With best selling songs like “Unforgetable,” and “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love),” R&B singer Natalie Cole touched millions with songs that demonstrated an extensive vocal range, solid phrasing, and an unprecedented ability to emotionally move a song to a powerful climax. Her extensive music career began as a guest artist for her father, Nat King Cole, and extended for several decades, with nine Grammys won in total. She died on December 31, 2015 after a long battle with several health issues, leading many people to reflect on how much her music meant to their lives.
However, there is another aspect of her personal life that can also serve as inspiration and hope for others. As revealed in her two autobiographies, Angel on My Shoulder and Love Brought Me Back, Natalie Cole struggled with drug and alcohol addiction early in her career. After a hard battle, she successfully entered recovery, and had been clean and sober for over 30 years when she died at the age of 65. In a 2014 interview with The Houston Chronicle, she stated that the reason she was so open about her past addiction was in hopes that “It will inspire others to do the same.”
A Downward Spiral:
Natalie began experimenting with drugs in college, once jumping off a high-rise because LSD had made her think she could fly. Her world-famous father, singer Nat King Cole, had died when she was in high school, and both her unresolved grief and the pressure she felt having to perform in his shadow lead to her recreational habit intensifying. By 1975, when her music career started taking off, so did her substance abuse. Heroin left her feeling sleepy and warm, but she quit after seeing a friend die of an overdose, moving to cocaine instead. Both her and her first husband Marvin took the drug with increasing frequency.
Her substance abuse spiraled further and further out of control. She gave several lackluster performances under the influence, was arrested for possession in Toronto, endured a divorce and several car accidents, and almost saw her first son Robert drown in a swimming pool while she was a binge. She first entered rehab in 1982, but relapsed almost immediately after her 30 day stay.
Hope and Change:
In 1983, Natalie Cole was finally able to changer her life for the better. Her agent, business manager, and lawyer led an intervention. Their serious “undertaker-like” demeanor, and the words “We just know that you are going to die” stuck with her, and she agreed to check in to the Hazelden clinic near Minneapolis. She stated that for almost two years, being without drugs was a very scary experience, but that eventually, even the desire to use drugs left her.
Clean and sober, she was able to salvage and rejuvenate her career, releasing many chart-topping songs and albums. Perhaps most notable was Unforgettable…With Love, created as a tribute to her father, including a “virtual duet” with recordings of his singing. This album was certified 7x platinum, and won Album of the Year at the 1992 Grammys. The struggles of having such a famous father, under such stress and frequently called away touring as Natalie grew up, and the grief of his early death was one of the primary reasons Natalie said she turned to drug use, but her sober self was able to channel those feelings and that legacy into creating a powerful and moving work of art.
Unfortunately, her past drug use had endangered her health, leading to a diagnosis of Hepatitis C in 2007 and deteriorating health. Shortly after her death, her siblings and son released a statement saying that “Natalie fought a fierce, courageous battle, dying how she lived-with dignity, strength and honor.” Her ability to triumph in the face of many hardships, and rebuild her life after a hard struggle with addiction should inspire us all.