Singer Natalie Cole

The nine-time Grammy winner shares the backstory of her latest CD—her first-ever Spanish-language project, “Natalie Cole en Español.”

Born into musical royalty—daughter of the beloved Nat "King" Cole—Natalie Cole was exposed to the greats at an early age. Over almost four decades, she's sold more than 30 million albums and won nine Grammys, including becoming the first Black singer to win the Academy's "Best New Artist" award. Cole segued into acting in the 1990s and has made several appearances in films and on TV. She also exec-produced a biopic of her life and has authored two memoirs. Her latest CD, "Natalie Cole en Español," is the first since her recovery from a kidney transplant and inspired by her dad and a bond forged with the Latino family of her donor.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Natalie Cole was first introduced to Latin music by her legendary father, Nat King Cole, who learned to sing in Spanish in the 1950s in Havana. Inspired by those songs, Natalie has recorded her first album in Spanish, titled appropriately, “Natalie Cole en Espanol.” Let’s listen to a cut from the CD.

[Clip]

Tavis: He still sounds so good.

Natalie Cole: I do?

Tavis: You do -

Cole: Oh.

Tavis: – but your daddy does, too.

Cole: Well of course. (Laughter)

Tavis: No, you sound good. I was getting to that. (Laughter) I was just starting with your daddy, saying -

Cole: Oh, yes.

Tavis: – he still sounds so good.

Cole: And we found footage of him singing that song in Spanish, which is, like, so very cool. Very cool.

Tavis: Yeah. Let me ask you a -

Cole: But you know neither one of us is fluent in Spanish.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. (Laughter) Let me ask you to set your modesty aside for just a second where your father is concerned. I know you love your daddy.

But the older you get and the more you hear his voice and you find treasures like these, what do you think of your father now?

Cole: I think he’s still unparalleled. I really do. I think that he came at a time when there was no one out there like him. He had a demeanor as well. When people talk about my dad, they don’t just talk about his singing. Almost everyone wanted a chance to see him.

Whether it was his television show, even though short-lived, or whether it was live performance, they loved his spirit, his demeanor. He was a really great man. He was a good, he was a cool person. People could get that from him.

Tavis: I’ve never seen a picture, and this – which is rare – and I’m sure there may be one or two in the family photos somewhere, but I – like look at these pictures we’re running through now. I’ve never seen a picture where your daddy didn’t look cool. I mean his style.

Cole: No, no question.

Tavis: His style. He’s just so smooth.

Cole: Please, please, no offense, but Justin Timberlake has nothing on that hat.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Cole: Oh, no. Dad was sporting that a while ago, okay? (Laughter) Don’t even try it.

Tavis: It wasn’t just the smoothness of his voice. His whole style -

Cole: Yeah, the way he dressed.

Tavis: – his whole aesthetic. The way he -

Cole: At home, same thing.

Tavis: Same thing.

Cole: He was very cool. Very cool. Except with his boxer shorts, though.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Cole: That was a little – okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: So how did this idea come to be?

Cole: This is a 10-year development, really. After the success of “Unforgettable,” we started thinking around about what else could we do that would be magical.

My sister and I at the time – my sister passed several years ago – but at the time, we started having talks with Capitol, with EMI. They were going through changes and timing is everything.

So it’s just taken that long to bring it to fruition now, and I was talking with David Foster about three years ago. I was out on tour with David Foster and friends and I said, “You know, David, I’m thinking I’d really like to do a Spanish record.” He said, “Well, if anyone could pull this off, it would be you.”

Then 18 months later he became the CEO of Verve Universal. I didn’t think he was going to sign me, but he did, because he just believed that much in the idea of this kind of a record coming out now.

Tavis: So now that you’ve done this, how difficult was it to do?

Cole: I had so much fun.

Tavis: Oh yeah?

Cole: I could tell you. I’m blessed with a gift for accents, even though I don’t speak Spanish fluently, because I thought we were going to need a coach, especially for the songs that we chose. But Rudy Perez, my producer, he heard me sing “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” and he said, “You’re fine.”

So he just coached me through with a little phrasing, and I just, I don’t know. Maybe it has to do with my kidney, my Latino kidney from my donor family from El Salvador. (Laughter)

Tavis: I’m glad you went there, because I was – first of all, you look great, and obviously you sound great.

Cole: Thank you.

Tavis: How are you feeling?

Cole: I do feel good.

Tavis: Yeah.

