I'd been vaguely aware that Natalie Cole had had a rough year health-wise, but her death on New Year's Eve, aged just 65, was still a shock. Officially, it was congestive heart failure, but underlying it was a combination of factors, including hepatitis C and complications from a kidney transplant, that all went back to the usual "substance abuse" issues of pop stars in the Seventies. She had, by the standards of contemporary divas, a very ladylike manner with a silky, airy voice; she had found a point on the spectrum she was comfortable with, and her technique and judgment were better than ever. But the excesses of that first burst of hit-parade stardom have a way of catching up with you, and there was a sense of the inevitable looming: I noticed her website hadn't been updated for two years, which is an odd thing at that level of celebrity.
Her first hit was way back in 1975, "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)", co-written by her producer, Marvin Yancy, after he'd landed her a contract with Capitol Records and needed something for her to sing. I have a fondness for it because it was one of the first records I ever played on the radio, mainly because it had a great intro and a great outro, by which I mean "great for talking over", which is what disc-jockeys did back then. I had the 12" extended mix, which had even more room for talking over. But the bit in between, with Miss Cole singing, is pretty spectacular. It was a terrific debut. Marvin Yancy became her husband, and then her ex-husband, and then he died at the age of 34, leaving her with a seven-year-old son. "This Will Be" was a great blast of joy, and a hard act to follow. The records that followed had success without ever being quite so memorable, and by the Eighties the hits were more fitful and erratic.
She was the daughter of Nat King Cole, who'd died of cancer at the age of 45, in 1965. A week after the funeral, Natalie was caught shoplifting. LSD and heroin and cocaine followed shortly thereafter, and her appetites delayed the start of her career and impacted its trajectory. As the Nineties began, if her father was king, she risked being accounted a very minor royal duchess. Turning forty, she hit on the notion of making an album of her father's songs.
"When we did Unforgettable, it was so great because we weren't doing it for the money or to sell CDs," David Foster, who produced half the tracks, told People magazine after her death. "We were doing it for a great mutual love of that kind of music. We had no clue it would strike a chord with anybody. We certainly didn't think it would get on pop radio. It was a monster hit."
I'll take his word that they were only doing it for love of the music. But David Foster is a hit-maker; he's in the business of hits. A few years earlier, in 1983, Natalie had participated in a BBC TV tribute to her dad by Johnny Mathis, also called Unforgettable. They released an album of the show, and it got to Number Five in the British charts. But it wasn't boffo, planet-wide. Indeed, it wasn't as big as Nat's own "Twenty Golden Greats" compilation album, which had hit Number One in the UK in 1978. Cole, Foster, Tommy LiPuma et al, whether for love or money or just because they had an unerring instinct in these matters, took the same elements Mathis had used a mere eight years earlier, and then added something that made it, as Foster said, "monster".
Around the time "Unforgettable" was taking off, I got a call from Jo Lustig. I've mentioned Jo before in connection with a Mel Brooks moment in which Mel and I were talking live but Jo wanted us to pretend we were pre-taped. Lustig ran Brooksfilms for Mel in London, but in earlier years he'd been Nat Cole's press agent and he'd stayed close to the family. And on this particular occasion he'd called me up to ask me to ghost-write the autobiography of Nat's widow, Maria. Jo was a very generous man and he opened a lot of doors for me, even with ideas that were, like this one, all wrong. But we got a little way into it, and Jo put together a lunch, and, seeking to ingratiate myself, and it being the topic of the moment, I said everyone must be very pleased at Natalie's success with "Unforgettable". And there was an awkward silence, and then Jo drawled, "Yeah, well. I'm glad something finally worked for her", and the conversation moved on. Almost all celebrity estates are somewhat faction-ridden.
The linchpin song of that Natalie-sings-Nat album wasn't difficult to choose. Johnny Mathis had used it, and so had others - Hubert Laws Remembers The Unforgettable Nat King Cole. Shortly after Nat's death, my old BBC comrade Alan Dell's radio tribute was released by Capitol as The Unforgettable Nat King Cole. Early death had made him not just the guy who sang "Unforgettable" but the guy who was unforgettable, now and forever:
That's what you are
Though near or far...
