Though 2016 was a noisy year filled with conflict, for me it was a year of silence. Like many, I got sucked into the addictive presidential campaign and its daily pull to consume every bit of its toxic minutiae. I willingly acceded, only to realize when the election was over that I felt empty; I had lost track of myself. It occurred to me that I had almost completely stopped listening to music. Part of my retrenchment was defensive; so many beloved musicians were dying that it felt like a betrayal. We saw the exodus of such major talents as Maurice White, David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Paul Kantner (of Jefferson Airplane/Starship), George Michael, and Glenn Frey—artists who had spoken deeply to me and shaped my life. To this list I must add one more name: In the late hours of December 31, 2015, my friend Natalie Cole lost a courageous battle after fighting multiple illnesses. The news broke in the morning hours of January 1, ringing in 2016 with tears from her friends, family and millions of fans around the world. The arc of mourning has returned me to the subject of Natalie Cole as I mark the one-year anniversary of her passing.
At her funeral, producer David Foster noted in a moving eulogy (one of many) that the Natalie was the only female vocalist of the modern era who was equally comfortable singing pop, R&B, and jazz. (Though my vision was blurry from crying, I could not resist a quick glance in the direction of Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight, Natalie’s friends and peers. For the record, neither reacted). I realized that Foster’s observation was not mere hyperbole: Natalie had scored two number-one R&B albums, six number-one R&B singles, five top-ten pop singles, and four number-one jazz albums; her album Unforgettable…With Love that sold seven million in the U.S. alone. Foster’s assertion had been supported by the Recording Academy (NARAS), which had awarded her nine Grammys across all three categories, including Album and Record of the Year for Unforgettable.
In light of all of this, when NARAS held its 58th Annual Grammy Awards on February 16, 2016, there was an expectation among family, fans, and the industry that the organization would pay tribute to the nine-time Grammy winner in a manner befitting her unique multi-generational, multi-genre status. The family was told there would be something special for Natalie. Tributes to Glenn Frey by the Eagles with Jackson Browne and David Bowie by Lady Gaga had been announced in advance and went off well enough. In addition, there was a tribute to MusicCares Person of the Year Lionel Richie by Luke Bryan, John Legend, Demi Lovato, and Meghan Trainor. (Even here you can see the odd ageist casting of the segment at the expense of even a single Richie peer—Diana Ross, Kenny Rogers, Quincy Jones.)
A friend at the Academy had apprised me of exactly what they were planning Natalie: to end the group “In Memoriam” segment with a clip of her singing “Unforgettable.” Their position was that to close the segment with this beautiful moment would confer upon her the respect she deserved. I had cautioned my contact at NARAS that there would be blowback, and that he/she should appeal for a change. Indeed, the response on social media and in the mainstream press was negative, using words like “insufficient,” “disrespectful,” and “insensitive.”
Here was NARAS’ position, one that was iterated by the Academy and the show’s producer Ken Ehrlich (a friend of Natalie’s, by the way): The Grammy broadcast is the engine that powers all of NARAS’ other worthwhile programs, including education-based initiatives, philanthropy for musicians (MusicCares), and the Grammy Museum. These are noble pursuits, and NARAS cannot be criticized for trying to get the highest ratings possible. Unfortunately, this necessitates loading the show with artists who appeal to younger viewers and presenting most awards off the air, essentially making the show a concert for teenagers. This is not a functional position if you care much about enlightening millennials, perhaps the most incurious generation that has ever existed; or paying proper respect to artists who historically have great meaning to the Grammy history, such as Natalie Cole.
Here’s what could have been done: NARAS president Neil Portnow (who adored Natalie and never hesitated to call on her when he needed something) should have spoken personally about her, then introduced a clip package of her Grammy moments and contextualizing her achievements. This film could have told the story in two minutes. Alternatively, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson or Alicia Keyes could have introduced the segment. No one needed to sing, because the point was to shine a light on Natalie and show why she matters.
Now it is 2017, and with the new year comes another slight: Natalie died on December 31, too late to be mentioned in most tributes to those we had lost in 2015; but she was omitted from many year-end lists of notable deaths in 2016. The situation seemed as disrespectful as what I’d seen on the Grammy Awards. Though these public acknowledgments may seem petty, I assure you they mattered to Natalie; she knew her worth.
The encouraging thing is this: In the weeks after the election, I made a decision to reconnect with the things that bring joy and meaning to my life. I severely curtailed my consumption of current events by avoiding cable news and its harem of highly paid harridans engaged in a nightly cage fight; and I began spending more time writing and listening to music.
I began with all the artists we’d lost in 2016. I revisited Earth, Wind & Fire and the production genius of Maurice White, who had also co-written (with Foster) and produced a kitchen-karaoke favorite of mine, Jennifer Holliday’s “I Am Love,” one of the most over-the-top pop songs ever created. I played Glenn Frey songs I had half-forgotten, among them “Lover’s Moon” from his second solo album. I explored later albums by Prince that I had never heard and was thrilled to find many songs that rivaled his best work. Check out “Baltimore” and “Big City” from HitnRun Phase Two; they sound like Diamonds and Pearls-era Prince. On Christmas Day i learned that George Michael was gone, too, and I sought out his recent work. There wasn’t much, but what existed stunned me: a cover of Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Let Her Down Easy,” “White Light,” and, best of all, a 2009 Christmas song called “December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas)” that brought me to tears. Exquisitely constructed with poignant lyrics and a melody as beautiful as any he’d ever written, this song took my breath away, both for its quality and because I felt it was like a jewel, a final gift he had left for the world under our trees. None of those George Michael songs had even released in the U.S.— another reason to cry.
And then there was Natalie. I knew that her voice is inescapable at holiday times unless you are housebound. With this in mind, I preemptively dove into her catalogue. To my surprise, it felt good. One of the most interesting aspects of losing friends who were recording artists is that you can actually feel like you spend time with them when you hear their music. When I hear her sing I feel her presence with such intensity. For this, I am deeply grateful. Natalie always said to me, “I like to sing with a smile in my voice.” Sure enough, during the holidays, I would be in a store and suddenly think of Natalie: I was literally hearing her voice wishing me a happy holiday and I would smile with her; together again.
I want to close with something special that I doubt anyone reading this has ever heard. As co-executive producer and de facto A&R man for Natalie’s album of cover songs, Leavin’, I helped Natalie find most of the material. A song that we both loved the hell out of was Billy Joel’s “And So it Goes,” which was written in 1983 but not recorded by him until 1990, for his Storm Front album. I felt and still feel it’s one of his very best songs, certainly his most underappreciated. Though released as a single, it was not a hit —it’s really not a radio song anyway—but it has since been recorded dozens of times.
The initial demo sessions for the album that later became Leavin’ were produced by the legendary Phil Ramone, whom Natalie had worked with many times (and was also the producer of the original Billy Joel recording.) Ultimately, we decided to move in a more classic soul direction; “And So It Goes” didn’t fit that concept. But in honor of Natalie and our musical romance that lasted almost fifteen years, I want to share our version of that song. I am very proud of this, as I know she was; under the circumstances, the lyrics are even more poignant than they were before.
Natalie’s faith was so strong. When I was sad or having a freakout, she would say to me, “David, God has a plan for you; I know that he does. Great things are in store for you.” I hear her saying those words often; she remains an angel on my shoulder. But the times she feels most alive to me, most present, are when I hear her sing. The entire palette of emotions is there in her large, diverse body of work. How lucky I am to be able to feel the essence of my friend so easily. By listening to her music, I have ended a year of silence and begun to let joy back in. Natalie would have wanted that.
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