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A Childhood Filled with Music
Singers are often asked about their musical influences, and for someone with a famous musician for a father, this question is one of the most common. But when people ask me if my father sang for me as a child, they seem disappointed by the truth: He never sang us romantic ballads like "Mona Lisa." He sang gibberish songs that gave us kids a bad case of the giggles, and crazy rhyme-and-sound songs, like the ones I learned later at summer camp. These all had the kind of completely silly lyrics that children have loved forever. There was one about an elephant that jumped so high, high, high over the sky, sky, sky, and another one that started "Miss Sue, Miss Sue, somebody's in your cellar." He did sing one little nonsense I-love-you song that he'd recorded, called "Kee Mo Ky Mo" (which was the flip side of "Sweet Lorraine"). Before I was born, he actually did an entire album, King Cole for Kids (1948), that was nothing but children's songs.
I cherish these memories, and I love the fact that when he was home, he was just being Dad. He wasn't performing. I think that because he was so serious with his career, when he was with us, he just wanted to play. That's part of the blessing and the burden I inherited as a birthright. The blessing was that when he was home, he really spent what has become known as quality time with us. The flip side of that was that he was gone for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. When you make your living as a singer, you have to go where the gigs are.
I don't remember him once singing seriously at home with justthe family, but it was always a special treat when he'd bring home acetates of new recordings he had just worked on in the studio at Capitol that day. (Capitol Records headquarters is on Vine Street in Hollywood, in a building that looks like a stack of LPs. To this day it is known as "The House That Nat Built.") Dad would play them in the library on his beautiful custom-made Seeburg Selectomatic sound system. This was a very frou-frou home jukebox, ultra-high-tech for its day, the first of its kind. Once you selected what you wanted to hear, it played it automatically. It was all in gold, with a big glass you could see through. We were never allowed near it, but after dinner, Mom and her sister, my Aunt Charlotte, and some friends would join him to sit around and discuss the new songs he brought home. When I got invited to listen, I felt very grown-up.
Dad's music was great, but then there were so many great sounds that came into our ears when I was a child, so much wonderful music. There was always music playing at our house in one room or another. Every afternoon, my mother would go into the library and select something to listen to. It might be Sarah Vaughan, or Nancy Wilson, or the Jackie Gleason Orchestra, or Billie Holiday. My parents wanted us to have this cacophony of musical styles-jazz, classical, Broadway, rock, opera, pop, you name it. And we would catch every note of it. Early on I was madly in love with Elvis Presley. Dad wasn't into it at all, at least not for himself as a performer. He used to say, "Mr. Cole does not rock 'n' roll." But Baba, my Aunt Charlotte, knew how much I loved Elvis (and his music), and took me to one of his shows at the Palladium. After that I slept with the souvenir booklet from the concert under my pillow. I really feel so fortunate that my mom and dad didn't censor our musical experience, because it has had a strong influence on my life and career.
Dad would bring home all kinds of music for us in his eclectic manner. He made a point of driving to a small record store in the poorest, blackest part of South Central Los Angeles, where he could purchase records by Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, blues singers, and other performers who were only available on "race records" that were not sold in the regular record stores.
Capitol often gave him copies of their latest releases- sometimes in the candid hope that he would like a song and record it himself. That was one place where we really lucked out-Capitol was also the Beatles' label, and I was thrilled when Dad came home from work with the one album every teenage girl coveted: Meet the Beatles. I was a head-over-heels Beatles fan. (Back then every teenage girl had a favorite Beatle. Mine was John.)
So I was the first on my block to have the Beatles album, and, honey, it was one helluva block. We lived at 401 South Muirfield Road in Hancock Park, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of Los Angeles. This was where the Shells of Shell Oil lived, the Chandlers (who owned the Los Angeles Times), the Van de Kamps, the family that owned the Von's supermarket chain, and Governor Pat Brown and his family. It was also where the Los Angeles chapter of the John Birch Society held its meetings.
How exclusive? So exclusive that the neighbors tried mightily to exclude my parents when they first bought the house in 1948. It was a mansion by anyone's definition of the word-all brick, twelve rooms, three fireplaces, very East Coast-looking and just what my mother wanted, but there was one teensy problem. It seems that there was a restrictive covenant that went with the title to every house in Hancock Park, limiting ownership in the neighborhood to white folks who celebrated Christmas. Negroes, Jews, people of "ethnic persuasions," and other "undesirables" were barred.