Cole: I feel terrific. It’s really a miracle to go from one part of your life health wise and then you never think you’re ever going to feel the same again, you just want to be normal, so to speak. I’ll never be “normal,” but in the scheme of things, compared to how I was four years ago, I’m doing real good. (Laughs)

Tavis: Does that – I was going to say “a brush with death.” With you, it was more than a brush with death, because you were -

Cole: Yeah, but I didn’t even know how close I was to that. I just knew I didn’t feel good.

Tavis: Yeah, so it wasn’t a brush with death. In your case, it was that you were knocking on death’s door.

Cole: I was – yes.

Tavis: How, then, does that encourage you, give you the impetus to push these kinds of projects higher up on your bucket list, as they say?

Cole: Right. Probably because it’s like God, you going to give me a little more time to do this? So that’s the impetus. Let’s do this now. Let’s not wait. Let’s not wait until something else happens. What are we waiting for?

I’m older, I’m more seasoned. If anybody can pull this off – and I still think of myself as an artist who needs to continue to explore. I wanted to broaden my horizon internationally, and it really was almost a no-brainer to do a Spanish record. Not a French record, not an Italian, but something like this.

Tavis: What do we know, what do you know, what can you tell us about why this was a challenge that your dad accepted for himself?

Cole: My dad was persuaded to do this by his manager, whose name was Carlos Gastel. Carlos Gastel was Cuban, and I guess he just felt that Dad could do this, and that he and that he ended up being the first American, Black or otherwise, male or female, to go overseas, period, to do this kind of music.

He was, the response was – Dad was over there in, like, ’58 for that first Spanish record, “Cole Espanol.” The response was so huge he did two more records. He was in Havana for the next 20 years. They still have a statue of him -

Tavis: I’ve seen it.

Cole: – in front of the Nacional Hotel.

Tavis: At the Hotel de Nacional. I’ve been there (unintelligible).

Cole: It’s just amazing. We were, my sisters and I were just going through pictures at the (unintelligible) museum last month of photos that my mom had donated.

We had not seen these pictures before, and there are some amazing photos, Tavis. You would just – there’s when he was in South America, when he was in Argentina, when he was in Havana, and the crowd, just the adoration on their faces for this man is just, it’s really something to behold.

Tavis: One of the things I’ve always – and I want you to comment on this – one of the things I’ve always loved about music in Spanish is that even if you don’t know what they’re saying, it’s sexy.

Cole: It is. Oh.

Tavis: Oh, man. (Laughter) It’s sexy, it’s smooth, it is soothing.

Cole: Yes it is.

Tavis: They could be cussing me out for all I know.

Cole: That’s right.

Tavis: But it sounds good.

Cole: Yes, it does.

Tavis: So tell me more about what it feels like to sing in Spanish.

Cole: I tell you, the first time I started hearing myself, hearing these tracks back and these vocals, I looked at my musical director, who always goes with me when I’m recording, and I said, “I think I like myself singing in Spanish better than English.”

My voice just takes on this – because I don’t know how much you’ve heard of the record, but -

Tavis: I’ve heard it.

Cole: You could tell. It sounds like Natalie Cole, but it doesn’t sound like Natalie Cole, and I think the biggest compliment that I have received is that they’re saying I don’t sound like an American singing Spanish.

That there’s a bit of a Columbian, whatever that means. It’s something good. But I love rolling these lyrics, these words, off my tongue. Some of it is definitely challenging, I will definitely agree, but boy, once we get it, it was like you don’t forget. You just can’t wait to – it just feels good.

Tavis: Compare and contrast, now that you’ve had both experiences, compare and contrast for me, Natalie, singing with your father in English and singing with your father in Spanish.

Cole: I’m better. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, you know what -

Cole: I’m better than he is, actually.

Tavis: Yeah, Mr. Cole is not here to defend himself.

Cole: Yeah, I know. Because when the -

Tavis: He is not here to defend himself. (Laughter)

Cole: But see, the problem is is that – it’s so funny, because you should hear my producer, because of course he was a huge fan of my father’s, but he said he had to do it phonetically. He said, “His Spanish is not as good as yours.” (Laughter)

Tavis: Okay, let me ask another question, since your daddy (unintelligible). (Laughter) He’ll let his little girl get away with that. Tell me more about the challenge of – or the joy, you tell me – of producing singing with him in English on the “Unforgettable” project, and in Spanish on this project.

Cole: Oh, this was a joyous feeling. “Unforgettable” was bittersweet. It really was. And it was the first time, as well. Since then, I think I get much more pleasure out of it than I do pain. I still go, I must say, when we do “Unforgettable,” that one still -

Tavis: Still gets you.

