PHILADELPHIA -- The lights go down in the World Cafe Live. As the musicians lay into a sinewy rock-funk vamp, Natalie Cole struts on stage, resplendent in a fitted, sleeveless white T-shirt and painted-on, flare-legged jeans. (The rhinestones on the back pockets spell out her initials, NC.) Her hair, crinkly and jet black, falls past her shoulders, framing an ageless face. Cole is trim, her posture perfect, her waist ridiculously small. At 56, she could easily pass for 30. And her smile seems to dim the stage lights. She sashays to the mike to address the sold-out house.
Born: Stephanie Natalie Maria Cole on Feb. 6, 1950, in Los Angeles. At the time, her father, Nat King Cole, was one of the most successful pop-jazz crooners in the world.
Education: Attended the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Mass.; earned a degree in child psychology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1972.
Personal: Married producer Marvin Yancy in 1976; the two divorced in 1980. They have one son, Robert Yancy, born in 1977. Married producer-drummer Andre Fischer in 1989 and divorced six years later. Married the Rev. Kenneth Dupree in 2001 and filed for divorce in 2004.
Career: Cole has won eight Grammys and released 24 albums in 31 years. Her global album sales are more than 35 million.
Essential Natalie Cole albums
(1975) This is the singer's debut for Capitol Records, the label her father helped establish in the 1940s. Cole, who was 25 when the record was released, displays technical finesse and a seasoned soulfulness that belies her years. Her producers and songwriters, Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy, smartly place her zesty vocals in sympathetic arrangements. Save for a few dated touches (the wicka-wicka guitar lines), the set has aged well and features such classics as "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)," "I Can't Say No" and "Joey."
(1977) On this album, Cole's first platinum set, the approach becomes more middle-of-the-road but never boring. The gospel edge with which she sang on the debut and 1976's uneven Natalie is still intact, if subdued. This is one of the singer's most fluid releases and features the rare grooves classic "Annie Mae" and the perennial wedding song, "Our Love."
(1977) Another platinum set for Cole and a great balance of uptown soul and sassy, blues-suffused ballads. Unfortunately, this wonderful album has yet to be re-issued. But it's worth tracking down for the album cover (a youthful Cole in a foxy black halter dress and matching feather boa) and, of course, the great cuts: "I'm Catching Hell," "Peaceful Living" and "Still in Love."
(1978) A double-disc set that brilliantly captures Cole at her soul-shouting best. Her hits up to that time are reworked with earthiness and a tasteful splash of showy glitz. Her rock-reggae interpretation of the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamond" and the slow-building, churchy makeover of "Que Sera Sera" are highlights.
Unforgettable ...With Love
(1991) The biggest and most celebrated album of Cole's career, kick-starting her 15-year jazz-pop phase. It's a moving, gorgeously orchestrated tribute to the music of her father. The medley of "For Sentimental Reasons," "Tenderly" and "Autumn Leaves" is an often-overlooked standout.
Ask a Woman Who Knows
(2002) A mature set and a fitting close to Cole's standards mode. Her interpretative skills are sharp and graceful. Her silken, sensual take of Michael Franks' "Tell Me All About It" is a shimmering beauty.