Natalie Cole’s sisters, Casey and Timolin, knew the end of her life was looming. So they flew to California to be by the Grammy award-winnner’s side for one last Christmas. Other members of the iconic singer’s family gathered bedside, too. And touchingly, while she had everyone close, Cole delivered a final, emotional message.
Now, Cole had struggled with her health in the years leading up to her 2015 passing. For you see, in 2008 she revealed that she had hepatitis C, which caused her body to go in to kidney failure. But in reality, she had had the disease for decades without knowing. In fact, she appeared on an episode of The Larry King Show where she ended up making an appeal for an organ donor.
By December 2015, though, and despite a kidney transplant in 2009, it seemed that Cole’s health had gotten irreparably worse. For she started canceling shows and checked in to a Los Angeles hospital. And sadly, it would turn out to be one of her last hospital visits. So, her family gathered round to say goodbye.
Natalie Cole was born with music in her blood. Indeed, her mom, Maria, had previously sang in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. And her father, jazz singer and pianist Nat King Cole, had a velvety smooth voice and a legion of fans spanning the racial divide. Of course, he was one of the first black artists in the United States to have such a wide appeal.
And the Coles had five children in total: Carole, also known as “Cookie”; Natalie; Nat, who went by Kelly; and twins Timolin and Casey. Out of all of them, Nat knew that his second-eldest daughter had inherited his musicality. Not only did he dote on Natalie because of her gift, he included her on one of his records when she was just six.
In fact, the strong father-daughter bond made Nat’s death in 1965 all the more heartbreaking for Natalie, then aged 15. And yet, she told The Guardian in 2001 that her mother made her put on a brave face. The singer recalled, “I don’t think I ever really bawled or cried. That creates a pocket that you put all your stuff into, and it soon gets too heavy to carry.”
Losing her father pushed Natalie to “act up” to get attention. She admitted to The Guardian, “My father gave me that (attention), and once he left I felt that I didn’t have any.” And when she went off to college, the singer’s daughter fell into a serious substance abuse habit. Yes, she used LSD and heroin.
In any case, Natalie graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1972. And after that, she started playing the club circuit with her band, Black Magic. At first, she didn’t have confidence in the way she performed. Furthermore, she hated it when audiences would shout out requests for her father’s songs.
However, come 1975 Natalie knew she had to make a change. And through what she described as “immense self-will,” she ditched her heroin habit. Then, the singer began work on a demo, which eventually landed her a record deal with Capitol. In fact, Capitol released Natalie’s debut album, Inseparable in the same year that she overcame her drug addiction.
What’s more, Inseparable made an instant star out of Natalie. You see, many compared the sound of her album to that of her idol, Aretha Franklin. Indeed, Franklin admitted that she had even passed on the single “This Will Be,” after initially being approached to sing it. Ironically, that record earned Cole a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. And coincidentally, her win marked the end of an eight-year streak in the category for Franklin.
Clearly, Natalie had achieved instant career success – so much so that critics wondered if her sophomore album would be a failure. But the singer’s second release, 1976’s Natalie, achieved gold-level sales, just as her debut had. This time around, her biggest hits were the funky “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Mr. Melody,” a jazzy tune.
And Natalie had no intentions of slowing down. For in 1977, her third album, Unpredictable, hit the airwaves. This time, the Grammy winner hit platinum-level sales thanks to the album’s number-one song, “I’ve Got Love on My Mind.” Late 1977 saw the release of her fourth album, Thankful, which also reached platinum status.
With two platinum releases in 1977, Natalie became the first female singer to achieve such a feat. And she began to diversify her career, starring in a TV special of her own, as well as on a similar program hosted by Frank Sinatra. By 1979 she had become such a star that she earned one on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In Natalie’s case, though, all that glittered wasn’t gold. You see, in the mid-1970s, she had married her songwriting partner, Marvin Yancy, and the pair welcomed a son, Robert, in 1976. But their marriage broke down and ended in divorce in 1980. At the same time, Natalie found herself in the throes of addiction again – this time, she abused cocaine.
