As many scions of feted pop stars and Hollywood royalty will no doubt attest, it’s difficult growing up in the shadow of a famous parent. Perhaps that’s why the late Natalie Cole – daughter of the legendary crooner Nat King Cole – was initially hell-bent on avoiding being sucked into the music business and studied to become a psychologist instead. But, as fate would have it, after graduating from college Cole eventually gave in to the irresistible pull of the music genes in her DNA and sought to make her mark in the industry that she had sought to avoid. What followed was a career stuffed with classic moments, among them her 1977 album, Unpredictable.
Ironically, the only company that showed an interest in her was Capitol Records, her father’s old label, which presented her with a dilemma, as she noted in her 2000 autobiography, Angel On My Shoulder. “Capitol was the last one I wanted to go with because I just knew they were going to be shoving my dad down my throat.” But the fact was that the singer got a deal because of her own remarkable talent rather than who she was related to (and Capitol took great pains to play down the connection). Natalie soon marked out her own territory when her first album, This Will Be – a collection of sassy, gospel-influenced soul music masterminded by producers/songwriters Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy, and which was the complete stylistic antithesis of her father’s music – topped the US R&B charts in 1975.
Cole’s second album, 1976’s Natalie, was also hugely successful (it yielded the No.1 single “Sophisticated Lady (She’s A Different Lady),” but not quite as impactful as its follow-up, Unpredictable, which remains her best-selling album to date.
Released on February 22, 1977, the album finds Cole continuing with the Chicago-based production team of Jackson and Yancy. Their original goal had been to write for Aretha Franklin but, unable to interest the Queen Of Soul, they chanced upon 23-year-old Cole, whose voice was also athletic and gospel-reared. By the time they got to Unpredictable, Jackson and Yancy had honed their craft to perfection. They knew how to write a good song with an infectious chorus that told a story, while Cole knew how to deliver it with verve and passion.
The rousing, singalong ballad “I’ve Got Love On My Mind” was the big single from Unpredictable and landed Cole with her fourth R&B chart-topper. Unlike her previous work, it had some jazz coloration in its harmonic content – something that couldn’t be said of the turbo-charged disco groove “Party Lights,” which was the second US R&B Top 10 entry lifted from the album. The horn-laden “Unpredictable You” also heads for the dancefloor, but it’s funkier, with a pinch of Ohio Players in its strident chorus section.
More soulful are “I’m Catching Hell,” where Cole takes us to church, and the Philly-style soul tune “I Can’t Break Away.” Vocally, both reflect the influence of Aretha Franklin, who had a profound impact on Cole’s own style. But as the singer revealed to this writer in 2007, the US media stoked a rivalry between the Queen and the young pretender to her throne. “They did that right away when I came out,” recalled a rueful Cole. “It created quite a bone of contention between us and, for a long time, we were at odds with one another.”
Unpredictable was also notable for showcasing Cole as a songwriter in her own right for the first time with the songs “Peaceful Living,” a blissful, bucolic ballad complete with string orchestra, and the more intensely dramatic “Your Eyes,” a declamatory pop-rock excursion.
With its varied moods and styles, the album’s title accurately described its contents, which documented Natalie Cole evolving into an accomplished, multi-faceted artist. Never one to stand still creatively, she continued to surprise her listeners throughout the rest of her life. When she died, aged 65, on December 31, 2015, she had nothing left to prove. Arguably, her biggest accomplishment was coming out from under the huge shadow cast by her father – and Unpredictable was a key stepping stone in achieving that.