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 asFrenesi 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.