Thursday, December 9, 2010

Survivor - Natalie Cole's Memoir: Love Brought Me Back

The autobiography can take many forms. It can be a memoir, a diary, or a detailed history of one’s life. It can also be a confessional, or a series of stories shaped to reveal a person’s foibles and how they were overcome. For Natalie Cole, the American singer, you get a mix of every style in her new book, Love Brought Me Back (Simon & Schuster, 2010). What the mixture doesn't provide is depth. This short tome basically offers the story of Cole’s contraction of Hepatitus C, how it nearly killed her, and how she was saved by a transplant in 2009. Now 60, Cole tells the story with the aid of David Ritz, one of the busiest writers in the celebrity biography field. Ritz has helped a ton of musicians write their stories, including Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Paul Shaffer and Grandmaster Flash.

Natalie Cole’s father was Nat “King” Cole, the American performer equally at home playing jazz or singing traditional pop songs. Cole’s warm vocal tone and classy presentation made him one of the African-American pioneers in the 1960s, landing a very popular television variety show on network TV. His songs continue to be heard around the world on MOR radio stations. He died of lung cancer in 1965 at the height of his career leaving his wife and his daughters Natalie, Carole (aka Cookie), Nat Kelly and his twin daughters Timolin and Casey. Natalie was 15 years old at the time. It was an event that changed the lives of both siblings. As Cole admits, “the impact of losing my dad at age fifteen was incalculable. Some twenty years later, while in rehab, I was told by a wise counselor that I still hadn’t mourned the loss.” Cole was addicted to drugs at an early age, specifically heroin. Even though she kicked it, her severe usage damaged her liver so that by the time she was 58, during a routine check-up, it was discovered she had Hepatitis C. Her doctor prescribed heavy medication, namely interferon, an anti-viral medicine.

Cole injected herself with interferon for several months after completing her album Still Unforgettable in the spring of 2008. Alas, the cure was worse than the cause, inflicting serious damage to her kidneys. She then went through the process of dialysis that kept her going while she waited for a transplant. That donation came from a young Hispanic woman who died from a brain hemorrhage. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, Cole’s sister Cooke was also dying of cancer. So the year 2009 became hell due to Cole’s failing health and her sister’s condition. The story in Love Brought Me Back is told from Cole’s point of view and from her donor’s sister’s, namely Patty Argueta. Every other chapter brings their lives closer together, as Cole deals with her illness; and Patty, a healthcare worker, describes the life and death of her sister.

As a book, this short-story offers some simple anecdotes, memories and a surprising turn of events in 160 pages. Whether Simon & Schuster had to publish it as a hard cover book seems trivial considering the reputation of the author and her popularity. Nevertheless, I can’t say that this book offers any significant contribution to autobiographical literature. It’s a pity that there wasn’t more time spent developing some interesting ideas that Cole delves into. For instance, she talks about working on the album, Still Unforgettable, as a means of escape from the reality of her failing health. “I wasn’t hiding from reality as much as entering into another reality, the reality of music. Nothing triggers nostalgia like music. Songs are tied to memories. Memories bring us back to moments in our life, painful or joyful, that demand reflection.” Clearly, Cole was on to something regarding the healing power of music and I would have liked more of this in the book. What did she learn? How was she healed? Questions like these are never answered.

Similarly, Cole implies that her life and the effect of her father’s death offered a bizarre combination of grief and artistic freedom. Angry at the death of her dad, Cole says “ I totally rebelled against my mother, I stole, I drank, I discovered drugs…I became a Black Panther advocate…I discovered that I could sing…yet I was adamant on a single point: I absolutely refused to sing any songs even remotely associated with my father.” What I find interesting here was Cole’s desire to find her own path in music and move out from the shadow of her famous father. How does one come to terms with one’s grief and one’s art? For Cole, it was doing smack and crack cocaine in heavy amounts. By 1983, she checked herself into rehab, rediscovered God and pulled herself out of the gutter. In 1990 she succumbed to the pressure and recorded Unforgettable…with Love, a remarkable album of songs made popular by Nat King Cole. It included a new digital technique that allowed Natalie to sing with her father on the same track. The album won a Grammy and "Unforgettable" won Record of the Year in 1991.

Most of Cole’s story was revealed in Angel On My Shoulder, her autobiography released in 2000. Love Brought Me Back is a follow-up to that one, but with a lot more emphasis on spirituality and the strong relationship Cole had with her sister, Cooke. It’s full of references to God and prayer and Divine intervention. And when you read about the timing of Cole’s transplant with the death of her sister, you can understand why. As Cole states in the first chapter, “we are all joined together…all humankind. Our dramas may seem separate, but my drama has brought me to an inescapable conclusion: that we are deeply and permanently connected.” The story ends with Cole meeting the donor’s remaining family.

What I like about this short book is the freedom Cole has in expressing how she feels about her music, her father, her family and her faith in God. Though sincere, the juxtaposed story about her kidney donor however seems artificial in the telling. Considering everything that Cole went through over the past two years, it’s still a shame that the authors didn’t offer something more profound to read than a confessional about survival.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, broadcaster and theatre director.


  1. Thanks for this interesting review. What i found kind of lacking in this was your own research of the subject. For example, you stated that Nat Cole's death "leaving his wife and his daughters Natalie and Cooke [pron. Cookie]"is incorrect. The fact is in his death he left his wife, Natalie, Carole (aka Cookie), Nat Kelly and his twin daughters Timolin and Casey. To have made mention of "Angel On My Shoulder," and not to mention his other kids in your article makes me question you and your, again, lack of research. Over all I found the review entertaining and somewhat informative. You also had questions about some of the things that I read in the book. Too bad all of the proofreaders don't think people would like the authors to go further into detail about thoughts they just throw out.

  2. Thank you for the correction and your comments.As writers and proofreaders, we count on people like yourself to point out where we are faulty. We also rely on our writers to go into as much detail as they can in developing their argument. Our knowledge of the subject determines whether we notice if the piece hasn't gone far enough in its research. Glad you enjoyed the piece.