I let people down. I wore the crown of being the biggest fool.
--From "The Gift," a song on Natalie Cole's new album.
Imagine the shame when her mother had to step into a L.A. Superior Court three years ago and declare Natalie Cole no longer able to "take care of herself."
Maria Cole told the court that her daughter was under severe mental stress because she feared that an operation to remove a nodule from her throat might end her career.
But there was a second reason that Cole's mother filed a petition for conservatorship: drugs.
Shortly after the hearing, Natalie Cole--the daughter of one of the most distinctive and admired pop singers in history--checked into a drug rehabilitation center for three weeks to battle cocaine addiction.
This dark story took a heartwarming twist the following spring when Cole resurfaced with a new album, optimistically titled "I'm Ready."
At the time, she went through numerous interviews, explaining how she had overcome both the drug and throat problems. "Singing a Happier Tune," declared the headline of a Newsweek article that concluded by quoting Cole: "I managed to survive the worst things any entertainer could possibly go through."
The singer even went on "Good Morning America" and told David Hartman and his huge TV audience about her wonderful recovery.
But it was a sham.
Cole now admits that she was "probably" high during the live Hartman interview and that she excused herself during several other meetings with the press to snort cocaine in the bathroom.
About those days, Cole said during a recent interview: "I remember hearing my mother on the radio when she came out of the courthouse. She said, 'My daughter has been under great strain and so forth.'
"I was thinking, 'Poor mom. She's trying to uphold the family name.' That was a hard thing for her to do, but there was no one else I could turn to. I wasn't a vegetable by any means, but I just wasn't able to take care of things in the way they should have been. I was negligent about a lot of things. . . . I was spending totally too much money."
Cole laughed at the irony of the "I'm Ready" album title.
Looking back on those recording sessions, she said: "I was a nervous wreck. I had never been so depressed. I kept telling the people at the record company not to call the record, 'I'm Ready,' because I wasn't.
"I really hadn't made up my mind then that I was going to turn my life over. I was being dishonest during some of those interviews. That includes 'Good Morning America.' I have to make amends to David (Hartman) about that. I have to make amends to a lot of people about that."
Cole, 35, was exuberant as she sat on the couch in a West Hollywood office. She looked the picture of health, mugging for a photographer. "Let's make it upbeat," she said, good-naturedly. "These are good times."
The singer, who was in equally good spirits during an hour interview, says she feels better about herself than ever--even better than in the spring of 1976 when she won two Grammys: one for best new artist of the year and one for best female R&B vocal.
Those awards were especially satisfying because Cole's entry into pop had been greeted with the usual skepticism facing children of famous performers. Growing up in the Hancock Park section of Los Angeles, she loved music--especially powerful, high-intensity singers like Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. But she had no early interest in show business.
The move to singing was accidental. Cole was a pre-med student at the University of Massachusetts when a friend--who was singing with a local group--got ill the night of a show and asked if Cole would stand in for him. He had heard her sing informally at parties. She ended up taking his place in the group and setting medicine aside.
Cole's name helped and hurt. It resulted in a lot of club bookings, but also led to embarrassing moments like the night one club marquee read, "Appearing tonight: The daughter of Nat King Cole."
Cole's ace in the hole was the fact she really could sing. On "This Will Be," her first Top 10 hit, she exhibited a gutty vocal style closer to the earthy intensity of Aretha Franklin than the smooth, controlled tones her dad. Other Top 40 hits followed, including "Inseparable," "Sophisticated Lady" (which earned her a third Grammy), "I've Got Love on My Mind" and "Our Love."
Despite frequently glowing album and concert reviews, however, Cole didn't establish the commanding presence in pop that her talent suggested. The fact that she was Nat Cole's daughter may have led both critics and fans to underrate her. Her success may have looked too easy.
But Cole also seemed to slip from pop consciousness in the early '80s. She could rebound with dramatic performances--like the night I saw her in 1981 at the Kool Jazz Festival in San Diego. A last-minute substitute for Aretha Franklin, Cole sang the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" with such show-stopping passion and force that she seemed to be helping the audience exorcise the sorrow of John Lennon's recent death.
But mostly her career seemed to be on hold. The pain she was trying to exorcise that night in San Diego may have been from her own life.
"My life had just become complicated," she recalled, talking freely in the spirit of someone who hopes her experience can serve as a guide--or warning--to others. "I had the success, then my husband (the late Rev. Marvin J. Yancy, who produced Cole's early hits) and I started having problems.
"We divorced, then things piled up. I was breaking down physically. I had been into drugs over a number a years and it was starting to take its toll, both mentally and physically--and I had to go away. I started talking smaller jobs so that I wouldn't be as visible."
If facing the public was difficult on nights when she knew she was operating below capacity on stage, it was even harder facing family and friends. "You get to the point where you can see in people's eyes that they don't trust you any more," she said.
"There were other problems--exhaustion, the nodule on my throat, but also the drugs. I was under the influence to the point . . . of not being able to function. The story is drugs--whether it's cocaine or alcohol--take control of your life. Everything is focused in that direction. You can't conduct business meetings correctly or even show up for them. Then, your self-respect is gone."
Cole checked back into a rehabilitation center late last year in Minnesota. Rather than three weeks this time, she stayed six months.
"I originally went there for just 30 days, but halfway through, I realized that if I went back home I was going to be in trouble all over again," Cole said. "So, I applied for an extended-care program. I knew that something in me had changed because I got nervous about wondering if they would accept me."
During that period, she learned a lot about addiction. "I had thought there was something wrong with my mind," Cole said. "I thought I was going crazy. It turned out I am addicted to drugs. I just can't have fun with drugs the way some people can. They can get high or have a drink and go home. I'm not like that.
"I learned this time that drug addiction is a disease; it's not just a weakness. It's not about will power. There are just some personalities who aren't able to control themselves. I also realize I went into rehabilitation for the wrong reasons the first time. I was trying to please my mother . . . my boyfriend at the time . . . my manager. Everybody was on my back. I was very resentful. It was different the last time. I wanted to be there. If it didn't work, I didn't know what would happen to me."
Though she has done concerts in recent months, Cole is just beginning to re-establish her public profile. "Dangerous," her debut album for Modern Records, is just out, and she's due to open a week's engagement with Smokey Robinson on Wednesday at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
The material on the LP is inconsistent, but Cole's voice is terrific--a point she underscored live at Disneyland last month.
Reviewing her experience, Cole said, "I went through a period where I didn't even want people to see me, but I feel real good about myself again. I know I look good and that I feel good. I imagine there are a lot of people who will never be able to accept me, because they feel I've let them down, but I am a different person and most people have welcomed me back in that spirit. I haven't run into any negative incidents. It's like everyone has said, 'Welcome back, Natalie.'
"I've got to feel lucky when I think of all the people--both in and out of show business--who have died in the last few years. I could have been one of them because there are at least 10 different instances I should have been dead. I had enough car accidents in one year to beat the band. I escaped one incredible accident with just a stitch on my little finger. God is watching over this one."