At this point, it’s more than fair to say that most of us “Unforgettable” with the Cole family. Nat “King” Cole made the song a hit when he first released it in 1951. Four decades later, Natalie Cole utilized then-modern technology to duet with her late father on the classic in 1991. Natalie not only introduced a whole new generation to the song, but helped reaffirm his and solidify her legacy.
Aretha Franklin’s version of “Unforgettable” has lineage that extends beyond Nat “King” Cole. While Nat’s version was the first and the standard, Dinah Washington also recorded the song (stream here), but not until 1959. Though Nat’s is best-known, Dinah’s also made significant waves, peaking at number 10 on the Billboard charts. Dinah’s was seen as significant enough to warrant being inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame, just one year after Nat’s.
It was Dinah’s version that inspired Aretha to take on “Unforgettable”, though Aretha’s arrangement gives the song it’s own unique spin. Aretha’s version appears on Unforgettable: A Tribute To Dinah Washington, released on Columbia Records in 1964, mere months after Dinah’s untimely death at just 39 years old.
Aretha walks away from the pop swing of Nat, Dinah, and most arrangements prior to hers. Instead, she gives the tune a much more slow-burning arrangement, with a big finish the others lack. The strings best connect Nat & Dinah’s versions with Aretha’s, but that’s where the comparisons end. Aretha’s version rearranges the use of the xylophone, piano, bass, percussion, removes the electric guitar, and incorporates a saxophone.
Vocally, even here in her Columbia days, Aretha already had a trick up her sleeve to show off her magnanimous voice. As the band crescendos for the final stanzas, Aretha follows suit. She issues a growing “That’s why, that’s why, that’s why, that’s whyyyyyy” followed by a rousing reading of the song’s final line.
In the mid-90’s Aretha started singing “Unforgettable” during her live shows. There is audio of two live performances of “Unforgettable”, from 1994. One in Valley Forge, New York, and the other in Long Island. She presents an elongated, yet simplified version of her 1964 arrangement, with nods to both Nat’s & Dinah’s arrangements. But she does include her stellar “That’s why, that’s why, that’s why, that’s whyyyyyy”, which is easily the trademark she holds on the classic.
Stream Aretha’s soaring “Unforgettable”: