Finding oneself alive after a near-death experience is perhaps the most joyous feeling that one could have. One such experience by Natalie Cole, daughter of the famous and highly celebrated singer Nat ‘King’ Cole, and a very talented singer in her own right, has left many wondering if the Almighty had showered special blessings on her.
The day Natalie thought she would die started out like any other. On February 10, 1981, four days after her 31st birthday, a fire which started at the Vegas Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas in the early evening on one of the lower floors progressively intensified, forcing Cole, who was with her bodyguard, to request evacuation assistance from management.
That assistance seemed never to come, even after several more requests via the telephone. An option of exiting through the window and sliding down the wall of the hotel, using bed sheets tied together, was just a thought but not a mathematical reality. As the minutes ticked away with no response from the front desk, death began staring the two in the face. They were trapped.
Natalie had already written the banner headline for the following day’s newspaper in her head, ‘Daughter of Nat ‘King’ Cole dies in Vegas Hilton inferno’, before her 6 foot 10 inch bodyguard, Nate Bowman, a former NBA player, startled her as the two lay on soaked bed sheets to repel the heat and smoke.
“Natalie I love you, and I’ve been in love with you since I started working for you. We ought to make love here and now because it’s the last chance we’re going to get,” he said.
Natalie’s response was straight and to the point: “If we’re gonna die and it comes to the choice between having sex and getting high, I’d rather get high”. She had a fairly long history of drug addiction and her experience probably told her that if she ‘got high’, she wouldn’t feel the flames that much when she was dying. Or perhaps she didn’t think that acceding to Nate’s request was morally correct.
Destiny, however, would not allow her to take that route home: as when she was about to ‘light up’, two firemen miraculously appeared, pulled them from the floor, and escorted them to the roof and into waiting helicopters for transport to hospital. They were the last to be evacuated.
It was a miracle how the fireballs that swept up the elevator shaft and down the hallway missed her room. Eight persons died, including one man who jumped out a window. Two hundred and fifty-three were seriously injured.
Cole’s bodyguard, who suffered severe lung damage, died from respiratory complications some years after, as did several others. Yet, Cole was fine. As she was wheeled back from the X-ray department, the doctors stood there shaking their heads, one was overheard saying, “I don’t know how she did it”. Cole perhaps knew, as she explained in her autobiography Angel on My Shoulder: “That ain’t nothing but God. I feel as if an angel intervened to save my life, just as had happened many times before, when I otherwise should have been dead, she had several previous shaves with death because of drug addiction.
On one occasion, after getting herself ‘high’ while attending college, Natalie was hauled back by friends at the last moment as she attempted to jump out of a 20th floor dorm window, believing she could float gently down to the ground.
It is said that ‘the chip never falls too far from the block’ as her father, her main musical inspiration and closest friend, also had close shaves with death during his attempts to unite blacks and whites.
He was once attacked on stage while performing to segregated audiences and was rescued by lawmen. On another occasion, shots were fired through the front window of his home.
It may be of some astrological significance that Natalie had the same birthdate as the legendary King of reggae, Jamaica’s Robert Nester Marley. Both were born February 6, Cole in 1950, Marley in 1945. Both had indomitable characters and spiritual inclinations. Marley was attacked and shot at his home on December 3, 1976, by alleged political activists, who, it is said, thought his involvement in a concert two days later had political leanings.
Marley, like Natalie, exercised extreme resilience during their respective ordeals. Although injured, Marley still performed at the concert.
Unity through music
The popular concept of music being a simple way of uniting people was aptly demonstrated by Marley and was not dissimilar to race-unity performances by Nat Cole, the block from which Natalie was chipped.
Marley had celebrated his escape with the recording Ambush in the Night.
See them fighting for power
but they know not the hour
so they come with their guns spare parts and money
trying to belittle our integrity now,
Natalie rejoiced after her escape with Angel On My Shoulder
I never thought I’d ever make it, can’t believe the hell I’ve been through,
couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,
I didn’t know what to do.
I’ve been through the rain, I’ve been through the fire, there was something that I never knew.
I had an angel on my shoulder, with a plan for me divine.
Must be an angel on my shoulder who was right there all the time.
The title of the song was also the title of Natalie’s autobiography in 2000, which was a top seller on the Los Angeles Times booksellers list.
Natalie Cole’s multitudinous achievements on stage, on screen and in the recording studios, represent another side of her exciting career, and that, along with other revealing episodes, will be featured in a future article.