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Songs Of Remembrance: A Father And Daughter's 'Unforgettable' Bond

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than half a million people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic hit this country last year. To remember some of those who've lost their lives, NPR is sharing the music that moved them and hearing stories from their friends and families. We are calling our tribute Songs of Remembrance. Today we're remembering Hung Vinh Nguyen. He was born in Cambodia and grew up in Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, Hung and his then-wife fled to the U.S. They settled in Northern Virginia near Washington, D.C., and had a daughter named Annie. The song "Unforgettable" by Natalie Cole is a duet with her father, Nat King Cole, and it came to have special meaning to Annie and her dad. But that's not where the story starts. Here's Annie.

ANNIE NGUYEN-HABERMANN: Every year, my dad would ask me what I would want for my birthday or what do I want for Christmas. And I remember one year, I really, really wanted the MC Hammer "Too Legit To Quit" album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "2 LEGIT 2 QUIT")

MC HAMMER: (Rapping) Too legit, too legit to quit.

NGUYEN-HABERMANN: And this also cracks me up because when I think about it, this is before Amazon. Like, this is before you could buy a CD and not, like, be physically associated with making this purchase.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "2 LEGIT 2 QUIT")

MC HAMMER: (Rapping) Sweat running all over my chest. I don't quit, no. I just press harder.

NGUYEN-HABERMANN: And at this point, he was a middle aged, like, Vietnamese man walking into a record store and, you know, trying to be a good dad. So he bought this MC Hammer CD.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "2 LEGIT 2 QUIT")

MC HAMMER: (Rapping) ...Knows the time and too legit to quit. Sing - too legit, too legit to quit.

NGUYEN-HABERMANN: And maybe for good measure, he was like, you know what? I'm just going to toss in this Natalie Cole CD to balance it out and introduce her to some better music.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT KING COLE AND NATALIE COLE SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")

NGUYEN-HABERMANN: So when I received the package and opened it, I was obviously ecstatic because I got "Too Legit To Quit." And then I also got the Natalie Cole CD.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Unforgettable - that's what you are.

NGUYEN-HABERMANN: I never really listened to it all the time growing up. It wasn't like, you know, blasting Natalie Cole on a boombox. But we would always, like, sing in the car or, like, you know, sing while cooking or that kind of stuff. So he would sing a few bars of it every now and then.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")

NATALIE COLE: (Singing) Unforgettable in every way.

NGUYEN-HABERMANN: Later in my life, you know, the song became significant again because we actually danced to it together at my wedding for our father-daughter dance. I think I had to point out to him. Like, oh, hey; do you recognize the song that we're dancing to?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")

NAT KING COLE AND NATALIE COLE: (Singing) That's why, darling...

NGUYEN-HABERMANN: And once it hit, then his eyes clearly lit up. And he's like, oh, hey. Yeah, it's our song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")

NAT KING COLE AND NATALIE COLE: (Singing) ...That someone so unforgettable thinks that I am unforgettable, too.

NGUYEN-HABERMANN: He passed in May of 2020. We just had a really small service, so we had probably five or six people there, and we had a Buddhist monk come to the funeral home and perform a Buddhist funeral service. And after that, I gave a short eulogy for my father. And as we were putting flowers on his casket, that's when they played the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")

NATALIE COLE: (Singing) Unforgettable...

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Unforgettable...

NATALIE COLE: (Singing) ...In every way.

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) ...In every way.

NATALIE COLE: (Singing) And forevermore...

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) And forevermore...

NATALIE COLE: (Singing) ...That's how you'll stay.

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) ...That's how you'll stay.

SHAPIRO: That was Annie Nguyen-Habermann remembering her father, Hung Vinh Nguyen. He died of COVID-19 in May of last year. He was 77.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")

NAT KING COLE AND NATALIE COLE: (Singing) ...Someone so unforgettable thinks that I am unforgettable, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.