If “Inseparable” embodied Black love, “This Will Be” was Black joy personified, (morphed into a mainstream commercial mainstay in the early aughts, thanks to eHarmony’s early campaigns). By 1977, Natalie had released three more albums of hits; my most frequent request was likely her second of that year’s, Thankful. That album produced one of my all-time favorite songs, “La Costa” (co-written by Natalie herself), which may have been my first introduction to scat-singing. But what I remember most vividly from the backseat is duetting with my mother on “Our Love,” which featured kid-friendly lyrics about a morning star and love “tall as the trees” and “wide as the seas,” climaxing in Natalie’s soaring vocals modulating over an orchestral crescendo.
I remember being equally enchanted by the painting of Natalie on the album’s cover, smiling and stunning in a copper-hued, spaghetti-strapped gown, shoulders gleaming against a backdrop of sparkling water. It’s worth noting that to my young eye, Natalie likely also bore a slight resemblance to my favorite aunt, a brown-skinned beauty queen who similarly favored orange and copper as her signature shades. At age three or four, my mother took me to see Natalie perform in Chicago; seated on the aisle in Drury Lane’s theater-in-the-round, legend has it my beaming little face caught her eye as she made her way into the audience, singing. She reached down to touch my shoulder—it’s a wonder I didn’t explode in sheer delight.
In the ensuing years, Natalie remained a touchstone in my life. Hip-hop and more contemporary pop and R&B had overtaken the airwaves by the time I reached high school, but it was Unforgettable... with Love that superseded New Jack Swing in my heart. I fell deeply in love with the Great American Songbook, thanks in part to her contemporary arrangements of jazz standards. And when I finally got my driver’s license, it wasn’t What’s the 411? or The Chronic most often bumping from the speakers of my parents’ ride but that modulating bridge on “Our Love”—accompanied, of course, by me crooning along at the top of my lungs (ooh-ooh, ohh-whoa, our love!). The Natalie-penned “Beautiful Dreamer” became my theme song while studying musical theater in college; I mimicked her elegant stylings in cabaret class, dreaming of my own music career while beginning to find my songwriting legs in her simply phrased yet intricate arrangements.
My dreams came to fruition in 2009 with my first and only Grammy nomination. Natalie was nominated that year too, for the aptly named Still Unforgettable album. This time, she didn’t take notice of me seated on the aisle as she swept past, wearing a gown in hues that reminded me of the Thankful cover (down to the sparkles). She was radiant, her skin still gleaming as she walked onstage, enjoying yet another triumph after decades of sobriety and over 30 years since her debut. She received her ninth and final Grammy that night. Within months, she’d require a kidney transplant; six years after that, Natalie departed the earthly stage on New Year’s Eve, 2015.
I grieved Natalie’s passing as if she were another favorite aunt, but when I think of her—when I hear her—the joy is irrepressible. Her voice never ceases to bring a smile to my face, and brings me comfort in the most unexpected moments. A few years ago, I was wandering an antique shop in New Orleans, feeling lost in more ways than one as I mourned someone that I used to love. I glanced down, only to see Natalie smiling up at me from the cover of the Thankful LP; hand on hip as if to say, “Hey, girl—looking for me?” Turns out I was; because even when joy has escaped me, Natalie has been there... an everlasting love.
So long as I’m living, true love I’ll be giving
To you I’ll be serving, ‘cause you’re so deserving
Hey, you’re so deserving, you’re so deserving, yeah, yeah, yeah...