Singer Natalie Cole

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Grammy-winning singer Cole shares the story of how, when she was in need of a life-saving kidney transplant, she learned of a successful organ match while at her dying sister’s bedside.

Born into musical royalty—the daughter of Nat "King" Cole—Natalie Cole was exposed to the greats at an early age. Over her three-decade career, she's sold more than 30 million albums and won nine Grammys. She was the first Black singer to win The Recording Academy's "Best New Artist" award. Cole segued into acting in the '90s and has made several appearances in films and on TV, including the popular show Grey's Anatomy. She also exec-produced a biopic of her life and recently released her follow-up memoir, Love Brought Me Back.


Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Natalie Cole to this program. The nine-time Grammy winner has been singing and performing since she was just a baby, six years old, to be in fact. On December 8th, if you are fortunate enough to be here in the Southern California area December 8th, she will be making her debut at Disney Hall – Natalie Cole debuts at Disney Hall December the 8th, more on that in a moment.
She’s out, though, now with a new book, a very personal book, about the events of the past couple of years, including her life-saving kidney transplant and the death of her sister, Cookie. The book is called, appropriately, “Love Brought Me Back: A Journey of Loss and Gain.” Natalie, when I say it’s nice to see you, I mean it’s nice to see you.
Natalie Cole: (Laughs) Thank you, honey, thank you.
Tavis: When you were last here, I started praying really hard when you left. You looked great, as you always do –
Cole: Thank you.
Tavis: – but I could tell you were sick.
Cole: Yeah.
Tavis: You had been diagnosed at that point.
Cole: Yeah, mm-hmm.
Tavis: I think you were about to start the dialysis.
Cole: Yeah.
Tavis: But when you were here last time I recall just saying to myself, I don’t know if that’s the last time I’ll ever get a chance to interview Natalie Cole.
Cole: Yeah, I know.
Tavis: So I’m just thrilled, over the moon, that you’re still here.
Cole: Yeah, isn’t that something?
Tavis: Back on the show, yeah.
Cole: I tell you, God must still have some stuff for me to do. Yeah, I did not even know that I was that close to leaving here.
Tavis: Yeah – how close were you?
Cole: Let’s see – maybe about 8 percent. My kidney function had less than 8 percent left. That’s how close.
Tavis: Yeah.
Cole: Yeah, and I was on dialysis within, like, three days.
Tavis: I want to jump to the book in a second here, but first of all, the title – you and I were just talking before we came on the air here.
Cole: Right.
Tavis: One of my favorite DJ – hey, DJ – (laughter) love me some DJ Rogers, and one of my favorite DJ songs is “Love Brought Me Back.”
Cole: Yeah. I was in New York and I heard it over the speakers, and I said, “That is the title of my book.”
Tavis: Yeah.
Cole: I love that song.
Tavis: You heard the song and you just knew it?
Cole: Oh, yeah, absolutely, because it just makes sense, because it did. When you look back on certain things you can kind of ask yourself, “How did I get through that?” The truth is you didn’t get through it, people brought you through it. Energy, good energy, prayers brought you through it, and that’s how I knew.
Tavis: Speaking of DJ, one of my other favorite DJ songs, you did a beautiful cover, the best cover I’ve ever heard – “Say You Love Me.”
Cole: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: That’s a beautiful song.
Cole: Thank you, yeah, it is.
Tavis: Yeah, and your treatment of it –
Cole: Now, see, you’re going to make me think, well, maybe we should start putting it back in the show. (Laughter) Because somebody else – actually, Denzel, I ran into Denzel a couple of weeks ago and he was telling me how he loved a song I used to do called “Joey,” and we put it back in the show. I said, “This is for Denzel.”
Tavis: You know what? If I show up December 8th and you don’t sing it now, I’m going to feel slighted, like Denzel’s more important than I am.
Cole: Oh, Lord.
Tavis: It’s like you put Denzel’s song back in the show.
Cole: Oh, no fair, no fair. (Laughter)
Tavis: No, anyway, it’s a great song, great song. So you were last here and it wasn’t that long after your appearance here that you went into the dialysis. How did you end up with the kidney?
