Natalie Cole was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of crooner Nat King Cole and former Duke Ellington Orchestra singer Maria Hawkins Ellington, and raised in the affluent Hancock Park district of Los Angeles. Regarding her childhood, Cole has referred to her family as "the black Kennedys" and was exposed to many great singers of jazz, soul, and blues. At the age of six Natalie sang on her father's Christmas album and later began performing at age 11.
Cole grew up with older adopted sister Carole "Cookie" (1944–2009) (her mother Maria's younger sister's daughter); adopted brother Nat "Kelly" Cole (1959–95), and younger twin sisters Timolin and Casey (born 1961).
Her paternal uncle Freddy Cole is a singer and pianist with numerous albums and awards. Cole enrolled in Northfield Mount Hermon School, an elite New England preparatory school, at age 15 after her father died of lung cancer in February 1965. Soon afterwards she began having a difficult relationship with her mother. She enrolled in the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She transferred briefly to University of Southern California where she pledged the Upsilon chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She later transferred back to the University of Massachusetts, where she majored in Child Psychology and minored in German, graduating in 1972.
Following graduation, Cole, who grew up listening to a variety of artists from soul artists such as Aretha Franklin to psychedelic rock icon Janis Joplin, began singing at small clubs with her band, Black Magic. Clubs initially welcomed her due to her being Nat King Cole's daughter, only to be disappointed when she began covering R&B and rock numbers. While performing, she was noted by a couple of producers in the Chicago area, Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy, who then approached her to do records. After cutting several records together, they passed off the music to several record labels. Most labels turned them down with one ironic exception. Capitol Records, her father's label, heard the records and agreed to sign her.
Cole, Yancy and Jackson went into studios in Los Angeles to polish the recordings they had shipped, resulting in the release of Cole's debut album, Inseparable, which included songs that reminded listeners of Aretha Franklin. In fact, Franklin later contended that songs such as "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)", "I Can't Say No" and others were originally offered to her while she was recording the You album. Franklin turned most of the songs down but agreed to record the title track for her album. Cole also recorded "You". Released in 1975, the album became an instant success thanks to "This Will Be", which became a top ten hit and later winning Cole a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. A second single, "Inseparable", also became a hit. Both songs reached number-one on the R&B chart. Cole also won Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards for her accomplishments. Due to the media's billing of Cole as the "new Aretha Franklin", it inadvertently started a rivalry between the two singers.
Becoming an instant star, Cole responded to critics of an impending sophomore slump with Natalie, released in 1976. The album, like Inseparable, became a gold success thanks to the funk-influenced cut, "Sophisticated Lady (She's a Different Lady)" and the jazz-influenced "Mr. Melody".
Cole released her first platinum record with her third release, Unpredictable, mainly thanks to the number-one R&B hit, "I've Got Love on My Mind". Originally an album track, the album's closer, "I'm Catching Hell", nonetheless became a popular Cole song during live concert shows.
Later in 1977, Cole issued her fourth release and second platinum album, Thankful, which included another signature Cole hit, "Our Love". To capitalize on her fame, Cole starred on her own TV special, which attracted such celebrities as Earth, Wind & Fire, and also appeared on the TV special, "Sinatra and Friends." In 1978, Cole released her first live album, Natalie Live!
In early 1979, the singer was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That same year, she released two more albums, I Love You So and the Peabo Bryson duet album, We're the Best of Friends. Both albums reached gold status in the U.S. continuing her popularity.
Following the release of her eighth album, 1980's Don't Look Back, Cole's career began to take a detour. While Cole scored an adult contemporary hit with the soft rock ballad "Someone That I Used To Love" off the album, the album itself failed to go gold. In 1981, Cole's personal problems including battles with drug addiction began to take public notice and her career suffered as a result. In 1983, following the release of her album, I'm Ready, released on Epic, Cole entered a rehab facility in Connecticut reportedly staying there for a period of six months.
Following her release, she signed with the Atco imprint, Modern Records, releasing Dangerous, which started a slow resurgence for Cole in terms of record sales and chart success.
In 1987, she changed to EMI-Manhattan Records and released the Everlasting album, which returned her to the top of the charts thanks to singles such as "Jump Start (My Heart)", the top ten ballad, "I Live For Your Love" and her dance-pop cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac". That success helped Everlasting reach one million in sales becoming Cole's first platinum album in ten years. In 1989, she released her follow-up to Everlasting, Good to Be Back, which produced the number two hit, "Miss You Like Crazy", which also achieved international success reaching the top ten in the United Kingdom.