In fact, the artist struggled with cocaine without much support from her inner circle. As she went on to explain to The Guardian, “No one knew a lot about addiction in those days. People would say, sometimes very angrily, ‘Why can’t you just stop? Don’t you know who you are?’ But the problems were still there within me. So yeah, I went back into it about a year after the birth of my son.”
So, the singer’s drug use worsened, as did her health. In fact, she started smoking crack, and her addiction sometimes took precedence over her son. For example, in one worrying instance Robert even pedaled his tricycle in to a swimming pool while she took drugs. Needless to say, her career and reputation suffered as the public learned about her addiction. And in 1983 she decided to make a change and check in to rehab.
Unexpectedly, rehab revealed to Natalie that her addiction may have stemmed from the heartbreak she felt over her father’s death. When her rehab counselor suggested this, though, the Grammy winner was incredulous. She recalled, “I said, ‘What? No way! I’m over that!’ Which couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
But the artist emerged from rehab ready to reclaim her music career, and she did under the tutelage of Modern Records. Her return to the top took a few years, though. For her first release, Dangerous, paved the way for the platinum-selling Everlasting in 1989. Indeed, its success marked the singer’s first platinum album in a decade.
And yet, the best was still to come. For in 1991 Natalie finally gave in to requests to sing her father’s music. Yes, she released the album Unforgettable… with Love, featuring her versions of Nat King Cole songs. Touchingly, the standout tune was “Unforgettable,” which spliced together her modern-day vocals with her father’s to create a duet.
Now, the singer’s old-school record delighted fans and critics alike. And “Unforgettable” became a top-20 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100, and the album itself sold upwards of seven million copies. What’s more, she cleaned up at the Grammys, too – winning gongs for Record of the Year, Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance and Album of the Year.
In the following years, Natalie pursued acting as well as a music career. Another recording she made with her father’s vocals, “When I Fall in Love,” earned her a Grammy in 1997. And the album on which it featured, Stardust, also went platinum. After that, she released eight more albums, including the Grammy-winning Still Unforgettable in 2008.
Around the same time as Still Unforgettable’s release, Natalie’s health went in to decline. And in February 2008, her doctor told her that she had hepatitis C, a likely side-effect of her previous intravenous drug use. The news shocked the singer, especially because she didn’t feel sick at the time, she told AARP The Magazine in 2009.
Soon, though, the musician began to feel the effects of her diagnosis – during the press tour for Still Unforgettable. Terrifyingly, she couldn’t breathe well and had no idea that it was because her kidneys had begun to fill with fluid. A concerned friend called a doctor in to see the famous songstress, and she was told to go to the hospital immediately.
Without that doctor’s visit, Natalie admitted, “I might have died that day, alone in my hotel room. I owe so much to her (her concerned friend).” That’s because the singer’s kidneys were no longer functioning properly, which required her to go on dialysis. Doctors also put her on the transplant list, although it typically took three years for patients to receive the organ they needed.
But Natalie felt determined to keep her touring schedule intact amidst her diagnosis. And she found dialysis centers everywhere she performed, from Italy to the Philippines to Turkey. The disco-era icon explained to AARP The Magazine, “I’d sometimes fly for 14 hours, then go straight to dialysis. I spent a little time being tired, but we managed. I’m not a pity-party person.”
Eventually, Natalie did get a new kidney, but it came at one of the hardest moments in her life. Out of all of her siblings, she had always shared the strongest bond with her older sister, Cookie. As Natalie’s best friend, Tammy Engelstein, went on to explain to AARP The Magazine, “Two sisters couldn’t have been closer than Natalie and Cookie.”
As it panned out, in May 2009 Cookie had a health crisis of her own – doctors diagnosed her with lung cancer and, two weeks later, she slipped into a coma. And Natalie rushed to her sister’s side, and that’s when she got a phone call – a kidney was available immediately. Now, she didn’t want to leave Cookie, but her family insisted that she have the operation.