When the Hancock Park Property Owners Association heard that my parents had bought it, they called a meeting. The neighbors graciously invited my father to attend, but only to inform him why he couldn't live there. They actually told my dad that they didn't want any undesirables moving in. "Neither do I," he responded in the oft-repeated family story, "and if I see any, I'll be sure to let you know." After a great deal of legal maneuvering and a letter from my mother to Eleanor Roosevelt about the unfairness of it all, and despite a couple of shots fired through the front windows and a sign hammered into the lawn that read "Nigger Heaven," my parents moved in. Well, there goes the neighborhood.
All this was before I was born. By the time I arrived, the neighborhood had adjusted to us, more or less, but we were still the only black people for miles around. I was born Natalie Maria Cole at 6:07 P.M. on February 6, 1950, at what was then called Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. I weighed in at seven pounds eleven ounces. I was my parents' firstborn child, but I have an older sister, Carole, also known as Cookie, and that takes some explaining.
My mother, Maria, had two sisters, Carol and Charlotte. Carol married and had a daughter, but died of tuberculosis in May of 1949. Since her husband had died the year before, her four-year-old daughter, Cookie, was an orphan. My parents adopted her and brought her home to Hancock Park right about the time my mother realized she was pregnant with me. Carole got the nickname "Cookie" from my father's favorite comic strip, Blondie-Cookie was Dagwood's daughter. After I was born, my mother's other sister, my Aunt Charlotte, also came to Los Angeles and was instrumental in raising us. Cookie and I called her Baba. We all loved the comics and we referred to Mom and Baba as black versions of Betty and Veronica from Archie.
A singer and poet, Baba was the free spirit on my mother's side of the family. Since Mom traveled so much with Dad, Baba was like a mom to us when we were growing up. She didn't have to be a disciplinarian, she could just be the favorite auntie, and that's what she was. Baba also handled the family business affairs and correspondence, made Dad's appointments, and kept his calendar. She had her own home and didn't live with us when they were touring-we had nannies and maids for that-but Cookie and I saw her every day. Most important of all, Baba was a great cook and we loved to hang out in the kitchen with her.
Mom and Dad took Cookie into their hearts as well as their home, and the two of us were truly raised as sisters. We were pals, but we were different in many ways. She was the little lady, and I was the tomboy. For much of my childhood, we had Mom and Dad to ourselves.
Even though they nicknamed me Sweetie, I wasn't altogether an easy kid. I didn't consider myself a particularly rebellious child, but I think if you asked my mom, she would probably choose her words very carefully and say that I was very independent. Independent and sassy and my own person: That's me. Early on, if you compared my behavior with my sister's, I was the one who would challenge my mother, and that was something you just didn't do. Especially in the era that we were brought up in, you just didn't do that. But I made friends easily, I was a sociable person, a pretty good kid, and I did well in school. She really didn't have a lot of discipline problems with me.
Not that I didn't have other problems. Ever since I was born, I've been allergic to almost everything. My allergist once told me I should live in a bubble. I was allergic to milk when I was born, and had to be fed on soy and goat's milk. Even so, I was a fat, happy baby. I was so fat that I didn't walk until I was nearly one and a half years of age. After that there was a conga line of substances that left me scratching, sneezing, and wheezing. I was allergic to chocolate, and I was allergic to acids like orange juice or anything citrus. I was allergic to wool; I was allergic to mohair; and I was super-allergic to weeds and pollens. I still am to this day.
I was allergic to the boxer dogs that my father loved dearly. I really don't remember the day when the renowned CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow "visited" us for his television show, Person to Person, but the boxers were just puppies, and they were on TV with us. What most people don't know is that although Murrow seems to be having a conversation with us, we were in Hancock Park, and he was in a studio in New York. He couldn't see us and we couldn't see him. I do have a photograph of the four of us-me, Cookie, and Mom and Dad-with the four adorable little boxer puppies in our laps. On the tape, Mr. Murrow asked me which of them I wanted to keep, and I gave the three-year- old's predictable response: "All of them!"
I was also allergic to our cat. One day, a cat just showed up on our doorstep. He was a good-looking black and white alley cat, and we named him Handsome. He and I were inseparable, despite the fact that I was severely allergic to him. I just kept popping my asthma pills and tried to ignore my wheezing. Handsome slept with me and ate with me and did everything except take baths with me for about six months. Then, one day, the front door was open and he just sauntered out, more or less the same way he had arrived. My mother called him, and she said that he stopped in the driveway and looked back at her as if to say, "Ta-ta. It's been lovely. Thank you very much. See you later." And we never saw him again.
