When Natalie Cole scored her career-launching debut in 1975 with "This Will Be,” the No. 1 R&B and No. 6 pop hit, she found herself in good company. That same year, Patti LaBelle topped both the R&B and pop charts with Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade.”
The two singers went on to become close friends for over 40 years, speaking on the phone often and Cole in attendance at many of LaBelle’s shows. Deeply saddened by Cole's passing on Dec. 31 at the age of 65, LaBelle told Billboard via email, “She was a beautiful spirit, a consummate artist and an inspiration to so many. Natalie will be truly missed, but her light will shine forever."
As the daughter of a legendary singer herself, R&B/soul pioneer Donny Hathaway, Lalah Hathaway recalls a call made 25 years ago by Cole’s former husband, producer Andre Fischer. Fischer and Hathaway were working on the latter’s self-titled 1990 debut album. “He took a break from our session to call ‘a singer to come and record the higher background parts,’” she remembers. “I was speechless -- a superstar at my session! Natalie was fresh-faced and wearing a T-shirt and jeans, just like me. The ease and the poise, not to mention the fact that she was already a legend at that time. For someone like her to take a moment and help a new artist just blew me away.”
Hathaway also says she will never forget their talks about being the daughters of legends. “I have had very few conversations where people don't ask, ‘Have you thought about making a record with your father the way Natalie Cole did?,’” adds the fellow Grammy Award winner. “She left such a beautiful blueprint. Natalie was the epitome of class and grace. A true daughter of soul.”
Veteran entertainment publicist Ken Reynolds was friends with Cole for two decades. Head of Los Angeles-based Public Relations Plus, Reynolds first met Cole during a stint at Arista Records where he worked with Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. Cole later became a frequent guest at Reynolds’ popular entertainment soirees held at his home. The singer and the publicist, who is currently in dialysis, also shared something else in common.
“In this business we cross paths with so many people,” Reynolds tells Billboard. “And it’s rare to find a compassionate, caring soul. Natalie, who had her own health issues, never missed an opportunity to check on me. I was immediately floored when she was offered a kidney and had the potential donor contact me as she had already received her new one. She was more than an amazing talent. She was my friend. I miss her so much already.”