The man who wrote the song was Irving Gordon, born in Brooklyn in 1915 as Israel Goldener. As a teenager he wrote a symphony, but the high school music teacher laughed at it. He wanted to go to Juilliard but wound up in the Catskills, writing parody lyrics. He was a pretty funny guy, and is said to have written Abbott & Costello's "Who's on first?" routine. The authorship thereof is a matter of some dispute, but certainly the wordplay is characteristic of Irving Gordon: His songs include "Mister and Mississippi", which tickled him so much he extended his state puns across the fruited plain in "Delaware" - as in "What did Della wear? She wore a brand new jersey", etc, which Perry Como took into the Top Three in Britain. Gordon's music for his novelty lyrics was serviceable: at best, they sounded like folk songs you felt somehow you'd already heard somewhere or other, like "Allentown Jail".
When he got better tunes, written by others, he didn't always rise to the occasion. He was taken on by Irving Mills, Duke Ellington's publisher, and so found himself sharing credit with Mills on Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss" - a great piece of music with a very blah lyric:
And if you hear a song that grows
From my tender sentimental woes
That was my heart trying to compose
A Prelude To A Kiss...
Like most of Ellington's compositions, it's a marvelous instrumental with clunky words stapled on it. On the evidence of his hits, Irving Gordon doesn't appear to have been that good at what is, after all, a pop writer's bread and butter: love songs. But there would be one great, unforgettable exception:
Like a song of love that clings to me
How the thought of you does things to me
Has someone been more...
In ev'ry way...
It wasn't so obviously unforgettable when he wrote it, words and music, in 1951. For one thing, it had a different title:
That's what you are
Though near or far...
Gordon's publisher didn't like the title, and couldn't find the word in his dictionary. But he thought the rest of the song was pretty good, so he told him to replace that "Uncomparable". "With what?" said Gordon.
"I dunno. How about 'Unforgettable'?"
The new title required a rhyme, right at the end of the song. Many years ago Dillie Keane (of Britain's Fascinating Aida) and I were driving back from Maine to New Hampshire at about three in the morning - or rather I was driving back and Dillie was trying to keep me awake during the vast empty stretches of the Kancamagus. And, whenever I started dozing off, she'd start a musical argument over whatever happened to be playing on the radio. At one point, it was "Unforgettable":
That's why, darling, it's incredible
That someone so Unforgettable...
"Incredible/Unforgettable," scoffed Dillie. "That's not a rhyme!"
"It is so," I said. "It's a great, authentic, vernacular American rhyme" - Incredible/Unforgeddable, as in fuhgeddabouddit. I thought I made an excellent case for it - until, not long afterwards, I met Irving Gordon and he told me he'd always been embarrassed by that couplet, and didn't regard it as a proper rhyme at all. Oh, well.
His tune was far better than he usually wrote. "Unforgettable" sits on a stepwise main A phrase he moves up on its recapitulation; the first line of the B phrase - "Like a song of love that clings to me"/"That's why, darling, it's incredible" - is up at the top of the range; and the contrast between the two provides just enough interest to keep you listening.
On August 17th 1951 Nat Cole and Nelson Riddle went into the studio to record the ballad for Capitol. Riddle's contribution to Cole's career is not to be disdained: as Alan Livingston (head of the label and co-author of another landmark song) put it, "Together they created the first major black romantic singer to reach the white market" - ie, he sang love songs for everyone, not just those consigned to the "race records" niche demographic (my mum, for example, had Nat's picture on her bedroom wall in Belgium). Riddle's lush string arrangements for Cole on "Mona Lisa", "Too Young" and "Red Sails In The Sunset" had brought him a mass audience no black romantic balladeer had ever had in America. But they don't sound, to today's ears, like Nelson Riddle. To add a postscript to our Sinatra celebrations, if it took Riddle to make Sinatra sound like Sinatra, then the converse is also true: it took Sinatra to make Riddle sound like Riddle. By contrast, his arrangement for "Unforgettable" sounds so much like the George Shearing Quintet that, in the months afterward, Shearing kept getting asked: "When did you and Nat Cole start working together?" (Answer: Not until Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays, in the early Sixties, a decade after "Unforgettable".)