In 1990, she (along with jazz vocalist Al Jarreau) sang the song "Mr. President" (written by Ray Reach, Mike Loveless and Joe Sterling) on HBO's Comic Relief special, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal.
Cole released her best-selling album with 1991's Unforgettable... with Love on Elektra Records, which saw Cole singing songs her famous father recorded, nearly 20 years after she initially had refused to cover her father's songs during live concerts. Cole produced vocal arrangements for the songs, with piano accompaniment by her uncle Ike Cole. Cole's label released an interactive duet between Cole and her father on the title song, "Unforgettable". The song eventually reached number fourteen on the Billboard Hot 100 and number ten on the R&B chart, going gold.
Unforgettable...with Love eventually sold more than seven million copies in the U.S. alone winning several Grammys including Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance for the top song.
In 1992, following the success of the Unforgettable: With Love album, PBS broadcast a special based on the album. Unforgettable, With Love: Natalie Cole Sings the Songs of Nat "King" Cole received Emmy nominations for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Program; and Cole received a nomination for Outstanding Individual Performance, losing to Bette Midler.
Cole followed that success with another album of jazz standards titled Take a Look, in 1993, which included her recording of the title track in the same styling that her idol Aretha Franklin had recorded nearly 30 years earlier. The album eventually went gold while a holiday album, Holly & Ivy, also became gold. Another standards release, Stardust, went platinum and featured another duet with her father on a modern version of "When I Fall in Love", which helped Cole earn another Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.
In 1999, Cole returned to her 1980s-era urban contemporary recording style with the release of Snowfall on the Sahara on June and second holiday album The Magic of Christmas on October, which recorded with London Symphony Orchestra.
A year later, the singer collaborated on the production of her biopic, Livin' For Love: The Natalie Cole Story, which featured Theresa Randle in the role of Cole. She also released the compilation Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 to fulfill her contract with Elektra. She changed to Verve Records and released two albums. 2002's Ask a Woman Who Knows continued her jazz aspirations.
In 2006's Leavin' again featured Cole singing pop, rock and R&B standards. Her cover of Aretha Franklin's "Daydreaming", became a minor hit on the R&B charts.
In 2008, seventeen years after Unforgettable... with Love, Cole released Still Unforgettable, which included not only songs made famous by her father but other artists, including Frank Sinatra. The album later resulted in Grammy wins for Cole.
In April 2012, she appeared as a Pennington Great Performers series artist with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra.
Cole has carved out a secondary career in acting. Cole has made a number of dramatic appearances on television, including guest appearances on I'll Fly Away, Touched by an Angel, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Cole has also made several appearances in feature films, most recently in the Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely. She has appeared in several made-for-TV movies, most notably as the lead in Lily in Winter. Cole was featured on Macy Gray's album Big, singing "Finally Make Me Happy".
In 2001 she starred as herself in Livin' for Love: the Natalie Cole Story, for which she received the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television, Mini-Series of Dramatic Special.
She also sang the national anthem with the Atlanta University Center Chorus at Super Bowl XXVIII.
In 2006, she made a memorable guest appearance on the popular ABC show Grey's Anatomy as a terminally ill patient. Her character visited Seattle Grace Hospital to have a fork removed from her neck that her husband had stabbed her with during a mishap; the couple had been having sex in public.
On December 2, 2006, Cole performed for the first time in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, as part of the annual Cayman Jazz Fest.
On the February 5, 2007 episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Cole sang "I Say a Little Prayer" at a benefit dinner for Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson).
She can also be seen in the last scene of Nas' music video for "Can't Forget About You". The song uses a sample of her father's song "Unforgettable". Cole is sitting at a piano in a cabaret-style lounge mouthing her father's song with Nas standing beside her.
Natalie Cole also performed "Something's Gotta Give" on American Idol on April 29, 2009.
In September 2010, Cole performed with Andrea Bocelli in a concert at the Kodak Theatre, for his album My Christmas, in which she recorded a duet with him, and on December 10–13, 2009, she appeared with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square in their annual Christmas concerts. Both were videotaped for presentation on PBS in December 2010.
2013 Natalie Cole appeared on the Wendy Williams Show claiming she was upset at Jennifer Hudson and Fox’s American Idol for not inviting her to sing her song “Inseparable” on the final of the show.
Also in 2013 Natalie Cole album “Natalie Cole En Espanol” was nominated for two Latin Grammys including Best Album of the Year.