Cole: It still does, because we have nice video footage. Everyone in that picture is gone. My sister, my mom, my dad. It’s tough. It’s tough. But look what they left me, and my mom would be so thrilled if she could have stayed here long enough to hear some of this music. She would have loved it. She would have loved this project even more than the “Unforgettable” project. Yeah.

Tavis: My heart went out to you. I was so just broken when I heard about your mother’s passing a year ago now.

Cole: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Just over a year ago.

Cole: Yeah, it’ll be -

Tavis: Just a year in July.

Cole: – July 9th, yeah.

Tavis: Eighty-nine.

Cole: Yeah.

Tavis: Yet I thought, as sad as I was, I celebrated the fact that she had a long -

Cole: Lovely -

Tavis: – lovely life.

Cole: – rich, very full life, and looked good doing it the whole time.

Tavis: Absolutely, mm-hmm.

Cole: My mom looked good. She really did. Her humor got a little more funny as she got older, which I thought was kind of interesting. Even as she was in the process of leaving, she still had some funny things to say.

I really thank God that I had the opportunity to spend that time with her, because I was traveling when this happened. They told me about it when I was in Istanbul or something crazy, and she asked for me. She said, “Where’s Sweetie? When’s she coming?”

They said she wouldn’t get dressed until she heard I was coming. Otherwise, she was in her pajamas the whole time. I thought that was so sweet.

Tavis: Speaking of being in Istanbul, how are you – again, you look good and you said you feel good. How are you making decisions, not just about projects now in terms of in-studio stuff, but how are you making decisions about where you tour, how you tour, when you tour? How’s that all working out?

Cole: Yeah, this project has really put everyone out of their comfort zone, okay? Were really testing the waters on this one.

Tavis: Has your band learned this stuff yet?

Cole: Yeah. They love it. They are having a ball. One of my piano players actually also works for Arturo Sandoval.

Tavis: Oh, oh. (Laughter)

Cole: Yeah, so -

Tavis: He has the biggest pipe.

Cole: Oh, he is fabulous.

Tavis: His pipes are (unintelligible).

Cole: I’ll see him in a few weeks. But he’s also on this record. Actually, he’s on one of the bonus tracks. But Arturo is beyond. But we are really kind of feeling our way, and thank goodness for the Latin department of Latin Universal, that they have jumped in and really kind of directing us as to where do we go, where we go, how we go, where we need to be, what we need to be doing, even right down to what’s the single going to be or the first few songs.

So they’re really giving us a lot of direction, and that’s important, because I’m clueless. I have no idea.

Tavis: I said Arturo has, he has, like, the biggest horn (unintelligible).

Cole: Oh, and the biggest heart.

Tavis: Big heart too.

Cole: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: Great guy, great guy. To your point now about the Latin department helping you navigate this journey, what have you learned so far, what are you learning – not that you haven’t been around the world anyway, but now you’re singing stuff in their language.

Cole: Right.

Tavis: What are you learning about that audience’s appreciation for the music?

Cole: Well, we haven’t had a chance yet to perform this -

Tavis: So you haven’t done it yet.

Cole: – to, like, mostly Latino or Spanish audiences.

Tavis: Oh, okay. So the band’s learned it, but you ain’t done it yet.

Cole: Well, we’ve performed them live, but here in the U.S., where not necessarily my audiences – it’s an American audience.

Tavis: So let me jump in right quick before I come to that, then. How is the American audience responding to “Natalie Cole en Espanol?”

Cole: I am telling you, their response is first like (gasps), because I kind of set it up. I go, “I just finished recording a Spanish record,” and they go, “Oh.”

Tavis: “Wow.”

Cole: Then I say, “I just want you to check this out.” So I’ll do, like, “Quizas, Quizas,” and they all know that. We all know that one, so that kind of breaks them in a little bit.

Then I come with ” Acercate Mas” with Dad, and they go, “Oh, cool.” Then I do another song, and I think they like it. I think they like it, I really do.

Tavis: Are you excited, scared, intimidated, you fill in the blank, for the opportunity to do this in front of a Spanish audience in a country that speaks Spanish?

Cole: All the above. All the above.

Tavis: Yeah.

Cole: I really am. It’s like I said, I’m out of my comfort zone. When I first walked into the studio with Rudy, the first couple of days, I was like, “What have I done? What have I done?”

