Natalie Cole, Singer and Drug Abuse Critic, Dies at 65

Singer Natalie Cole, a winner of nine Grammy Awards, died of congestive heart failure on New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles at age 65.

The daughter of jazz icon Nat King Cole was a vocal opponent of drug addiction after recovering from cocaine addiction in the 1980s. She had suffered from hepatitis C, which she said she contracted during past drug abuse, and complications from a 2009 kidney transplant, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Natalie fought a fierce, courageous battle, dying how she lived … with dignity, strength and honor,” Cole’s family said in a statement. “Our beloved mother and sister will be greatly missed and remain unforgettable in our hearts forever.”

Cole’s album sales reached 30 million, and the singer earned a total of 21 Grammy nominations during her career. She won her first Grammys in 1976 and 1977, but her career was put on hold while she battled drug addiction in the 1980s. She first entered rehab in 1983.

“I was breaking down physically,” Cole told the L. A. Times in 1985. “I had been into drugs over a number of years and it was starting to take its toll, both mentally and physically — and I had to go away.”

Cole recovered from the disease and released her most famous album, “Unforgettable … With Love,” in 1991. The album won six Grammy Awards and sold more than six million copies, according to the L.A. Times.

Cole continued to tour in recent years, but her declining health required her to cancel several shows in 2015. Her health deteriorated in November and December, and she canceled performances because of medical procedures and hospital stays, according to USA Today.

“We’ve lost a wonderful, highly cherished artist and our heartfelt condolences go out to Natalie’s family, friends, her many collaborators, as well as to all who have been entertained by her exceptional talent,” said Neil Portnow, president and CEO of The Recording Academy, in a statement.

Cole Fought Addiction to Become ‘One of the Greatest Singers of Our Time’

Cole’s success didn’t come easy. The daughter of a jazz legend fought to earn her own recognition without the help of her father’s name.

As her fame grew, so did her abuse of illicit substances. In her 2000 memoir, “Angel on My Shoulder,” Cole wrote that her drug abuse became so severe that she struggled to escape a fire at a Las Vegas hotel in 1981, according to USA Today.

The star later credited her family and business partners with sending her “kicking and screaming” to a rehabilitation clinic in Minnesota in 1983. She admitted to using LSD and heroin, but her addiction to cocaine was the most severe. She relapsed after her first rehab stint, but the second one helped her recover, according to the New York Daily News.

Despite remaining sober during the rest of her life, Cole endured long-lasting health consequences from her drug abuse. The singer was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2008, which she claimed she contracted during intravenous drug use in the ‘80s. She later suffered from kidney disease thought to be a side effect of hepatitis C treatment, according to USA Today.

Her declining health was well known, but her death on New Year’s Eve saddened her friends, family and fans.

“I had to hold back the tears,” legendary singer Aretha Franklin said in a statement. “I know how hard she fought. She fought for so long. She was one of the greatest singers of our time.”

An Outspoken Opponent of Drug Abuse

Cole wrote and spoke about her history of addiction and substance abuse in an effort to prevent others from making the same mistakes and to inspire addicts to seek help. She wasn’t shy with her words either.

In 2008, Cole harshly criticized the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for awarding Amy Winehouse five Grammys. Winehouse was famous for her single, “Rehab,” about her refusal to seek treatment for alcohol addiction when her management team encouraged her to.

“I don’t think she should have won,” Cole told People Magazine in 2008. “I think it sends a bad message to our young people who are trying to get into this business, the ones who are trying to do it right and really trying to keep themselves together.

“We have to stop rewarding bad behavior. I’m sorry. I think the girl is talented, gifted, but it’s not right for her to be able to have her cake and eat it too. She needs to get herself together. I mean, she could die.”

Unfortunately, her words were prophetic. Winehouse died in 2011 from alcohol poisoning, one month after her tour was canceled after she forgot the words to her songs while intoxicated on stage. After Winehouse’s death, Cole condemned the entertainment industry for not doing more to help.

“Her life was at stake,” Cole told The Associated Press in 2011. “I mean, she was trying to get off heroin, which is probably one of the most difficult drugs to recover from. I just don’t get it. What more can we do other than everybody needs to grow up? Hollywood needs to grow up and stop glorifying this kind of behavior and thinking it’s cute.”

Cole wrote about drug addiction in two memoirs: “Angel on my Shoulder” and “Love Brought Me Back.” Instead of being ashamed of her history with drugs, she tried to help others find the courage to seek help.

“I don’t want people to have some artificial view of who I am,” Cole wrote. “I think that one of the things (talking about addiction) does is encourages other people to come forward and do the same.”


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