As Natalie rolled into surgery, she wondered aloud how Cookie was doing. But no one in her camp would tell her the truth – her beloved sister had already died. Indeed, they waited until after the surgery, which went perfectly, and the singer emerged with a new lease of life. And, of course, the moment was bittersweet, considering she had lost Cookie.
On the upside, though, Natalie’s loss drew her closer to her loved ones. And she started spending more time with friends, including Engelstein, as well as her sisters, twins Timolin and Casey. And her new kidney gave her energy and power on-stage, too. She told AARP The Magazine post-op, “I’m still singing great. I think that’s a miracle.”
Sadly, the kidney transplant extended Natalie’s life for just six more years. And in December 2015 she started canceling shows as her health worsened. Namely, the singer had fallen ill with liver disease, as well as complications from her kidney transplant and hepatitis C. So, her younger sisters, Casey and Timolin, made their way to Los Angeles to be by her side.
By coincidence, Casey and Timolin’s visit coincided with the Christmas holidays, and the sisters spent several days with Natalie. And touchingly, the Grammy winner didn’t mince her words as she let the twins know how she felt about them, as well as the rest of her loved ones who had gathered.
That’s right, Casey later told the Daily Mail, “My sister Timolin and I were with Natalie at Christmas time as a family. She told us that she loved us all.” Indeed, those were the last words that the iconic singer said to the twins, “I love you all.”
Now, Casey had returned home to Florida after the holidays, shortly before Natalie’s passing. And it was later revealed that the acclaimed singer had suffered from congestive heart failure in addition to the other illnesses. Ultimately, she died on New Year’s Eve, 2015, in a Los Angeles hospital.
In the wake of her sister’s death, Casey provided some words of solace for her family and Natalie’s many fans. Yes, she told the Daily Mail, “It’s heartbreaking, she’s fought a very long battle and she’s at peace now. She’s in heaven now and she’s ringing in the New Year in ways we don’t know.” Plus, she had had her son, Robert Yancy, with her in her final moments, undoubtedly an added comfort for the family.
So when the world learned about Natalie’s death on January 1, 2016, Casey, Timolin and Robert released a statement. They wrote, “Natalie fought a fierce, courageous battle, dying how she lived … with dignity, strength and honor. Our beloved mother and sister will be greatly missed and (she) remains unforgettable in our hearts forever.” But that wasn’t the only tribute.
Not by any means, because shocked artists chimed in to share their grief, too. According to The Guardian, her idol, Aretha Franklin, said, “I am sorry to hear about Natalie Cole’s passing. I had to hold back the tears. I know how hard she fought. She fought for so long. She was one of the greatest singers of our time.”
Meanwhile, crooner Tony Bennett remembered Natalie as “an exceptional jazz singer” with whom “it was an honor to have recorded and performed.” He added, “She was a lovely and generous person who will be greatly missed.” And singer Dionne Warwick highlighted their close bond, saying that the “Unforgettable” singer was “more like family than friend.” Furthermore, Natalie’s son, Robert, delivered a heart-wrenching speech at her funeral, too.
Indeed, according to USA Today, he proclaimed, “What a woman. She taught me how to love. She had my back every time when I needed it. The greatest gift she ever gave me was Jesus. I cannot wait until that day that I see you again.” But nearly two years later, another tragedy rocked the Cole family.
Yes, in August 2017 first responders found Robert dead in his California home, the victim of “a sudden heart attack,” according to The Associated Press. Once again, the famous family felt “just numb” with the loss of their beloved sister’s son. However, his aunt Timolin did say that relatives could focus on one good thing in spite of their heartbreak.
As Timolin went on to explain to The Associated Press, “The only consolation is that he’s with the person he loved most.” Indeed, Natalie’s strong bond with her son could’ve been behind a previous point she made in an interview with People magazine. She had said, “I think that I am a walking testimony [that] you can have scars. You can go through turbulent times and still have victory in your life.”