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‘Natalie Live!’: Natalie Cole’s Triumphant Live Album

The culmination of an incredible run of studio albums, ‘Natalie Live!’ showcased her innate command of the stage.

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Natalie Cole Natalie live album cover
Cover: Courtesy of Capitol Records

“All of these tunes are wailin’ songs,” writes Natalie Cole in her autobiography Angel On My Shoulder. “Wailin’ is good for the soul sometimes.” Cole was reflecting on her album Natalie… Live!, which immortalizes the performance of a singer given the freedom to simply let rip.

Though it plays seamlessly as if from a single concert appearance, Natalie… Live! actually drew from various shows at Los Angeles’ Universal Amphitheatre in August 1977 and, months later, at New Jersey’s Latin Casino in March 1978. The Universal Amphitheatre concerts were Cole’s last before taking time off for the remaining weeks of her pregnancy (“I have, uh, some business to take care of,” she jokes to her audience on the album). Backing vocalist Anita Anderson tells me that “those were [some] of our best performances,” recalling that the band was “really fired up” to give Cole a worthy send-off. “Memories of a lifetime,” remarks bassist Bobby Eaton, remembering the celebrities that he saw backstage: Ike Turner, Ben Vereen, Chaka Khan. Even Muhammad Ali.

Listen to Natalie Cole’s Natalie Live! now.

Those celebrities knew just how incredible a live performer Cole could be. Cole was, of course, the daughter of Nat King Cole, but her 1975 debut album Inseparable owed more to Aretha Franklin’s brand of fiery soul than to her father’s jazz crooning. “I felt a lot of Aretha in Natalie’s voice,” says Chuck Jackson, who wrote and produced Inseparable with Marvin Yancy. It earned her two Grammys: One for best R&B Vocal Performance, Female, and one for Best New Artist. Continuing her partnership with the duo, Cole followed Inseparable with Natalie (1976), Unpredictable (1977), and Thankful (1977). Natalie… Live!, which was conceived by Jackson and Yancy after observing Cole’s special live performances, draws primarily from these first four albums. She was a “marvelous” performer who “brought a lot of life to lyrics, a lot of in-depth experiences,” remembers Jackson.

Cole’s excitement is palpable from the album’s opening track as she struts through funky pop number “Sophisticated Lady (She’s a Different Lady).” “I learned a lot watching people like Chaka Khan, Janis Joplin, and Patti LaBelle, because they grab the audience and they don’t let go,” she later wrote. Supported by a full orchestra and her regular touring band, Cole brings a freneticism and vitality to up-tempo tracks like “Lovers,” “Party Lights,” and “Be Thankful.”

But the ballads are where the album particularly thrills. Cole relishes in the slow burn of torch song “I’m Catching Hell (Living Here Alone)” before exploding in anguish. On “I Can’t Say No,” Cole throws down the gauntlet to her backing singers. “This is your last night, sing!” She demands. “SING!”

I Can't Say No (Live)

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“I’ve Got Love on My Mind” – which brings together Cole’s jazz, pop, and soul influences – marks the album’s apex. Cole teases the audience with an extended introduction and returns them the cost of admission with a rhapsodic climax, injecting each riff and ad-lib with feverish passion. Compared to her studio material, the renditions here are heavily embellished and improvised, which the band tells me was indicative of Cole’s live sets. “[There was] a lot of spontaneity where she would break it down and talk to the audience… I definitely had to be on my toes,” says guitarist Andrew Kastner. “We incorporated some of our wild stuff into her act, which is what she liked!” adds percussionist and backing vocalist Wayne Habersham. Backing vocalist Sissy Peoples: “[Natalie] was a joy to work with [but] you had to know music. She let us do some things musically that we wouldn’t normally do [and would tell us]: ‘I don’t like that… Do more of that… Yeah, I love that!’”

I've Got Love On My Mind (Live)

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Natalie… Live! also includes Cole’s interpretations of other artists’ material. She roars through Garnet Mimms & the Enchanters’ “Cry Baby,” bridging the gap between the original’s earthy soul and Janis Joplin’s more raucous interpretation. (“[Janis] is my favorite rock ‘n’ roll singer of all time,” Cole explained in her autobiography) She also delivers an aptly psychedelic take on The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and squalls through Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” However, the most searing interpretation is Cole’s gospel-flared rendition of Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Sera,” which borrows the bluesy cadences of Sly & the Family Stone’s version. “Everybody sings ‘Que Sera, Sera’… No one sings the song, though, quite like Natalie,” Danyel Smith explained on her podcast Black Girl Songbook. “[She] sings it rich, and wild, and soulful, and risky, because that’s how she lived her life.”

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Reflecting on live performances in her autobiography, Cole wrote that “shows with the right audience are a win-win situation. They’re no-holds barred. You can just go crazy if you want to.” On Natalie… Live!, she does exactly that.

Listen to Natalie Cole’s Natalie Live! now.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Fraser M

    June 14, 2023 at 10:31 am

    This was the greatest pleasure to write and research. I am very grateful for all the musicians who agreed to speak with me and were very generous with their time. Chuck Jackson, too, was a delight to chat to.

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