Music Interviews
4:06 am
Sat June 22, 2013

Natalie Cole Takes Her Own Turn 'En Español'

Originally published on Sat June 22, 2013 5:19 pm

The great Nat King Cole had many firsts. He was the first African-American musician to have his own show — on network radio, then television. He was also one of the first, if not the first American artist to record an album in Spanish: Cole Español. It was a huge, rather unexpected hit in 1958, when Latin American music was still relatively unknown in the U.S. His success with Cole Español was so great, he recorded two more albums in Spanish.

Now, his daughter, Grammy Award-winning singer Natalie Cole, is following in his footsteps with a new album: Natalie Cole En Español, a collection of much-loved romantic songs in Spanish. She discusses it, as well as what she learned from her father before and after his death, with NPR's Scott Simon.


Interview Highlights

On her own experience of Cole Español

"I was pretty young, but because of that first record, Cole Español, we took our first trip — well, my first trip — to Mexico. And that was my first time ever traveling outside of the U.S. and really being around people who really just adored my dad because of this record. And it was quite an experience for me. I think I've loved the Hispanic, Latin culture ever since because of that one trip.

"He learned it all phonetically. And I think that the listening audience really appreciated the fact that an American artist would even attempt to do this music. ... They gave him a lot of kudos, I think, so that they forgave the lack of, let's say, a more refined accent."

On performing her father's songs

"It's really sweet. It's bittersweet; it always will be. I remember the first time ... I did it on stage, it was very, very difficult. Very hard for me because I'd never had the chance to really spend time working with him. The Unforgettable [... with Love] record was done in tribute to my dad. It was my way of saying goodbye."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The great Nat King Cole had many firsts: he was the first African-American musician to have his own show on network radio, then television. He was also one of the first, if not the first, American artist to record an album in Spanish. It's called "Cole Espanol."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

NAT KING COLE: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: It was a huge, kind of unexpected hit. This was in l958 and Latin-American music was still relatively unknown in America in the l950s. His success with "Cole Espanol" was so great, Nat King Cole recorded two more albums in Spanish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

COLE: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: Now, his daughter, the Grammy Award-winning singer Natalie Cole, is following in her father's footsteps. She has a new album: "Natalie Cole En Espanol".

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOLAMENTE UNA VEZ")

NATALIE COLE: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: It's a collection of much-loved romantic songs in Spanish. Natalie Cole joins us from New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

COLE: Hi, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Do you remember much of your father recording that first album back in l958? You were a little girl then.

COLE: Yeah, I was pretty young. But because of that first record, "Cole Espanol", we took our first trip - well, my first trip - to Mexico. And that was my first time ever traveling outside of the U.S. and really being around people who just adored my dad because of this record. And it was quite an experience for me. So, I think the loved the Hispanic, Latin culture ever since because of that one trip.

SIMON: Why did he record an album in Spanish?

COLE: Beats me. I mean, you know, dad was a pioneer. He was fearless. He would try just about anything. And at the time, his manager, Carlos Gastel, was a Cuban gentleman. And he persuaded dad to look into it. And dad thought, well, you know, let's give it a shot.

SIMON: Did he take a Berlitz course before he recorded?

COLE: Not a thing. He learned it all phonetically. And I think that the listening audience really appreciated the fact that an American artist would even attempt to do this music and also include the traditional fuel box of Latin music. And they gave him a lot of kudos, I think, so that they forgave the lack of, let's say, a more refined accent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SIMON: I must say, your pronunciation sounds as if you've not only had a Berlitz course or two but you just came back from 10 years in Valencia.

COLE: Well, bless you.

SIMON: Let's listen to a song. This one is "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIZAS, QUIZAS, QUIZAS")

COLE: (Singing in foreign language)

I had so much fun. I think I loved the idea of rolling these words off my tongue. And I have to say that I enjoyed myself singing in Spanish more than I sound in English.

SIMON: Really?