Cole: Well, as you know, it’s a long list, actually, especially in big cities – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. They actually recommend that you go on another list in a smaller city besides the big one. So we had already tested my family members, even my son, bless his heart. He was not a match. We just got a call. I was with my sister when the call came to say that they did find a perfect match, and that the kidney was specifically designated for Natalie Cole.
So the hospital kind of flipped out because again, with that long list, how did I get to the top of the list all of a sudden? But what had happened was serendipitously a woman had taken care of me for one day at Cedars at the hospital. I was in there for an in-and-out procedure.
She saw me on “Larry King” along with the niece, her niece, whose kidney I ended up getting, because this girl passed away a couple weeks later. She remembered, and she said, “I would like to go to the family and ask them would they consider donating my niece’s kidney to Ms. Cole.”
Tavis: You said two or three things I’ve got to go back and unpack.
Cole: I know, I know. I know, it’s crazy. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, there’s so much in there.
Cole: It’s crazy, I know.
Tavis: Let me slow this thing down. (Laughter) Let me slow this down and go back.
Cole: Okay.
Tavis: Before we get to the kidney and the phone call about the kidney, when you mention your sister, I know one of your sisters fairly well, one of the twins. So you have a few sisters.
Cole: Yes.
Tavis: The sister you’re speaking of is no longer with us.
Cole: Carol, right – Cookie.
Tavis: Carolyn, Cookie. So when you said you were with Cookie, you have to color that in a little bit more. You weren’t just with her.
Cole: Okay – right, no. She was in the hospital.
Tavis: Exactly.
Cole: She had actually managed to keep her illness away and now that I realize, she was sick for a while and probably didn’t say anything to me because she was worried about me. That’s her. That’s the kind of woman that she was. But it turns out that she was fighting lung cancer, and finally, when she couldn’t keep it from her family anymore because she started to show physical symptoms – started to swell up and her pallor, her skin started to change.
Anyway, I saw her – the last time I saw her alive was Mother’s Day and I got a call that she wasn’t doing well, and that’s when I went over to the house. It was Mother’s Day and I’m like, “What’s going on?” I’m thinking, okay, she didn’t feel good, but she still wouldn’t say what it was.
We went to the doctor the following week and he said, “You’ve got to do chemo, like, yesterday.” So I knew then that it was very, very serious, and I knew my sister wouldn’t do it because she was into homeopathic and the natural way to do things.
So she ended up having another crash and they took her to the hospital. I was there with her, and I got a phone call on my son’s cell from the other hospital that they found a match.
Tavis: So you’re with your sister, who is dying –
Cole: m-hmm, she was (unintelligible).
Tavis: – when you get a phone call that there’s a kidney specifically for you to save your life. So how do you process that? Your sister’s dying; I know you don’t want to leave your sister.
Cole: No.
Tavis: But you got a kidney and – did they give you a time frame about when you’ve got to come claim it?
Cole: Yeah, about two hours.
Tavis: You have two hours to get to the kidney.
Cole: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: All right.
Cole: Yeah.
Tavis: So your sister’s dying, you got two hours to get to the kidney, so what do you do? How do you process – obviously, you went to get it, but how do you process that?
Cole: Well, actually, there were two phone calls. The first call came in around 1:00 in the morning when I was at the hospital – maybe about 12:00. I went home, because I’d been there most of the evening, to try to get a little sleep. Where Cookie was called me back, said, “Come back, she’s really going, we think, very quickly.”
I went back and the hospital, the other hospital, called again, and this time they said – it was, like, 4:00 and they said, “We need to get you there at 6:30.” By then there was, like, 20, 25 people in the room – all our family, friends, cousins, nephews. Nobody was in the position to be able to hear anything. We were just focused on Cookie.
So I called my business manager. I couldn’t – I needed someone who had some different kind of focus, and he was one of the few people that wasn’t there, and I told him what was going on. I woke him up, 4:00 in the morning. I said, “What should I do?”
He was like, 30 seconds – “Go for it.” He said, “You’ve got to go for it. Cookie would want you to go for it.” So I had to kiss her goodbye.
Tavis: Cookie passed away when, relative to your claiming the kidney?
Cole: She actually passed away four and a half hours after I left her.
Tavis: Okay, so your family knew before you went into surgery that she had passed.
Cole: Right.