Cole's "Unforgettable" is a great record, but death made it a kind of posthumous signature song - so much so that it was difficult for other singers to go near it outside the context of a "tribute" performance. Perhaps its most successful iteration in the quarter-century between Nat's death and Natalie's revival was for the Aero candy-bar commercial in Britain: "Unforgettabubble, that's what's you are..." Forty years after the original recording, when his daughter came to make her CD, it was certain that "Unforgettable" would make the set list, and probably the album title, and that a child who bore a feminized version of his name singing a song about the unforgettableness of a father she'd lost when she was still a young girl would bring a poignancy that, say, Johnny Mathis' version could not match. Whether that would have been enough, who knows?
And then someone decided to add Nat Cole himself. That doesn't seem a big deal these days, but a technologically contrived duet between the dead and the living was unusual a quarter-century ago. It could easily have come over as icky, or creepy. I recall an obscure novelty song from the Seventies, premised on someone exhuming Al Jolson and Al being distraught to discover that, as the backing singers taunt him, "now it's Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Alice Cooper, Elton John", to which grim roll call Joley wails: "Nobody's singing 'bout my mammy," etc. It was a vaudevillian "Monster Mash".
Yet today everyone duets with the dead: CĂ©line Dion sings with Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart sings with Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand with Elvis Presley, Andrea Bocelli with Edith Piaf, Barry Manilow with Marilyn Monroe, Scarlet Johansson with Dean Martin... The technology is so advanced that any day now the dead will surely begin duetting with each other: Marilyn Monroe with Caruso, Al Jolson with Janis Joplin - "Take it, take another little piece of my heart now, mammy..."
But the idea of duetting beyond the grave was new in 1991, and it could have gone horribly wrong. Instead it infused a rather ordinary boy/girl lyric with something deeper - a child's love for the father taken from her too young, a love that endures beyond death:
In ev'ry way
And forever more
That's how you'll stay...
There's a lot of dispute about who came up with that notion: Joe Guercio, onetime fiancĂ©e of Patti Page and longtime musical director for Elvis, asserted until his death last year that it was his idea. In the Eighties, he'd worked in Vegas with Natalie Cole, at a time when she was determined to make it on her own and was adamantly opposed to being "Nat King Cole's daughter" in her professional life. And Guercio claimed that he'd persuaded her to get over all that by suggesting it would be cute to do a duet on stage with a video projection of her father. She chose "Unforgettable" and he made an "arrangement" - although, given that they were locked into Nat's vocal, I think "orchestration" would be the more appropriate term. At any rate, he told anyone who'd listen that he'd got a one-off payment, and was stunned to hear, some years later, the smash hit record and find it was identical to the way he'd done it.
The credited arranger is Johnny Mandel, who certainly doesn't need to borrow from anybody else. But, as the music-biz clichĂ© has it, where there's a hit there's a writ. And, after Mandel won the Grammy for his chart, this writ came from Mrs Nelson Riddle, irked by the absence of her husband's name from the record credits:
Mrs. Riddle contends that 87 percent, or all but 8 1/2 of 69 bars of the 1991 version, are identical to those of the original.
She's not wrong on that. For his 13 per cent, Mandel contributed a cheesy perfume-ad sax to the instrumental break. Otherwise, when you listen to the front of the record, you could easily mistake it for the original until Natalie's voice comes in on the second "unforgettable".
Among the other Grammys "Unforgettable" picked up was one for "Song of the Year", even though the year it had been a song of was 1951. Still, any songwriter who hasn't had a hit in a while is appreciative of these things, so up came Irving Gordon to accept his Grammy, having beaten out Bryan Adams, Michael Stipe, Marc Cohn and a bunch of other fellows not even born at the time "Unforgettable" first hit the charts. "It's nice to have a song come out that doesn't scream, yell and have a nervous breakdown while it talks about tenderness," he said, which seems a bit of a cruel thing to say when the guy handing you the award is Michael Bolton, and indeed Gordon seemed to have in mind specifically Bolton's rendition that night of "When a Man Loves a Woman." "It's nice," he continued, "to have a song accepted where you don't get a hernia when you sing it."
