Singer Natalie Cole’s Legacy Includes Triumph Over Addiction

By May Wilkerson 01/04/16

The Grammy-winning singer fought a long, tumultuous battle against addiction. 

Natalie Cole
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The legacy of Natalie Cole, who died Thursday in Los Angeles from congestive heart failure, includes triumphing over a decades-long battle with addiction as well as her illustrious career. The nine-time Grammy award-winning singer battled drug and alcohol addiction early in her career and had been in recovery for over 30 years when she died at age 65.

Cole wrote about her addiction and recovery in two memoirs, Angel on My Shoulder in 2000, and Love Brought Me Back in 2010. "I don't want people to have some artificial view of who I am," she said in 2014. "I think that one of the things (talking about addiction) it does is encourages other people to come forward and do the same."

The daughter of jazz legend Nat King Cole, who died when she was in high school, Natalie said she began experimenting with drugs, like LSD, in college. In one of her memoirs, the singer attributed her battle with drugs in part to grief over losing her father, as well as difficulty coping with the pressures of his extraordinary legacy. 

"People often ask me why I got into drugs. I think they were just waiting to happen, a culmination of not having resolved things,” she wrote. “My father's death was the beginning – it wasn't till years later that I was able to understand that I was still grieving, and that as 'the daughter of,' I was still walking in his shadow.”

After college, Cole began snorting heroin and got hooked. As her drug use increased, her career also took off, and she signed a contract with Capitol Records in 1975. She took a brief hiatus from drugs, met and married producer-songwriter Marvin Yancy in 1976 and had a son, Robert. 

But drugs re-entered Cole’s life not too long after, and she and her husband began using cocaine heavily. Her substance use eventually culminated in divorce and put a strain on her career, as she began missing shows and giving lackluster performances. She also got into several car accidents and became a negligent mother, once transporting drugs in her son’s diaper bag. Cole first entered rehab in 1982, but it didn't stick. "I was in there for 30 days," she said. "I came out, and I went right back to my drugs."

In 1983, Cole's agent, business manager and lawyer staged an intervention and convinced her to go to the Hazelden rehab clinic near Minneapolis. "They all came to my house like the undertakers – they were all in dark suits and they were very serious and very sober," she said in 2014 of the intervention. "They looked at me and they said, 'We just know you're going to die.'"

This time, it worked. After rehab, Cole was able to rebuild her life and salvage her career, going on to release chart-topping songs and winning another six Grammys. In a 2014 interview, she said she no longer had a desire to use drugs. "It does eventually go away," she said. "But the first couple of years, it's a very scary thing." As of 2014, she said she had been clean and sober for 30 years.

Sadly, Cole’s history of substance abuse took a toll on her health. She had contracted hepatitis C from sharing needles and was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2007. Treatment for the liver disease damaged her kidneys, and she got a kidney transplant in 2009. But her health continued to deteriorate.

Shortly after her death last week, her siblings and her son released a statement paying tribute to the beloved singer. "It is with heavy hearts that we bring to you all the news of our Mother and sister's passing. Natalie fought a fierce, courageous battle, dying how she lived...with dignity, strength and honor," they said. "Our beloved Mother and sister will be greatly missed and remain UNFORGETTABLE in our hearts forever."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.