Living in the Spirit World
by Jay S. Jacobs
If Rita Coolidge didn’t have a life as interesting as she has, it would seem like someone had to make it up.
She showed up in Hollywood as a teen, a young woman proud of her Native American heritage and blessed with a sweet and sultry singing voice. Nearly straight off the bus, she got a gig as a backing vocalist for the popular 60s group Delaney and Bonnie. This led to her getting taken on as a member of Joe Cocker’s legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen Revue. She co-wrote “Superstar,” one of the iconic songs of the 20th Century, though she never got a writing credit for it. Leon Russell, who ended up getting that credit with Bonnie Bramlett, ended up writing two hit songs inspired by Coolidge – “Delta Lady” and “A Song for You.”
Speaking of not getting credit for her contributions, she also performed the piano coda for Derek and the Dominoes legendary single “Layla.” Also, as a backing vocalist, she performed on Dominoes lead vocalist Eric Clapton’s solo track “After Midnight” and Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With.” In fact, a long-time rumor suggested that she was responsible for the breakup of Crosby Stills and Nash in the early 70s, because she was dating Nash and Stills had a mad crush on her – also writing a song about her called “Cherokee.” Coolidge insists she was not the cause of the breakup, the band had more than its share of problems before she arrived.
She became part of one of the biggest musical marriages of the 70s, recording several albums with then-husband Kris Kristofferson. They broke up decades ago after some dramatic problems but have since both remarried and become good friends again.
As a solo artist, Coolidge had a long string of hits in the 70s and 80s, including the smashes “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher,” “We’re All Alone,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love,” “You,” “Fool That I Am” and the James Bond theme song “All Time High.”
Eventually she downshifted her life, moving away from Hollywood and the fast lane for a more settled existence. However, she never stopped recording and touring. Also, just a few years ago, she wrote her autobiography, Delta Lady. She is currently getting ready for a tour to preview her latest album, Safe in the Arms of Time, which will be available in May on the hip indie label Blue Elan. A week before the start of her tour, we caught up with Coolidge to discuss her new music and her career.
You have a new album coming out in May, Safe in the Arms of Time. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard it yet – I did hear the one song you did with Keb’ Mo’ that was released on Noisetrade, but I don’t know if that is going to be on the new record. What can fans expect from the new album?
That song, “Walking on Water,” is on the new record. We did a video and you can see it see it on YouTube, Facebook, anywhere. I’ve been working on this record for probably two and a half years; gathering the songs, finding the right producer [Ross Hogarth], and the right record company. It’s been a very long process. My goal with this record was just go back and recapture the roots, the feel, the sound of some of my earlier records. A little more organic and not so polished and glitzy. That’s the kind of record I wanted to make. A vital part of that was finding the right songs. I spent more time probably finding the songs for this record than I have maybe for all the rest of them put together. We went through thousands of songs. It’s been a long process.
As an artist, do you feel a certain sense of freedom at this point in your career, where you can make an album to fulfill your artistry and not have to worry about some label suit wondering if the songs will be a hit single?
My label trusted me and my producer. They knew what the songs were going to be. They had heard just the demos of the songs, not by me, by the writers who wrote them. The label never interfered. They didn’t come into the sessions. They never tried to direct us. As a matter of a fact, until we finished the last overdubs of the last backing vocals, and were finished recording, that was the first time the label heard the record. They really gave us all the freedom [we needed] and trusted us to bring home a good record. I really believe we did.
I see you are also doing songs from your old friend Graham Nash, Chris Stapleton and Stan Lynch on the new album. What are some of those songs?
The first song that I chose was a song that Graham Nash had sent me probably two and a half years ago. He’d just written it with Russ Kunkel. It’s called “Doing Time Without You.” When he sent it to me, it may have been the spark that really started this album rolling, for me to conceptualize and have the vision of making a roots record. When he sent me the song, I listened to it and immediately wrote him back and said, “I love this song. I’m going to be in the studio eventually. Can we put it on hold?” He wrote me back and said, “Absolutely, it’s yours love.” It was the first song chosen. It was a full two years before we got in the studio with it.
Are you looking forward to the new tour? I know you’ve performed live over the years, but somehow this tour feels kind of special.
