Combined, they boast 22 platinum and gold records, 18 Grammy Awards and almost 300 million albums sold worldwide. This summer, musical icons Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and Natalie Cole will share their talents as headliners in the Tony-nominated musical revue After Midnight.
"All of our music stems from these musicians," said Cole, 64, of the jazz artists represented in After Midnight. Cole will be making her Broadway debut Aug. 5 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. The singer-songwriter would know best, having grown up the daughter of famed jazz pianist and baritone Nat King Cole and Maria Hawkins Ellington, a performer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
"That whole retro era that I was brought up in was very inspiring," she continued. "There's, to me, a tone in the voice, which is why we loved Ella, which is why we loved Carmen, Sarah, even Billie Holiday. They just had a certain tone to their voice that made it sound like they were born for this music."
She refers to jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday (represented on Broadway in the biographical play with music Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill), whose voices imprinted such songs as "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "I've Got the World on a String" and "Stormy Weather" — music celebrated at Broadway's Atkinson. "The music from this particular show really excited me because I grew up on it," explained Knight, 70, who returns to Broadway (July 8-Aug. 3) for the first time since 1999, when she guest starred in another famed revue, Smokey Joe's Café. "When I was in high school, our band teacher had the number one jazz combo in Atlanta. That's how I got introduced to this kind of music because he made me study. He wanted me to be the vocalist to his band, but he made me study all the greats, like Ella Fitzgerald and [alto saxophonist] Cannonball Adderley — from one end to the other, not just singers — and I just developed this [affinity] for that kind of music. It was so pure, jazz, and to be involved in a play that is so pure with that music [is] just an exciting thing to me."
Knight, known for her success in the Motown era with her group The Pips, singing such hits as "Midnight Train to Georgia" and "I've Got to Use My Imagination" — and also represented on Broadway as a character in the hit musical inspired by the famed record company — is looking forward to expose audiences to "another side of Gladys."
"The music is so much a part of my spirit, and you know what else," she confided, "I never learned how to scat! I cannot scat to save my life, so this is really a challenge for me. I want to give it my best shot.
"Do you know what a blessing that is for me? I have been so blessed over these years — the 65 years that I've been in the industry — to still be here, to go through all of these different eras of music and be able to survive because you're flexible enough to change as they go without losing yourself and still be here and have these opportunities. Two places on Broadway? … There are people out there dreaming [of] just being on Broadway one time!"
LaBelle, 70, also returns to Broadway in After Midnight; she was last seen in the Fela Kuti-inspired musical Fela! in 2011. The "Lady Marmalade" herself is currently a guest star through June 29.
"It's bringing out everybody," she said, "and everybody is becoming more knowledgeable about Duke Ellington and his music. It was great music." LaBelle is so inspired by the Jazz Age, in fact, that she "just recorded a jazz album that will probably be out before the year's [end]. I've always liked jazz, [but] when I tell people I have a jazz album coming out, they look at me like, 'Why?' Why? Because I love the music."
Cole agrees. "I must have picked up from my dad that the singer is the messenger. The music is the message. 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."
Cole is a Broadway first-timer, but it's not that the platinum-selling artist — acclaimed for her 1991 "Unforgettable" album, covering jazz standards and even duetting with her late, great father Nat King Cole on the title track — wasn't asked to the Great White Way before.
"I've had a few offers to go to Broadway, and I have turned them all down!" she admitted with a laugh. "Mostly because I was just so scared of the schedule. I'm a road girl, and we do three or four shows a week, and then we take off for three days."
She was pulled in by After Midnight's music and is anxious to begin. "I can't wait to get into these gowns and the days of the Cotton Club and Harlem. I didn't get to experience a lot of that because I was much younger, but looking at pictures of my dad and my mom and their friends and how they were dressed and the kind of parties they gave… It was fabulous. There's nothing like it."
(This feature will appear in the July issue of Playbill magazine. Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)