Tavis: But they didn’t want to tell you that.
Cole: They didn’t tell me, yeah.
Tavis: Because they didn’t want you to go into surgery with that kind of burden.
Cole: Exactly.
Tavis: Right. So you found out after you come out.
Cole: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: So how do you process that? You have a kidney – we’ll come back to the kidney in a second – but you have a kidney, but on the other side of the successful surgery you learn that your dear sister has passed.
Cole: Yeah. The grief and the feelings of different emotions is so powerful that it takes days to really put everything in some kind of perspective. You know I’m a woman of faith and I know that God’s hand has been in my life always. But this one was, like, really so extraordinary. I just had to keep praying that he knew best, that this all happened for a reason.
But I still had a lot – I had survivor’s guilt, because you have to remember that two people were gone – the young woman whose kidney I have as well as my sister.
Tavis: Her name was Jessica?
Cole: Jessica.
Tavis: Jessica.
Cole: Jessica. So two lives are gone and one life is saved. So that is a process in itself of why me, or why not?
Tavis: But that does make you feel guilty, though, or has, at least?
Cole: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, and that was tough, because I’d never felt anything like that before. I’d never experienced anything like this before. I just couldn’t – I really couldn’t figure it out. I had a tough time with it.
Tavis: You said the hospital freaked out, and I know what you meant by that.
Cole: Yeah.
Tavis: The way the kidney transplant system works, you can’t buy these kidneys.
Cole: No.
Tavis: You can’t cheat and jump to the top of the list.
Cole: At least not here in the U.S.
Tavis: Not supposedly.
Cole: You know they’re selling them all over the place.
Tavis: Right. So obviously, when someone famous like Natalie Cole is down the list and jumps to the top –
Cole: Sure.
Tavis: – it would cause some alarm for how Natalie Cole jumped.
Cole: Absolutely.
Tavis: What do you know about – tell me a bit more, then, about why – at least why they told you that the family specifically donated this kidney for Natalie Cole?
Cole: Well, first of all, probably because the woman who made the request was a nurse at Cedars. I had been her patient for a day, and the facility that – the organization that facilitates organ transplants, organ donations, is called One Legacy.
They came to the house not long after Jessica passed and Aunt Esther just happened to be there – this was the – Esther is the name of the nurse – she just happened to be there the day that they came, and they said, “We know that Jessica’s a donor.” The whole family, as a matter of fact, are donors.
She said, “I would like to put in my two cents. I know a woman who is in need of a kidney, and since Jessica’s a donor I’d like you guys to consider giving her one of Jessica’s kidneys. Her name is Natalie,” and that’s all they knew. It turns out when they did find out it was Natalie Cole, the mother, Jessica’s mom, knew who I was, but the rest of the family really wasn’t that familiar with me.
Tavis: You’ve got to send them a care package of Natalie Cole records.
Cole: Oh, no – no, no wait. (Laughter) No, wait, no, no, no, no, but check this out –
Tavis: And Nat King Cole records.
Cole: But check this out – what happened was after all of this and we met, dah, dah, dah, in Jessica’s belongings – CD of “Unforgettable.”
Tavis: Oh, so Jessica knew. She had the “Unforgettable” CD. Wow.
Cole: Isn’t that something? I was just blown away. I was just – I can’t. (Laughs) I don’t know, it’s just so crazy.
Tavis: You call it serendipity, some call it six degrees of separation, some call it God, but do you recall – you referred to her as “Aunt Esther.” Do you recall having been served by this nurse on that one day you were in the –
Cole: Oh, yes, I remember her.
Tavis: You remember her?
Cole: Oh, yeah, I remember we ordered root beer floats and she was laughing, because my girlfriend was there with me. We ordered French fries and grilled cheese sandwiches, and I’m sitting up on dialysis, because obviously on dialysis, you can eat. (Laughter) So yeah, I do recall her. Not as well as my girlfriend did, but I did recall her.
So when I realized the way it came, I was like, “Jeez, she was my nurse for, like, five hours.” Out of that, she just liked me. She knew who I was, and I could have been the diva and all that. You just never know who’s watching you. You really don’t. If I had been another kind of person she would have said, “Mm, let her get her own kidney.” (Laughs) You know what I’m saying?
