Nine-time Grammy Award winner Natalie Cole and the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra kicked off this year’s Picnic at the Pops Series with “An Unforgettable Journey” last week at the Salem Civic Center. Despite the continued downturn in the economy, there weren’t many empty seats in the house.
The Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, with Maestro David Wiley attired in full western wear (cowboy hat and duster), first took the audience for a “Tour over Americana” beginning with a high-energy medley of western favorites arranged by Ralph Ford. The audience then took delight in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a patriotic medley followed by “Hello Dolly.”
An upbeat rendition of “When the Saints Come Marching In” evoked toe tapping and hand clapping. “God Bless America,” the patriotic tune written by Irving Berlin, turned into a grand march tempo. There was also “White Christmas,” with snow falling gently on stage, and “Satchmo,” a tribute to jazz legend Louis Armstrong.
Following intermission, Cole sashayed onto the stage attired in a stunning spaghetti-strap gown, sporting short chic hair. The audience greeted her with thunderous applause. Cole appeared to be in fine shape, despite a diagnosis of hepatitis C last year, undergoing kidney dialysis three times weekly, and then successfully surviving a kidney transplant. She also lost her sister to lung cancer – on the same day of her surgery in May. Cole’s father, the immortal Nat King Cole, had also passed away with lung cancer at age 45.
Returning to the stage this fall, Cole has built a strong repertoire with a variety of songs, mainly in the jazz and blues style. While her father achieved superstar status, she has created an individual identity for herself that has endured and matured through the years.
Cole captured the Best New Artist Grammy in 1975 and has earned six Grammys along the way, including Record and Album of the Year in 1991 for “Unforgettable…With Love.” The CD was number one for five weeks and sold more than eight million copies in the country. It included a memorable duet with her father – his vocal track at least – on Unforgettable.”
In recent years Cole decided to wait until she was ready to return to the songs that fulfilled her heart and soul and instead focused on other things, like an autobiography. In September 2008 her CD “Still Unforgettable” received two Grammys and earned Cole a NAACP Award for Best Jazz Artist.
Her performance with the RSO journeyed through big band, jazz, soul, and recalled legendary artists like her father, Jack Jones, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra. Cole’s versatility and wide vocal range mesmerized and engaged the audience.
The most touching segment was during the posthumous duet of “Unforgettable…With Love” when a screen suspended from the ceiling projected a slideshow above the orchestra containing images of Nat trading verses with his teary-eyed daughter on stage.
Another duet with her father came during “Walking My Baby Back Home,” which was originally recorded by her father in the early 50’s. Cole said “putting that together with dad wasn’t that easy. I’m trying to hold it together up here. If it weren’t for your prayers the past year, I wouldn’t be here. Even strangers care.”
Cole recalled her father’s cheerfulness as she sang, “Smile” and noted that Charlie Chaplin suggested the song to Nat. Other highlights included “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love),” “Our Love,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “I’ve Got Love on my Mind.”
At one point, Cole playfully said to the audience, “I’m sorry we’re having so many problems with the sound system [when her voice was lost in the music]. Who should I fire?” Then when someone’s cell phone in the audience rang loudly, with a big smile she inquired, “Is that a cell phone?” Both comments evoked laughter from the audience.
Local songwriter/guitarist Cheryl Lunsford, who met Cole briefly backstage after the concert, said “she ended with a duet on the back screen with her Dad, she blew him a kiss…Unforgettable…still!”
Cole’s performance proved that she is still at the top of her game, and is incredibly inspiring on a human level, after having successfully overcome many extremely difficult obstacles along the way.
Roanoke Symphony Orchestra upcoming events: Handel’s Messiah on December 6 at 3:00 p.m. and Holiday Pops Spectacular featuring Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Roanoke College Children’s Choir, Salem Choral Society, and George Dyer, Tenor on December 11 at 7:00 p.m. Also, RSO partners with the Taubman Museum of Art to present the “Arts in Concert” Family Series.
The November 21 performance, “The Junior Strings” featuring a real String Orchestra (violins, violas, cellos and basses) for kids only, and on December 5 with Maestro David Stewart Wiley, a visitor from the North Pole will lead the whole family in singing holiday favorites in a “Holiday sing-a-long. Both programs begin at 11:00 a.m. and will last for 40 minutes. For more details and to learn about events scheduled for 2010, visit rso.com or call (540) 343-9127.By Susan Ayers [email protected]