When she was 8 years old, Natalie Cole went to Mexico City with her father. And while Nat King Cole’s daughter was accustomed to his stardom, she was startled by the adulation he received.
“The people thronged to see him as we were walking the streets — he was like a king,” says Cole, leaning back on a sofa at a Wynwood music studio last week.
It was her first trip to Mexico, but the city’s plazas and her first piñata were less memorable than the crowds’ enthusiasm.
“I could not believe all these people knew who my daddy was,” she says. “It was the first time I had been around that kind of energy. So that made a very big impression on me.”
Forty-five years later, that impression inspired Natalie to celebrate a little-known side of her famous father’s artistry with Natalie Cole en Español, an album, released this week, that covers classic Spanish-language songs such as Frenesi and El Dia Que Me Quieras recorded by her father.
Between 1958 and 1962, at the height of his career, the iconic singer of Mona Lisa and Smile recorded three albums in Spanish. Having become the first black star in the white U.S. mainstream, Cole crossed another cultural divide with his success among Latinos. His following was particularly devoted in Cuba, where he performed in Havana’s famous nightclubs and made his first Spanish recording with some of Cuba’s top musicians. He remains an emblematic singer of the island’s musical golden age.
“Dad was a frontrunner with all of this,” says Natalie, 63, who has her father’s long, lean frame, and gestures often with her slim hands, dangling earrings brushing the shoulders of her ornately patterned blouse. “People knew he was an American. They just loved the idea of this man taking these wonderful songs and making such beautiful music. For them this was like a gesture of honor, love and respect.”
Natalie’s biggest album was Unforgettable…with Love, a 1991 tribute to her father’s classic songs that marked her shift from R&B and pop to standards. She decided to follow his path into the Latin world after she was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2008 and received a kidney transplant in 2009.
“I just came to the realization that I don’t want to do another jazz record right now, I don’t want to do a pop record,” she says. “What am I going to do? How am I going to change it up a little bit? Not unlike when I did Unforgettable, people still looked at me like I was crazy” to record in Spanish.
She was encouraged by Unforgettable producer David Foster, who signed her to Verve Music Group when he took over the label a year and a half ago. The En Español album, recorded in Miami last month, includes an Unforgettable-style duet with her father on Acercate Mas (Get Closer to Me), as well as covers of such romantic standards as El Dia Que Me Quieras, Frenesi and Quizas, Quizas, Quizas, with lush, swoony arrangements in the style of the ’50s.
Natalie is paired with Andrea Bocelli on Besame Mucho and Dominican star Juan Luis Guerra on his Bachata Rosa. Her younger twin sisters, Timolin and Casey, visiting the recording studio from their home in Boca Raton, were coaxed into singing backup on Oye Como Va.
“I said, ‘C’mon you guys, sing something with me,’ and they just freaked out — but we had the best time,” Cole says.
Natalie is the not first artist to revive — and capitalize on — her father’s Latin legacy. In 2010, Cuban singer Isaac Delgado did an album of Nat King Cole’s Spanish-language songs, L.O.V.E., with musicians including his brother Freddy Cole, and in 2011, jazz saxophonist David Murray recorded Cole’s Cuban repertoire.
But Natalie brings her celebrity and intimate ties to Español. She has been seeking to connect with Hispanic audiences as a presenter at last fall’s Latin Grammys, a performance at the inaugural Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame gala in April and appearances on Spanish-language TV.
The album was produced by Rudy Perez, a Latin music veteran who has also worked on Spanish-language recordings with Beyonce and Michael Bolton. Perez, whose family came to Miami from Cuba when he was 7, says he grew up listening to Nat King Cole.
“These songs are iconic songs that we fell in love to, slow danced with a girl to,” he says. “A young Hispanic kid, when they want to connect with their roots, he wants to hear Celia Cruz and Vicente Fernandez and Carlos Gardel, because that’s the real deal. I think Natalie Cole will be cool with that generation just like Tony Bennett is cool with those kids.”
Like her father, Natalie does not speak Spanish, and learned the lyrics phonetically. But she did hear him rehearsing Cachita and Acercate at home and heard the language on family visits to a Mexican home owned by his Honduran manager, Carlos Gastel, who persuaded him to record in Spanish.
“As far as accents and phrasing, I gotta tell you a lot of it came naturally to me,” she says. “It really wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be.”
She found that the power of the music helped to propel her.
“Even though I was not very familiar with [the songs], with most of them I could sing them right away,” she says. “I could at least hum the melodies. Because they were so, not predictable, but there was something about them musically that made so much sense. … And the passion and romance in these lyrics are so very poetic — they’re so, so beautiful.”