But something about it just felt right, and he had some of his friends come in and listen, and they were like man, it’s great. And one of the things I think that we did right is that we did not go with music that nobody was familiar with. These are all Latin traditional, authentic, back in the day, your parents’ parents -

Tavis: Standards, yeah.

Cole: – stuff, and so when they hear – and radio is telling us that they haven’t played this kind of music in so long because it’s always been the, you know. As a matter of fact, they’re saying that Latin music is starting to get so Americanized that, okay, I thought that was interesting.

Tavis: That’s the problem that everybody in the world makes.

Cole: Yeah.

Tavis: They all want to be Americanized.

Cole: They all want to, yeah.

Tavis: That’s the last thing the world needs, is more of us.

Cole: I know. (Laughter)

Tavis: Everybody wants to – it’s like -

Cole: But it’s not necessarily good stuff.

Tavis: Yeah, I got it.

Cole: It’s just the American pop, rap, whatever, but it’s not necessarily really good. A nice compliment from the president of Latin Universal, Jesus Lopez, was that this is what we need to hear again. We need to remind ourselves of how beautiful this music is. So it’s not unlike what we did with “Unforgettable.”

Tavis: You said something a moment ago and I know what you meant by it, but I want to just press you on it a little bit to get more out of you on this, and that is this notion at this stage in your career, at this stage in your life, at this age of your life, on the one hand, you admitted that you’re out of your comfort zone. On the other hand, you said, “But it feels so good.”

Cole: It does.

Tavis: I raise that to ask you to say more about that, because there’s so many people, for a variety of reasons, whatever they’re called in your profession or life’s task is, we don’t want to be pushed out of our comfort zones.

Cole: Right.

Tavis: But in that, you have found a certain joy, I take it.

Cole: Absolutely. I was talking to a few other artists. I went to a convention of radio people. I hadn’t been in 30 years, probably, and it was so great to meet some of the deejays that used to play, still playing my music. But (unintelligible) was there, from, you know, the winner of “American Idol.”

Tavis: Sure, absolutely.

Cole: I was telling him about it, and he was like, “Really?” He said, “I would be scared to death to do something like that.” I said, “You’re an artist. You don’t have to keep doing the same thing over and over. You can explore. That’s what an artist does.” I said, “You might actually enjoy it.”

Michael Bolton was there, he sang a couple of things in Spanish. So it really just depends on where you want to go. I just think that it’s boring to do the same thing over and over again and call yourself an artist.

Tavis: See, I agree that that is ostensibly what an artist ought to have the liberty and the freedom and the agency to do, to explore.

Cole: And sometimes it works, and sometimes it might not work.

Tavis: But, well, sometimes it doesn’t work because your fans won’t let you do it.

Cole: This is true.

Tavis: How have you navigated this career -?

Cole: But I, because I started off crazy. I started off (laughter) -

Tavis: You started out with “This Will Be.” Come on, that wasn’t crazy. That was a hit, that one.

Cole: And then I went to “Good Morning, Heartache,” and then I went to something else. So I always, I never wanted to be that. I think that my fans have gotten okay with that.

Tavis: Used to that.

Cole: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. Since I mentioned “This Will Be,” which I was just listening to yesterday on my iPod, when you hear that stuff from – you sing it, of course, but when you are in your car or wherever and you hear it on the radio from way back when, what does it -

Cole: Amazing.

Tavis: Yeah, what is it – yeah.

Cole: It’s still amazing to me. I can remember standing in the studio; I remember when I first heard the song from Chuck Jackson and Marvin, and how we all just jumped up in the air because we knew this was going to be a great song.

Oh, gosh, and how much fun I still have recording that song. What a great thing to happen for a singer, just to have that one song, and everyone thought it was Aretha at first, and Aretha actually did it at Carnegie Hall, and that’s really my song. Yeah.

Tavis: Tell me how your family, your sisters and brother, how’s everybody doing?

Cole: My sisters, my twin sisters are delightful, they’re wonderful. My son is great. My whole family is doing really, really well. Uncle Freddie’s good, still working like a crazy person. He’s not going to stop until he actually falls over on the stage. That’s how it’s going to happen.

Tavis: Yeah. That’s how it works, yeah. (Laughter)

Cole: Yeah, that’s it. And probably me too. We just love what we do, and we’re very, very blessed.

Tavis: You said something now I’m going to go back and get, because I think you’re probably – my sense is, knowing you as I do, that you’re probably right about that. I don’t see you stopping. You don’t see yourself stopping?