It’s fun. We have already been out playing some of the music. We played at South by Southwest (SxSW, in Austin, Texas) and did some concerts up in San Francisco. The music has been just received so very well. Rolling Stone came to our showcase at SxSW. I was in the top 25 showcases at SxSW, and there are literally hundreds, so that felt good. I think we have a really, really good record and I’m just so excited about getting out on the road and playing this new music. A lot of times, you go out with a new record and people want to hear just the old stuff, but my experience so far with this is that people are enjoying it so much that nobody said a word about “You didn’t play my favorite….”
Are you going to be doing all newer songs, or will it be a mixture of old and new?
We always do the hits and the songs that people come to hear. Years ago, I went to a Luther Vandross concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I was a big fan of Luther’s, also a good friend. He had a new record, and he walked out on stage and simply played the record and didn’t play my favorite songs, and I was disappointed. I’ll never do that. I would never do that. I know there’s a reason that people are coming. You want to fulfill that for them.
One thing I’ve always loved about your music is that you are so comfortable in so many styles – R&B, country, pop, folk, jazz, rock, in fact one of my favorite of your songs, “You,” was basically a dance song. Nowadays music is so focused on genres, but have you always liked to experiment with different styles?
I have. I just love music. I love all of those genres. From the time I was little, I loved Peggy Lee. As a fan, I watched her jump music styles and genres and labels. She was all over the place. And everything she did worked, because she loved it. I knew that it was possible, because Peggy did it first.
You published your autobiography a few years ago. What was the writing experience like, reliving all that you have done? Was it difficult being so candid about your life?
When I was writing the book with Michael Walker, I was trying to accomplish something, just getting the story of the first 30 years of my life, because it ends when Kris and I divorced. It was more to be able to talk about being in the music scene in the 70s in Los Angeles and in Memphis. Just being a part of a time when music was just so vibrant, and things were changing so fast. The Eagles would be recording down the street. Karen Carpenter would be in the next studio. And Delaney and Bonnie. Just jumping all over the place between people’s sessions. It was just so wonderful. It was such a great time in music. I wanted to be able to document that. Also, just clear up some stories of things I knew people were interested in. It was kind of cathartic to write the book. At the same time, right before the book came out, I just had a moment of “Oh my God, what have I done?” (laughs) Everybody’s going to know everything about me now. I panicked for a minute, and then the book was out and everything was fine.
Did you hear how some of the people you discussed took it?
I haven’t heard anything bad about it. Yeah, maybe, people just write bad things in places where I don’t see them. But, I’ve had so many people say “I’ve read this book three times. I love it.” So, I think we accomplished something that I wanted to accomplish. And there are a lot of questions that I won’t be asked again because I can just say, “read the book.”
Possibly the first time that people started really noticing you was when you were on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. The standout song for you on the tour was “Superstar,” which has ended up becoming a modern music standard, but when you were performing it was just a pretty obscure Delaney and Bonnie b-side. Did you have any idea when you were singing it that the song would take off like it did?
Well, I was one of the writers on that song. That song was actually my idea. After a gig one night, Bonnie and I were in my room. I sat down and said, “I’ve got this idea for a song.” I had mentioned it to Leon Russell and he said, “Yeah, it’s a good idea.” So, Bonnie and I started writing this song. If you listen to the lyrics, you can tell that girls wrote that song. Bonnie and I were writing the song and were pretty much finished with the chorus and part of the verses, and Delaney knocked on the door and came in [and helped to finish it]. Bonnie has said [over the years], “Somewhere in my house, I’ve got the tape that we made that night when we wrote the song.” When the record came out, my name of course was not on it. But that was one of my first compositions, with Bonnie, of course. When I was singing the song, I felt like I would record it. I knew it was being recorded for Mad Dogs and Englishmen. I still do it. I still keep it in my concerts, because it was such a very special part of my life.
You also co-wrote a few of the new songs on Safe in the Arms of Time, and you have written other songs over the years, including as you just said, “Superstar.” As a singer/songwriter, do you ever wonder why your covers tend to get less attention than your own songs?
Well, maybe because I never recorded [“Superstar”] as a solo. And Karen Carpenter did a great job. I’m not seeing any dollars from it anyway. (laughs) I’m just happy that it was a good song and something that has lasted. When Usher recorded “Superstar” [for the Luther Vandross tribute album So Amazing], he actually put my name on the liners.
Over the years, particularly your hitmaking days, you recorded songs from some of the great songwriters of the day – “We’re All Alone” was a Boz Scaggs song, “Higher and Higher” was Jackie Wilson, “One Fine Day” was Goffin and King, and of course you did quite a few of Kris Kristofferson’s songs. How do you decide what songs you want to record?
