Natalie Cole: the Tribute that might have been

I wrote this shortly after the Grammys where Lady Gaga monopolized (my word) the David Bowie tribute and the Grammy gods deemed Natalie Cole not worthy of a live tribute. After that we lost another great one in the person of Prince and the  tribute at the Billboard awards still has me scratching my head because…Madonna?…singing Nothing Compares to You?… Now, I don’t imagine it’s easy to plan these tributes especially if there’s little time to prepare so while I give BET props for getting it mostly right (shout out to Sheila E. and Janelle Monae), I accept that they did have a little bit more prep time. Tip of the hat for some damn good tributes at the VH1 Honors Ladies of Hip Hop show, btw.

But this isn’t about Prince or Bowie or the Ladies of Hip Hop…like I said, it was written right after the Grammys and was sort of a fantasy piece about the tribute that might have been …for Natalie Cole.

This will be!

By Joanne C. Hillhouse

I’m one of the people who tuned in to the Grammys expecting a Natalie Cole tribute. I even knew which song I wanted them to do. I know Unforgettable is a classic going all the way back to her daddy, Nat, and that her performance of it with him on record and live was a seminal moment in song.

But, my choice was This will be! – exclamation point mine, because doesn’t it sound like it deserves one? You know the bubbly “loving and kissing and squeezing…through rain and whatever” song? Yeah, as I said in a recent post on my facebook page, I love the pep of that song.

Yes, pep, which I define as the bounce, the soul, the energy, and the effervescence of it. I also like the harmonizing that happens as the song starts feeling itself.

I didn’t discover Natalie until my coming of age and coming in to my own musical tastes in the 1980s. She was then experiencing what I now know was a career revival with songs like Miss you like Crazy.

It was a revival that would be cemented a few years on with the aforementioned collaboration with her late father – a triumphant embrace of the legacy the literature (and a TV movie about her life) tells me she shied away from early in her career as she tried to find and establish her own voice.

It wasn’t unreasonable to expect that Natalie would have rated more than a spot in the In Memoriam tribute on a show that included a live Gwen Stefani video and a tad too much Gaga in the David Bowie tribute. Yes, it bears repeating. For the record my favourite tribute of the night was the B. B. King tribute which I thought was about the artist and the not the artistes celebrating him. Plus it was great to see Bonnie ‘Let’s give em something to talk about’ Raitt again.

But, yes, not unreasonable to expect to see some of today’s R ‘n B songstresses dancing and harmonizing on This will be! Considering that Natalie has nine Grammy wins (when they weren’t giving multiple awards to so-so artistes like participation trophies…you know who I’m talking about) – beginning with Best New Artist and Best R n B vocal performance for, you guessed it, This will be!

So, I asked on my facebook page, who would have been ideal participants in that tribute? I pictured three women as in her 1975 Midnight Special performance (a recent youtube find) and for a minute contemplated a Destiny’s Child re-reunion for the occasion. But then I thought how much more fun it would be to put a line-up of solo songstresses together. They would have to have exemplary singing chops and the requisite soulfulness but not be too showy – not saying they can’t vamp but harmonizing after all requires an ability to blend your voice in with the whole.

My picks, therefore, are Jazmin Sullivan, Chrisete Michele, Janelle Monae with Erykah Badu not only lending vocals but spinning records. I think that would have been hype. Chrisete’s voice is delicate yet strong and soulful – it has a fine, distinctive quality to it. Speaking of distinctive but similarly underrated vocalist Jazmin’s voice has a little more body and sultriness; I feel the blend of the two would have hit a musical sweet spot. Plus it would have given both R n B vocalists a well-earned larger stage. Janelle and Erykah don’t need the extra spotlight maybe but you have to admit that they bring a certain energy and eccentricity to every stage – and both give good voice.

There are other obvious choices, of course. Someone on my page mentioned Fantasia and as I’m typing this, Jill Scott is also on the edge of my mind. But I’m digging my original quartet.

What about you, who would have been your picks for the Natalie Cole Grammy musical tribute that should have been?

You don’t have to answer that (obviously the posting of this is many months delayed in a fast moving world; I just wanted to post it anyway though late rather than never). But you can answer if you wish. In any case, hope you enjoyed the music.


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