Natalie Cole’s passing was the very first thing I heard waking up New Years Day of 2016. This turned out to be just one of far too many cherished musical icons who passed away during the course of the year-finally concluding with the loss of George Michael on Christmas Day. I’ve been aware of Cole’s music and presence in some way,somehow throughout my life. And at the end of the day,I do not desire to have her death be representative of what might be the worst all around year of the new millennium. So today,I’m going to talk about Natalie Cole related events that both influenced and taught me.
First time I ever heard her was when my mom and dad used to play a cassette tape of her 1987 album Everlasting for me. Its an excellent album I proudly have on CD today. The song they both went into it for was the Bruce Springsteen penned slice of rock n’ soul “Pink Cadillac”. With Aretha Franklin’s song “Freeway Of Love” fresh in my mind,that “pink Cadillac” concept seemed to crop more more than it really did. Of course a few years later,she beautifully honored her dad with her re-dubbed duet with her father (now itself a rebooted classic) in “Unforgettable”.
Toward the end of the 90’s,Natalie Cole re-entered my life when re-examining the late 70’s James Earl Jones PSA radio program LP set of my dad’s Genius On The Black Side. Each featured black musical icons,new and old,with wraparound interstitial’s about social security. One of them featured Cole’s debut hit from 1975 “This Will Be”. It was my first time hearing the song,however abbreviated it was. It was about a year later that the TV biopic Livin’ for Love. It was a unique presentation as it featured Natalie herself narrating her life story while Theresa Randall playing her young self.
As illustrated beautifully in this movie,Cole’s life had many highs and lows. She got involved in the music of the 60’s counter culture as a way to separate herself from her family legacy,married Marvin Yancy and engaged on a very successful solo career during the 70’s and into the 80’s. All the while enduring failed marriages and years of drug addiction in the process. However fictionalized the event was,the image of Randall’s Cole hearing her first hit “This Will Be” on the radio for the first time after having scored a fix in a back alley showcased the equal measure of success and irony in her life and career.
In recent years,friends of mine such as Henry Cooper (a big fan of her music and the biopic) and Andrew Osterov,who helped me to explore her earlier 80’s releases,Natalie Cole’s music and its consistent diversity has been brought even further into my field of attention. Much as with Whitney Houston,also not with us anymore,Natalie Cole is an example that musical talent is not simply a matter of genetics. But also one of influence and shared interest-no matter how musical the family is. And now being in a place where I’m starting to make my own music,its something to keep in mind.
George Benson’s vocal style always reminded me a great deal of a higher pitched Donny Hathaway,with just a touch of Stevie Wonder’s melisma for good measure. His vocal tone had such a general strumming quality,his technique of scatting with his guitar became a signature technique. So it was no surprise for me to find out that Benson was in fact someone who knew personally. And they had a musical connection with Phil Upchurch as Benson later covered Hathaway’s “The Ghetto”. Also important is that Benson had always sang AND played throughout his career-long before his 70’s commercial peak. So he is very accessible to appreciate on a purely vocal level as well as instrumental.
In 1976 Benson had a humongous bit of luck with his album Breezin’-produced by Tommy Lipuma and featuring the Bobby Womack penned title hit and his iconic cover of the Leon Russell ballad “This Masquerade”. Also being his debut for Warner Bros. records,Benson was now firmly positioned as a singer/musician who’d have a strong ear as an interpreter. Especially with his back round as a viruosic jazz guitar improviser. His second Warner Bros. release came out in 1977 and was called In Flight. It featured the same lineup of musicians as it predecessor. My personal favorite song from this album is a version of the Nat King Cole standard “Nature Boy”.
Cinematic strings sweep through the beginning of the song. These strings literally segue into Harvey Mason’s drums clipping along at roughly 96 bpm along with Stanley Banks’s two note popping bass,while Jorge Dalto’s Clavinet drives right in the groove along with it. Ralph McDonald’s percussion takes that rhythmic stroll along the way as Ronnie Foster’s electric piano plays along with bell like beauty. This basic groove is the musical atmosphere of the entire song-with the strings moving to the forefront for every other chorus. Benson’s lead vocal carries the first half of the song. On the final minute or two, the melodic focus is on Benson’s guitar/scatting hybrid technique he is so well known for.
When I first heard this,I had no idea Nat Cole wrote it. Benson sings the original melody very faithfully. At the same time,his timing along with the slow crawling, percussive romantic funk called to mind Marvin Gaye’s musical sound of the same period. Gaye had already done a version of this song in 1965. His interpretation was very close to the original. What Benson bought to the song vocally was not only a more modern gospel/soul flavor,but also that more contemporary Brazilian style jazz/funk instrumental atmosphere. It did an excellent job showcasing the evolution of black American music and to me represents an important milestone for George Benson the singer.
Filed under 1970's, bass guitar, clavinet, drums, electric piano, George Benson, Harvey Mason, jazz funk, Jorge Dalto, Marvin Gaye, Nat King Cole, percussion, Phil Upchurch, Ralph McDonald, rhythm guitar, Ronnie Foster, Stanley Banks, strings, Tommy Lipuma, Uncategorized, Warner Bros.
Several days ago? The new year of 2016 wrung in rather sadly with the news that Natalie Cole had passed away from complications with congestive heart familiar. Having been the daughter of Nat King Cole and growing up in a family she described as “the black Kennedy’s”? Natalie, in a similar manner to the also departed Whitney Houston, has occasionally been viewed as someone whose talents derived largely from genetics. Perhaps this led to the years of drug related self destruction that likely contributed to her death at age 65.
Being inspired by soul and rock music more than a jazzy approach? It was now iconic Chicago producers Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy who really helped to beef up Cole’s career. After some unsuccessful label shopping,the team ended up at her fathers old label Capitol. There they all began polishing up work on Cole’s debut album Inseparable. While as a whole it’s gospel/soul ballads and uptempo numbers would define much of Cole’s musical output? The funk got turned up high on numbers such as one of my favorites here entitled “Something For Nothing”.
The groove kicks off with an ascending,classic funk riff from a bassy Clavinet. It’s assisted by a tickling soul stride type honky tonk piano. On each of these phrases? A high pitched,bluesy rhythm guitar riff rings into the next part of the song-all orchestrated by minor chorded strings. Assisted by stop/start funky drumming all the way? The Clavinet buoys the song until the strings and piano spin off into a bright,major chord 70’s Chi Town soul melody on the bridge before it all fades out on it’s original theme.
Listening to this makes me wonder why Natalie Cole,with her gospel heavy soul pipes,didn’t prioritize the evolution of funk as her career pushed forward. Considering how much this particular number has in common with Rufus’s “Tell Me Something Good”? It’s a song very much in the spirit of the “who says a rock band can’t play funk” ethic of taking the blues base,and smoothing it out for a more soulful and danceable groove. It’s still one of the finest examples of Natalie Cole with a strong groove and a strong tribute to her as a potential funky diva.
Filed under 1970's, blues funk, Capitol Records, Chicago, Chuck Jackson, classic funk, clavinet, funky soul, guitar, Marvin Yancy, Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole, piano, Uncategorized, Whitney Houston