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What's In a Name?

Despite efforts, Natalie Cole can't escape her father's legacy.

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It would have been easy for Cole to capitalize on the reflected glory of her name. Instead, she started her performing career only after graduating from the University of Massachusetts. Signing with Capital Records (which was then called “the house that Nat built” because of her father's financial importance to the label) she rejected their suggestion that she carry on in a jazz-tinged ballad style, and blazed her own path in collaboration with songwriters/producers Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancey. They spun out a series of R&B hits in the late '70s, resulting in several Grammy awards.

The run ended with the clichAcd '80s celebrity-catastrophe cocktail: disastrous addictions, feelings of inadequacy leavened with a bit of parental finger-pointing and, as documented in Cole's autobiography, direct angelic intervention. After her recovery she found she was comfortable with recording songs her father had made famous.

She scored her breakthrough with 1991s “Unforgettable: With Love,” a recording totally dedicated to the Nat King Cole songbook. The album's title track was posthumous “duet” with father. This wholehearted embrace of her birthright remains the biggest hit of her career, with sales of more than 14 million copies.

Since then, she has built her career on well-mounted renditions of standards, her assured vocals displayed on a cushion provided by first-rank musicians. Her latest CD, “Ask a Woman Who Knows,” is a perfect example, with polished arrangements featuring players like guitarist Russell Malone, bassist Christian McBride, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and singer Dianne Krall.

At first she says she felt uncomfortable with the title, according to a filmed interview on the Verve records Web site. “I just felt it was very self-serving, but I realized it wasn't just necessarily about me. This album is about women who have experienced different kinds of relationships, really, in their life,” Cole says.

“I got the biggest kick when I went on ‘The Oprah Show' and Oprah kept talking about how she loved this title. …” Cole continues. Svelte, slim and stylish at 53, Cole is the artist as celebrity, in perfect context gracing the pages of People Magazine or displaying noblesse oblige on “Oprah.”

Whether her talent alone would have carried her as far as the burden of inherited fame is an unanswerable question. It's not fair, least of all to her, but it's the role she was born to play. S

Note: According to her publicist, Cole gives interviews only in the event of poor ticket sales. While this doesn't accommodate the needs of a weekly publication like Style, it does mean that if an interview appears in the daily press, then it's likely that good seats are still available for her Aug. 22 Carpenter Center performance at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $40-$50 and can be purchased at www.carpentercenter.org or by calling 225-9000.

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