Backstage, Michael Bolton felt obliged to correct the record: "I can say I don't get a hernia when I sing." In his own post-show interviews, Gordon cheerfully put down the other nominees as "nice songs" but too forgettable to stand a chance against his own superior work. Shortly thereafter, the Grammy guys changed the rules so that henceforth old hits would no longer be eligible for "Song of the Year".
Irving Gordon professed to feeling contrite the morning after the Grammys, and three months later the Songwriters' Hall of Fame announced that it would be inducting "Unforgettable" into their own pantheon. Back when Sammy Cahn was running the SHoF, he was kind enough to invite me to the annual gala, and the trick he was trying to pull back then was to get the rock guys to warm up to the organization and thus to produce a starry enough event each year that they could sell some network the TV rights. He'd wangled it for the 1989 event, with Whitney Houston, k d lang and other then fashionable names, but it had fallen off the schedules the following year and he was anxious to get it back. So out came Irving Gordon to receive an award for "Unforgettable" - and this time everyone got a hernia.
Gordon began by confessing that he felt like a guy "from another planet" - a planet where words and music were "happily married", not "violently divorced". Music today, he said, "is treated like it was cholesterol. It's not a melody, it's a malady!" The other nominees and presenters - Paul Simon, Jimmy Webb, Billy Joel - and their entourages stirred uneasily. Shakespeare, Gordon continued, surely had rock'n'roll in mind when he wrote of "sound and fury, signifying nothing" - and how about that Artist Formerly Known As Prince guy splitting his knickers?
At this point, Sammy Cahn himself came out from the wings and, covering the microphone, suggested to Irving that it might be time to wind things up. Gordon brushed Sammy aside and said that music was too important to be left to Cahn and his "mutual admiration society" - and by the way, why wasn't his photograph included in the program? Sammy put his hand on Irving's shoulder, only to have it thrown off, and for a moment the two men were wrestling over the award. Someone or other had the idea of asking for a voice vote on whether Mr Gordon should continue his speech. What sounded like 97 per cent of the crowd roared "No!" He carried on for a bit, and then retreated, abandoning the stage to Paul Simon, there to induct Billy Joel. I spoke to Simon a couple of years later, and he told me that it was one of the few awards nights he's really enjoyed - and that he was one of the four or five people to vote for Gordon to continue speaking.
Four years later, Irving Gordon died. Unshudduppable, that's what he was.
As for Natalie Cole, she had successfully re-invented herself, from a fading r'n'b star to a singer of standard songs with a unique pedigree. She was never foolish enough to think that she was the equal of her father: I remember hearing that, for her Stardust album, she and Phil Ramone began by calling all the musicians into the control room and playing Nat's original record of the first song on that day's session, "Pick Yourself Up" - which is a brilliant arrangement and performance. And everyone listening knew it. And at the end Natalie looked lost in thought and far away, and then stood up and said, "Okay. Let's make a record."
And she did. And, although they were never again a phenomenon the way "Unforgettable" was, her singing - her phrasing, her harmonic sense, her emotional connection - got better and better. I think my favorite album of hers was for Verve about a decade back, Ask A Woman Who Knows, by which point she was such a smooth purveyor of jazz and standards that she surely knew she would be unlikely ever again to hit that sweet spot in between yesterday and today that propelled "Unforgettable" to the top of the charts. I think her dad would have liked that Verve album, too:
That's why, darling, it's incredible
That someone so Unforgettable
Thinks that I am
Rest in peace.
~A couple of final reminders if you missed our Sinatra centenary observances: For The Song Is You, our audio conversations with great songwriters, see here. For a century's worth of Sinatra songs see here. For Mark's podcast with longtime Sinatra conductor Vincent Falcone, you can find Part One here and Part Two here. And Mark's original 1998 obituary of Frank, "The Voice", can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe, while you can read the stories behind many other Sinatra songs in Mark Steyn's American Songbook. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.