Tavis: Or just having a bad day.
Cole: Yeah.
Tavis: Which you were – I mean, dialysis isn’t a good day.
Cole: Which I was. I had many of them. (Laughs)
Tavis: Yeah.
Cole: But she just remembered me as being lovely and, oh – and her and Jessica were watching “Larry King” together when she said, “Oh, I took care of that lady. I really wish that we could help her get a kidney.” And Jessica was there with her.
Tavis: You raise this issue in the book, and it’s a bit of an impolitic question to ask, but you know I adore you and I want to ask it anyway, and I ask it lovingly, of course. Again, because you reference it in the book – you believe that your illness, your hepatitis C, you believe, was brought on most likely by your drug use back in the day.
Cole: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: You’ve been clean and sober for a long time, but back in the day when you were doing drugs is most likely, you think, the way you contracted this hepatitis C. So how does it make you feel when through your own misbehavior, because of your own misbehavior, you end up contracting something and a kidney that could have gone to somebody who’s done nothing to damage their body ends up coming to you?
Cole: I don’t think I ever thought of it like that. I think of it in kind of two parts. The hepatitis, clearly my responsibility. I’m totally accountable for that. It’s just extraordinary that it stayed in my body for that long. The truth is I should have been dead.
I think that when you are – once you get sober and you’re in a program that teaches you not to beat yourself up too much about the kinds of things that you have caused, mostly to yourself, even though it causes a lot of people a lot of pain around you, but there’s only so much that you can take of beating yourself up, holding yourself accountable, blaming yourself.
Just the fact that I survived it still lets me know that God saw something redeeming in me in spite of myself. You know that saying, “God takes care of babies and fools?” This fool (laughter) – I’ll tell you, he is worn out.
Tavis: Yeah – a whole bunch of us in that category.
Cole: You know what I’m saying?
Tavis: I know I am.
Cole: Exactly.
Tavis: I asked that question because I want to get your response to that, obviously, but the flip side of that question is – and this is the way I read it – that God oftentimes blesses those of us who have platforms to tell the blessing, to share the blessing, to let others know. You now get a chance to travel the world and to talk about organ donations.
Cole: Organ donation, absolutely.
Tavis: And spread love through your music. There’s so much good that comes out of the fact that you got that kidney.
Cole: Mm-hmm, yeah, and everything that I’ve been through, it seems that it’s important for me to share it, because I don’t know, for some reason, my life is public in the sense of what I do, but I’m really not a big personality. But for some reason, this is my ministry, if you will, and I stopped questioning it a long time ago because so many things have happened – way too many things have happened, and things that perhaps for another person would have been just too much.
But I’m stronger, first of all, than I thought I was. I’m better than I thought I was, and I’m really, really wise and strong and I’m just really good at sharing things with people. They just get it with me. I’m just right there with them. And things that perhaps for another person would have been just too much. But I’m stronger, first of all, than I thought I was. I’m better than I thought I was, and I’m really, really wise and strong, and I’m just really good at sharing things with people. They just get it with me. I’m just right there with them.
Tavis: I hear you, of course, on my iPod just about every day, or regularly, so I’m always hearing you in my headphones. I’ve not heard you live in a little bit, so that’s why December 8th is going to be –
Cole: You must come.
Tavis: I’m going to be there.
Cole: You must come.
Tavis: Great concert at Disney Hall, I’m sure. I raise that to ask what all of this has done to the instrument. How are the pipes sounding?
Cole: I’m telling you, Tavis, not one ounce has been touched. The gift is just still there, sparkles. I’m shocked. That picture right there, the one in the purple, was my first time at the Hollywood Bowl back on stage.
Tavis: Nice dress.
Cole: Thank you. (Laughter)
Tavis: Don’t know how the voice sounds, but the dress is gorgeous.
Cole: Shut up. (Laughter) It was, it was a beautiful dress, but I was so nervous. I don’t think I’ve been this nervous in probably 20-something –
Tavis: You don’t get stage fright when you’ve been doing this as long as you have.
Cole: I still get it.
Tavis: Wow.
Cole: I still get it, but this night was, like, intense.
Tavis: You were nervous because you didn’t know if the voice was going to hold up?