Back thirty, forty or fifty years ago, I honestly don’t remember how we decided. We’d just sit down and look into a group of songs and picked ten. I think because I had such a big hit with “Higher and Higher,” the record company felt like it was probably a good lead that I continue to cover other people’s songs. I always felt like a lot of times, like “We’re All Alone,” where a man sings and it’s one thing, but when a female sings it, it changes the whole perception of the song. I was always interested in doing the female version of a song. As far as this record, I think that I really spent more time choosing the songs on this record than I ever have. I mean, we spent two years. We listened to thousands of songs. Sometimes just maybe a couple of bars, but… (laughs) My producer listened to more than I did, and then he would hone it down to things that he liked and thought I would like. I was doing the same thing where I lived. We would meet and for two days just do nothing but listen to songs. We did that solidly for a year. So, it was a big, very expansive process. Ultimately, I co-wrote three of the songs, because those were the songs that I couldn’t find. My own personal songs.
Leon Russell also wrote the songs “Delta Lady” and “A Song for You” about you. Also, Stephen Stills wrote “Cherokee” for you. How does it feel to be the subject of such well-known songs?
I think it’s fabulous, are you kidding? (laughs)
You are also in a pretty exclusive group of artists who recorded a James Bond theme song and had a pretty big hit with it. How did that come about, and is it still something that fans come up to you about?
Well, not so much. I think it’s been 50 years, so it’s a… well, maybe it’s less than 50, I don’t remember what anniversary we just had.
I think it’s more like 35, but it is pretty old, yes….
Yeah. It feels like 50. I don’t think that it changed much. It didn’t change my fanbase. But I think that it was one of the most played records of the year. It had a tremendous amount of radio play. It’s always an honor to be in that select group of Bond singers.
Over the years, beyond being a musician, you have been very active in social causes. What do you think about the new social awareness that seems to be happening in the country now – things like the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement, the #NeverAgain movement?
You know what to me is the most important? The movement that is going on right now with the children. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in history when children have had to stand up to be the voice for what they want in their future. One of the songs on my album is called “Living in the Spirit World.” It says, “Watching all the boys and girls, we can learn a lot from children.” Which we can. I’m very much, very much on their side. Hearing their voices speaking with such clarity, it just makes me proud. I’m more hopeful for the future because of these kids and anything else. Of course, the #MeToo and equality for men and women in the workplace – it’s just ridiculous that women do the same, or a better job, and get paid 20% less. I don’t believe it. Then the sexual misconduct, it has just been accepted too long, and I’m glad that it is over.
You’ve always been very proud of your Native American heritage, even recording the album Cherokee with your sister. And the song you just mentioned almost sounds like it may have an Indian vibe to it. Does it bother you that we have a man in the White House who seems to enjoy mocking a US senator by calling her “Pocahontas”?
Oh, yes. Everything he does is horrible. Everything he does is like a five-year-old, with absolutely no taste and disrespect. Not only is he disrespecting her, he’s disrespecting native women. It’s just ridiculous. I can’t even get started talking about him. I can’t look at him on TV. I can’t listen to a word he says. One of the songs that Keb’ Mo’ and I wrote, there’s a line in it that says, “There’s no such thing as the truth.” This happened because of our current president. Yeah, don’t get me started…
You live in Fallbrook [California, a community near San Diego], which is certainly a slower lifestyle than the old days in Hollywood. Do you enjoy being in a smaller, closer, less hectic community?
Well, I lived in Fallbrook for 24 years, and last week I moved to Florida. I’m living in Tallahassee, Florida.
Oh, okay, I hadn’t heard that…
Nobody knows, because I just moved. (laughs) I’ve been spending winters here and just loving it. I went to school here. I graduated from Florida State and went to high school in Jacksonville. California is drying up. There’s no water. I had 1,000 avocado trees that were very costly to water. I just wanted to go somewhere where there is water, so I’m now living on a cypress pond, surrounded by beautiful, wooded areas, and birds and it’s lush and wonderful. I love it.
Looking back, how would you like for people to see your career?
Oh, my goodness. Hopefully through my music I gave somebody… it was a companion to them and gave them some comfort or some joy. I couldn’t ask for more than that.
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 13, 2018.
Photos ©2018 Jim Rinaldi. All rights reserved.