The Grammy Award-winning singer died Thursday evening at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles due to complications from ongoing health issues, her family said in a statement.
"Natalie fought a fierce, courageous battle, dying how she lived … with dignity, strength and honor. Our beloved Mother and sister will be greatly missed and remain UNFORGETTABLE in our hearts forever," read the statement from her son Robert Yancy and sisters Timolin and Casey Cole.
Cole played Broadway in a self-titled concert at the Winter Garden Theatre Nov. 23-28, 1976, though she was never part of a full-scale Main Stem production. After Midnight was to have been her first.
In a 2014 interview with Playbill, Cole said, "I've had a few offers to go to Broadway, and I have turned them all down! Mostly because I was just so scared of the schedule. I'm a road girl! We do three or four shows a week, and then we take off for three days, so doing Broadway, where it's eight shows a week… This is a different kind of schedule, so even though I'm not singing a lot of songs, you still have to have a good stamina to bring it every night."
Cole battled addiction to heroin and cocaine; the addiction and hepatitis forced her to undergo a kidney transplant in May 2009. While she was undergoing surgery, her older sister, Carole "Cookie" Cole, died from lung cancer. When interviewed in 2014, Cole sounded excited to get to Broadway with After Midnight. "I'm excited, and I'm scared to death!" she said, laughing. "I've never done anything like this before… Eight shows a week is very daunting, and it's…New York. It's Broadway. The whole image of it is really kind of overwhelming. I am looking forward to it, though. I mean, I love this show. I love the costumes… I was so excited when I found out that it was nominated for so many Tony Awards, which is just perfect."
Cole came from a musical family. She grew up the daughter of famed jazz pianist and baritone Nat King Cole and Maria Hawkins Ellington, a performer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. "My mom sang with Duke Ellington — that's how she met my dad — so there's all kinds of history there," she told Playbill.
"My mom was always listening to — and I had a chance to meet — people like Sarah Vaughan and Ella [Fitzgerald], who was a dear friend of our family's," she continued. "That whole era — that whole retro era that I was brought up in — was very inspiring. If you don't know this music [of the Jazz Age], it's not that easy to sing. It's something that, for me, just comes very naturally, and I'm really happy about that."
Cole, whose 1991 album "Unforgettable ... With Love" (in which she re-recorded her father's classic hits — with his voice on the title track) won several Grammys including Album of the Year, always said that she let the music function as the true star. The album featured several show tunes including "Almost Like Being In Love," "This Can't Be Love," "Thou Swell" and "Paper Moon."
"I must have picked up from my dad that the singer is the messenger. The music is the message," she said. "Let the music breathe and be all that it should be — as the singer, as the artist, as the messenger. If you get some kudos out of that, that's great, but don't put yourself ahead of the music because the music definitely is the focal point."
Natalie and Carole's brother, Nat Kelly Cole, died in 1995.
Cole was married three times. She divorced her third husband, Kenneth Dupree, in 2004.