I had a happy childhood, in the sense of creature comforts- Cookie and I were indulged not just with cats and dogs, but with pretty clothes, ice skating lessons, horseback riding lessons, piano lessons, and all the trappings befitting a cultured household. This came from my mother's side of the family, specifically from my Great-Aunt Lala.
Great-Aunt Lala was Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and she was somebody. The granddaughter of slaves, Lala is a significant figure in black American history. She was born in Henderson, North Carolina, in 1883, moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a child, and was educated at the Salem State Normal School. Returning to North Carolina as a teacher, in 1902 she founded the Palmer Memorial Institute, one of the first prep schools for African-Americans, in Sedalia, North Carolina. (The school was named for her friend and patron Alice Freeman Palmer, the first woman president of Wellesley College.)
By the time she died in 1961, Charlotte Hawkins Brown was a nationally recognized educator, lecturer, and religious leader. She was a friend and colleague of Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington. Mom and Baba attended Palmer and stayed with Aunt Lala at her home, which she called Canary Cottage. When the Hancock Park neighbors didn't want my family to move in, my mother didn't just take it into her head to write to Eleanor Roosevelt out of the blue-when she was a girl, Mrs. Roosevelt had been a familiar visitor to Aunt Lala's home.
Great-Aunt Lala was also the author of a book on etiquette, The Correct Thing, and she was a powerful influence on my mother's thinking about manners, proper dress, social status, education, and general behavior. Proper is the operative word here. Under Lala's tutelage, Mom was trained to be a lady, to be comfortable in sophisticated social surroundings. She knew how to sip tea, and how to set a table. She had excellent posture and dressed in quiet good taste. Her English was (and is) impeccable-no bad grammar, no oozy Southern drawl, no vulgarity. By the time she was finished at Palmer, whatever rough edges my mother might have had were all sanded off. She had better manners than anyone else in Hancock Park-hell, she had better manners than 99 percent of the folks on the planet. You might think of Lala as the quintessential Henry Higgins, and like Eliza Doolittle, my elegant mother would have passed for a duchess at any snooty patootie society ball, even though her father had been a mailman.
I really looked up to her. She was very much a lady, and I loved getting into her dressing room and being surrounded by all her perfumes and makeup. She always smelled good and she was bigger than life to me, which is ironic, because when I think of my dad I don't think of him the same way. She was very organized, and she was very formal, yet she loved to host parties, and she didn't mind too much if we were around. She didn't cook, but we had great meals. My mom gave me all the femininity and all the prissiness that I have, and her wonderful taste and class, most of which she herself learned at Lala's knee.
Lala was big on culture, and young ladies were supposed to develop their talents in the arts. It seems to me that I always had a big box of pastels, but I liked it better than I was good-couldn't draw worth a lick. I was always buying new chalks and a big canvas and going at it, even though I was never really good at it. Reading was another matter. As soon as I learned how to read, I devoured books like a lunatic.
We had a set of the Childcraft books in our library when I was a child, and I loved browsing in them. My favorites were the poetry volumes. There were some wonderful, sweet poems in those Childcraft books, and I recall the feeling of how innocent and refreshing they were. I would read those poems hour after hour. I even wrote my own poetry sometimes. At some point Dad gave me my first tape recorder-it was one of those beige reel-to-reel Wollensaks that weighed a ton, even though it was no bigger than a toaster. I'd read the Childcraft poems or my own poetry into the tape recorder. I don't think that I ever used more than one reel of tape. I just kept erasing and re-recording. It never occurred to me to change it.
Sometimes I would put music to the words. I'd find my favorite poems in the Childcraft books, and then I would make up little melodies to go along with them. This is when I started driving my mother crazy, because I'd recycle the same melody over and over for every poem. The hardest part was singing and playing at the same time, so I would end up with maybe four chords and all my songs would sound the same. For a grown-up with sophisticated musical taste, it must have been like fingernails on a blackboard, and one day she snapped, "Can't you come up with anything else!" I was not discouraged-I loved to sit at that piano and take those little poems and try to make a melody- even if it was always the same. That's where a little bit of the desire was planted in me to write songs. I don't know whether it was the music or the stories, but the process was interesting to me. I would sing into the microphone and listen to the playback. It was a big giggle for me, but I certainly wasn't dreaming of a career as a singer.