Cole: I didn’t know anything. I just felt like I was floating. I just couldn’t believe I was alive, I was well, I was healthy, I’m here at the Hollywood Bowl, it’s sold out. Everything was just perfect. When I stepped out there on that stage and my voice just – it was like, “Thank you, God, you’re amazing,” and it’s just really strong, it’s great. It really is a gift.
Tavis: How do you describe what it feels like not just when the voice holds up, you described that, but when you walk out on stage – I assume that when you walked out the audience must have gone crazy when you – Natalie Cole is back, she’s on stage at –
Cole: Yeah, especially I’m home.
Tavis: You’re at home; you’re at the venerable Hollywood Bowl. So how do you describe what you felt from the audience that night when you walked out?
Cole: So much care, so much love – to feel that from a crowd of people, most of them are strangers, even though you’ve got your friends. But the majority of these people really don’t know me, and they just pour out this go for it, Nat, we’re behind you, you got it, girl. I could do no wrong, and it’s an amazing feeling for an entertainer to get out there and have that from the audience.
First of all, just because they love what you do, but then when they know you’ve come back from something really devastating, it’s like bravo.
Tavis: So here’s a silly question – maybe not silly, but interesting, perhaps – so what role did Nat King Cole play in all of this? I mean the deceased Nat King Cole.
Cole: Right.
Tavis: You know what I’m getting at.
Cole: Right, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: What was your daddy saying to you or doing for you? What role did he play during all of this?
Cole: I think that Dad was – first of all, my father led by example. He didn’t do a lot of talking about the world, politics, how people are, how crazy people are.
Tavis: That’s because he sang so much better than talking.
Cole: Yeah, he really did. He really did. That was his way of communicating. He led by example. I think that – well, had he been here, I think he just – he wouldn’t have left my side. He would have been right there. He would have probably been running back and forth between me and Cookie, because both of us were his heart. So it would have been tough on him.
Tavis: Your father died when you were –
Cole: Fifteen
Tavis: – 15. So in truth, you knew Cookie a whole lot longer.
Cole: Mm-hmm, I did, and I must say it’s –
Tavis: How do you process those – yeah.
Cole: I’m glad that you asked that question, because I was surprised at how deeply I grieved her passing, even more so than my dad’s.
Tavis: That makes sense.
Cole: Yeah.
Tavis: You knew her a long – yeah.
Cole: It was – wow, yeah. It’s still going on. I still feel – the emotion is right there for her, because we really did – we had 50-something years together, and we had some great, great years. She turned me on to so much great music that I’m doing now, great movies, great poetry. She wasn’t into fashion; I was the fashionista. But everything else – great food. She just had so much to do with a lot of the woman that I became, and my career.
Tavis: I would assume – I know you would not wish your ordeal on anybody.
Cole: Mm-mmm.
Tavis: Maybe not even your worst enemy.
Cole: Not even my worst enemy.
Tavis: So then what’s the –
Cole: Although, I don’t –
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter)
Cole: Wait a minute – wait –
Tavis: You’ve got to think about that, huh?
Cole: Hmm. (Laughter) I got a few.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, we all do, we all do. That said, here’s the exit question – what’s the abiding lesson that you take away for the rest of your life for having been so close to death?
Cole: Well, it’s very trite and it sounds really corny, but when people say, “Try to make every day count,” honey, they are so – it is so serious. And it’s hard to do that, because you get caught up so much in living, but sometimes it’s not even about you. That’s what I found out – that even though this happened to me and I went through a lot, somehow, I felt it still wasn’t about me.
It was about showing what it’s like to be used. I felt like I was being used, and that somehow I just might get out of this, and then what am I going to do with it?
Tavis: Well, can I just tell you, like any good Natalie, or for that matter, any good Nat King Cole lyric, that was not trite or corny.
Cole: Oh.
Tavis: It was delicious to hear. The new book from Natalie Cole is called “Love Brought Me Back: A Journey of Loss and Gain.” If you are in L.A. December 8th and you can get a ticket (laughter), Ms. Cole will be debuting at the wonderful Disney Hall. Natalie, have a great show, and congrats on the book.
Cole: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Cole: Always good to see you, too.
Tavis: Thanks, sweetie.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm