Natalie Cole Crosses Over: Spanish Album on the Way

Natalie Cole

Yes--or in this case, sí­-Natalie Cole's first album in Spanish includes a duet with her late father. And like "Unforgettable," the song that won a Grammy Award in 1992 and foreshadowed today's holographic performance trend, the black-tie rumba "Acercate Mas" ("Come Closer to Me") will pluck at heartstrings and transport fans of Nat "King" Cole-in this case to '50s Havana, where he learned to sound out the lyrics for Cole Español, the first of his three Spanish recordings.

“Natalie Cole en Español,” out June 25 on Verve/Universal, features some of the same numbers covered on those historic albums, and other romantic evergreens familiar to international audiences. Andrea Bocelli joins Cole on "Besame Mucho." Produced by Latin hitmaker Rudy Perez, the set also includes contemporary classics: Juan Luis Guerra's enduring '90s hit "Bachata Rosa"-featuring the superstar Dominican artist-and "Oye Como Va."

"This is not a tribute to my father as much as it is a tribute to Latin music because of my father," Cole says over lunch at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, a favorite hangout. "Hearing my dad sing in Spanish was a revelation," she adds, recalling watching him perform as a child on her first trip to Mexico.

Cole says she first had the idea for her own Spanish-language album about 10 years ago. She pitched it to Capitol Records, which had put out “Cole Español” as well as her own early albums, but "the timing wasn't right." She met with Emilio Estefan, but says they couldn't agree on the concept. She later brought it up with David Foster, who had produced her “Unforgettable” album. After Foster became chairman of Verve Music Group in 2011, he signed Cole, and she headed to Miami to work with Perez last year.

Recording in Spanish is no longer a novelty, and as proved by Bocelli, Il Volo and others, it can be part of a smart A&R strategy. But Cole still had to bring new life to iconic songs, and follow her father's act, one that remains cherished in the Spanish-speaking world.

"Rudy said, 'Don't lose Natalie. Do your R&B inflections, be yourself,'" recalls Cole, who has only a limited understanding of Spanish. She seems most proud of her accent. While her father's American pronunciation had its own clunky charm, Cole's kittenish vocals have an almost native flair.

"Natalie completely embraced this on a creative level," Verve GM Robert Smith says, noting that the labels will heavily promote the album through mainstream and Hispanic media. "It's going to have a great word-of-mouth quality."

He adds that “Natalie Cole en Español” fits Verve's focus on "adult music": "This isn't going to be sold to a teen pop Latino audience any more than it will be sold to a non-Latino teen pop audience."

After some European dates, Cole will perform songs from the new album in August with a full orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. Also on the bill will be Chucho Valdes, whose father, the late Bebo Valdes, worked on the arrangements for Cole “Español” and coached the elder Cole's vocals in Havana.

Cole, who has released more than 20 studio albums, revealed her battles with substance abuse and her health problems in two memoirs, one of which became a TV biopic. At 63, looking fit and quite tropical in a white linen halter and long printed skirt, she declares herself ready to "broaden her horizons."

"I don't think it's that unusual to merge into [the Latin] world," she says. "The fortunate part is that I have fans in Latin America, and so I have a base to start from."