COLE: Yeah. I just - there's something about the whole feel of it is just so different. And I feel like I could put a little more emotion into the phrasing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIZAS, QUIZAS, QUIZAS")

COLE: (Singing in foreign language)

Once you know, of course, what the song is about then you can have a little more, you know, a little more intense, a little more passion and a little more sexy. And I just really enjoyed doing this. It was great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIZAS, QUIZAS, QUIZAS")

COLE: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: Do you see some commonality between the great Latin jazz standards and U.S. jazz standards?

COLE: Absolutely. Number one: memorable melodies. That is what keeps this music going. Any good song, between good lyrics and a good melody, you just can't go wrong. You can hum them, you can remember them and they stay with you long after.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

COLE: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: Was there a time in your life when you, even certainly loving your father, you wanted to make certain you were making it on your own and kind of avoided the comparison?

COLE: Absolutely. No question. When I first started to sing, the last thing I wanted to do was sing my dad's music. And, ironically, when I was signed to a label, it was Capitol Records, which I thought that they would be like, oh, you got to sing your dad's music. But they...

SIMON: He made Capitol Records.

COLE: He certainly did. The house that Nat built. But they did not insist on that, whereas I went to two other labels and they said, well, are you going to sing your father's music? And I said no. And it took 15 years into my career before I felt comfortable and confident enough to even attempt at singing my father's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SIMON: Let's listen to another song, if we could, "Acercate Mas".

COLE: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACERCATE MAS")

COLE: (Singing in foreign language)

COLE: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: Still one of the most famous singers in the world, but let me explain, that's your father, the great Nat King Cole.

COLE: It was great to do that with him.

SIMON: How often did you sing when you were young? And then you lost him when you were young.

COLE: Yeah, very young. But, you know, my mom and dad both started influencing us very early with music. I loved singing with dad, but we didn't sing like kids songs, we sang crazy songs. We sang camp songs. And we, you know, and dad would come up with these really funny, funny songs. We would entertain our parents. Once we saw a Broadway play, we'd memorize the whole thing and then we'd make them sit on the stairs in front of the living room and we would go at it. We'd go get dad's suits and mom's gown and we would start singing "Lil' Abner" or "South Pacific" or "The King and I". And it was just so great. So, music was always something that, you know, we all just loved.

SIMON: To hear you and your father sing together is just so ineffably touching, to hear the two of you singing together.

COLE: Oh, thank you.

SIMON: What's it like for you?

COLE: It's really sweet. It's bittersweet. It always will be. I remember the first time that we not really recorded "Unforgettable" but the first time that I did it onstage.

SIMON: "Unforgettable" will, it'll forever be known as the album on which you and your father do a duet.

COLE: Absolutely. It was very, very difficult, very hard for me. Because I had never had the chance to really spend time working with him. The "Unforgettable" record was done in tribute to my dad. It was my way of saying goodbye, because when he passed away, I was in school. I was actually on the East Coast in boarding school when he passed. So...

SIMON: And he was astonishingly young - just 45.

COLE: Forty-seven.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Unforgettable, that's what you are.

COLE: (Singing) Unforgettable, though near or far.

I believe that, you know, he guides me. Dad led by example. You know, he was not a big talker of you got to do this and you got to do that. That was not him. He led by example. And I watched. I was very observant. And I learned so much from my father. And he continues to be my number one inspiration.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")

COLE: (Singing) Unforgettable, in every way.

SIMON: Natalie Cole, speaking with us from New York. Her new album "Natalie Cole En Espanol" is out next week. Thanks so much for being with us.

COLE: Oh, thank you, Scott. You're very kind. It was great talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")

NATALIE COLE AND NAT KING COLE: (Singing) That's why, darling, it's incredible, that someone's so unforgettable thinks that I am unforgettable too.

SIMON: You can hear songs from Natalie Cole's new album "Natalie Cole Espanol" at nprmusiic.org. This is a great way to begin the day, isn't it? This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.