Cole: Yeah. Oh, no. As long as this stays like the way it has been, I’m good.

Tavis: Are you – I know you’re thankful for it, but are you amazed by that, are you impressed by that, that your chops have held up through all of this?

Cole: Well that’s what I was saying about this Spanish record, is that I’m more impressed with me singing Spanish than I am in English. My voice has this little lilt to it, and it’s just got this little – and I’m like, “Wow,” and it still sounds young and vibrant.

I was like, David Foster even said to me, he said, “I can’t believe that you still sound so good,” because I was even listening to some of my peers, who, ooh. I don’t know what that is, I don’t know if it’s because they don’t sing enough or they just kind of lost their whatever. I don’t know what it is. They lost the mojo. I don’t know.

Tavis: That top register is hard to hit, though, for a lot of people.

Cole: Still, absolutely.

Tavis: Still, yeah. Did you like this enough to do another one?

Cole: Absolutely. You can bet on it. Absolutely. Not only that, but it’s going to be really interesting to do another one with some original Latin music that’s actually been written for me.

Tavis: Right, for you, mm-hmm.

Cole: Then it’s going to be like, oof, wow. But what are we getting ourselves into here? I don’t know. But it just feels right. I’m excited. As soon as I start doing the music on stage, I really do feel like I’m transported someplace else. It’s great.

Tavis: I was thinking it’s hard – I guess this probably isn’t true for everybody, and he would probably agree with this – but it’s hard to imagine certain artists ever going wrong with David Foster. David is just -

Cole: I know. But David is picky.

Tavis: Yeah, that he is.

Cole: He can basically envision what’s going to happen before he makes that commitment. That’s why I love him. We think alike. He’s picky, he’s detailed, he’s anal, he knows what he likes. He doesn’t like to fail. I’m with you.

Tavis: Speaking of David, PBS just went through its pledge period.

Cole: You know he just got a star on the sidewalk too, yeah.

Tavis: I saw that. Congratulations, David, on the star.

Cole: Yes.

Tavis: Congratulations. Speaking of David Foster, PBS just went through its recent pledge period, and I don’t care how many times I flip channels and I saw it on, I went back to watch it again, and that is David Foster with Andrea Bocelli in Portofino. Did you see any of this?

Cole: No, I didn’t see it.

Tavis: Oh my God, it was amazing.

Cole: I can only imagine.

Tavis: First of all, yeah, but you got Andrea Bocelli -

Cole: Oh, I have worked with Andrea probably at least half-a-dozen times already. He even asked me to do a show with him, a concert, and I was not able to make it. But he’s divine, and I think that David is a great buffer, because I think that Andrea, who is the ultimate artist, can be difficult.

But David is kind of like the buffer. Whenever I’m with Andrea, Dave is there, so I can kind of mess a little bit with Andrea, and now we’ve gotten comfortable enough that we have that kind of rapport with each other. It’s just great, and God bless him, and God bless David for being okay with me having that beautiful song, “Besame Mucho,” on my record, yeah.

Tavis: It’s those classical guys.

Cole: I know.

Tavis: I’m just being funny. (Laughter)

Cole: He can hold a note longer than anybody, and he revels in that. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yes, that he can do. That he can do.

Cole: Yes he can.

Tavis: The new project from Natalie Cole is called “Natalie Cole en Espanol.” It’s the first one, but not the last one. Andrea’s on here, her daddy’s on here, Arturo Sandoval is on here on a bonus track. It’s a great project, and congratulations.

Cole: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to have you back.

Cole: Thank you.

Tavis: All right. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Jay Lewis

    Excellent

  • Mary Ricci

    I find it very hard to believe that Natalie Cole ,found working with Andrea Bocelli to be difficult and that David Foster was need as a buffer between them . perhaps I mis understood something. Fan of Andrea’a for 15 years or more love him and always enjoyed listening to Natalie!

  • Mary Ricci

    Additional comment , maybe Natalie found the difficulty in their understanding each other because of language( italian )? Would like to see the interview again.

  • marjie gauley

    Andrea speaks Italian, French, Spanish, English, and German. He not only speaks these languages, he is fluent.

  • Alberta

    That was a good show! I love Natalie..

  • Reggie Jones

    Great interview Tavis and Natalie. The CD is awesome as well and Andrea definitely holds that note on “Besame Mucho.” So how do I get these bonus tracks, I thought Arturo was only on “Oye Como Va.” Again great interview!

Last modified: June 28, 2013 at 7:29 pm