Legendary singer and songwriter Rita Coolidge is back with a sparkling new record – at the age of 73.
She wants it to inspire those who feel like quitting their creative dreams because they are older, as she told editor Simon Redley…
Rita Coolidge flew into the UK the day before we get to speak on the telephone. She is in her London hotel room on a sunny spring Sunday morning, and is in the country to perform a four-night residency with her band at a plush, upmarket and intimate venue in London’s Canary Wharf area.
It’s not yet lunchtime and after her flight, I am wondering if she’s going to be full of the joys of spring or will she just want to get me off the phone as fast she can. It’s the former. She is bubbly, fun and very pleasant ‘company’, and she doesn’t swerve any of my probing. A Diva-free zone, thank goodness.
So, the peg to hang our chat on. Her brand new record. Her first for a few years. I got an advance promo copy and when I gave it a spin, I was open minded. Had she still got the voice at her age? Was this just a money-spinner? Would the material be worth hearing?
To all of the above, yes, indeed. I was a bit gob smacked actually, at how strong this album was/is. Some fab songs and some great vocals from Rita. Super production and equally super musicianship from the assembled Premier Division session players. Guitar work to die for, too. Trust me on that.
It’s something like her 20th studio album, and she did three with her ex-hubbie Kris Kristofferson and there’s been circa 10 compilations in her career. But “Safe In The Arms Of Time” really is a joy. It has such spirit. For life. You’d be hard pushed to pigeon hole it.
The songs kiss country, Americana , blues, rock and roll, and all sorts. It is also very soulful. Charming, in fact. There’s no one track I skip, but I am currently obsessed with “Spirit World”. The fourth cut of the dozen new songs.
Rita really lucked out with the contributions from her two guitarists on the record, David Grissom and Joey Landreth. She came across The Brothers Landreth about four years ago and also bought Joey Landreth’s own EP, and knew he had to be part of the team.
She says she loved his “re-invention of slide guitar”. One of her “dreams” was to work with Keb Mo and the other one was to get Joey Landreth on this record. She’s only gone and done both!
Labour of love
It seems that the songs are King and as a singer, Rita serves those songs well. All the songs are a tight fit and put her in a totally natural environment. A real labour of love then? “Absolutely. I spent more time on this record than anything I’ve ever done in my life.
“When Graham (Nash) sent me ‘Doing Fine Without You’ – track two – that was probably close to three years ago and that was the first song that I chose. Then I found my producer though my music lawyer; he introduced us and I knew that Ross (Hogarth) was going to be wonderful.
“I didn’t realise how meticulous he is and he just literally submerged himself in this project. He just dropped everything. Being a great Emmy and Grammy-winning producer and engineer, he has the best ears, the most golden ears of anyone I have ever worked with. Consequently, he takes forever until everything’s exactly right”.
Ross Hogarth has a huge and versatile pedigree as a producer, engineer and mixer across a three-decade career. He has worked with the likes of Roger Waters, The Black Crowes, John Mellencamp, R.E.M. Jewel, Van Halen, Ziggy Marley, Quincy Jones, Taj Mahal, Keb Mo, Miley Cyrus and dozens more.
On the Graham Nash song, “Doing Fine Without You”, it starts off with ballsy guitars sounding like Joe Walsh and ‘ Life In The Fast Lane’. A great rockin’ song. It really nails the groove. Listen out for Rita’s cute growl in the back of her throat, which pops its head out in the vocal now and again.
If Bonnie Raitt had got her mitts on that song first, I am betting she’d have grabbed it to record and Rita would have lost out. But the million dollar question is, who was in Rita’s head when she sang the chorus, “I’m Doing Fine Without You?.” Which of her exes? “Well, I’m not allowed to say”. She laughs. “It’s not anyone in the deep past. It’s someone nobody knows.
“When I heard that song, I just loved it so much and I called him (Graham Nash) and said you know, I don’t have my record deal in place yet, and I am sure you could place this song tomorrow; but could you please put it on hold for me. I felt; if Bonnie Raitt hears this, its gonna be gone”.
It kind of sounds to me like Rita’s mindset with this new album was, first of all; she had nothing to prove, zero, nada, zilch. But, she wants people to know she’s still doing her thing and it is purely for the love of the music and not for fame, fortune or any other reason. Is that all fair to say, Rita?. “It’s all fair to say. Yes. I have continued to sing, continued being on the road, just enjoying my work so much.
“I see a lot of artists give up or they lose their fans because of age, and I really wanted to inspire people who might be thinking of getting out of showbusiness.
I really dislike that so much…
“I was driven to make this record, period. But ultimately, I hope it does inspire people to continue following their passion for all of their lives. Not to buy into not being valuable as you get older. I really dislike that so much about our society”.
As a Tennessee-born student, she studied for a degree in art at Florida State University, but decided to give music a shot instead of becoming an art teacher. She moved to Memphis and was soon singing jingles, demos and background vocals for a number of local bands. Among them was a husband and wife duo, Delaney & Bonnie.
When the pair signed their record deal, Rita suddenly found herself on big-time pop music’s leading edge. Her reputation as an A-list backup singer spread quickly. Joe Cocker enlisted her in that role and as a featured soloist on his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. (Rita performed a song she’d co-written, ″Superstar,″ which would later be a huge hit for The Carpenters.)
Work with other rock royalty followed, including tours and recordings with Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell and Stephen Stills. In 1971, A&M Records moguls Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss signed her to the label.
She had a huge hit album in 1978, the multi-platinum “Anytime… Anywhere”. Several of her singles would become classics; ″We’re All Alone,″ ″Higher And Higher″ and ″The Way You Do The Things You Do″. She’s performed with high-profile pals like George Harrison, Roger Waters, Robbie Robertson and Jimmy Buffett.
In 1973, Rita married singer, songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson. During their eight-year union the pair teamed up for a number of hits and was twice named Country Duo of the Year. Her ″Love Came For Me″ appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Splash, and ″All Time High″ was the theme for the James Bond thriller “Octopussy”.
Coolidge’s greatest success on the pop charts came during 1977/78, with four consecutive hits, remakes of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”, Boz Scaggs’ “We’re All Alone”, The Temptations’ “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, and Marcia Hines’ “You”.
Rita sang vocals on boyfriend Stephen Stills’ classic “Love The One You’re With” and then dumped him, for his colleague Graham Nash; which apparently did not go down well and some say was why Crosby, Stills & Nash first split! Rita also sang on Eric Clapton’s “After Midnight”.
Rita’s life has been a roller coaster of success and happiness, but at times; much pain and suffering. Like the murder of her older sister four years ago. Did she pile it all into the delivery of these songs, like an actor would to make their performance believable? “Absolutely. There were certain songs that I didn’t necessarily write, that I felt I could have written.
“Particularly ‘The Things We Carry’, (track five) because it was so much of what I wanted to sing for my sister. After my sister was killed, I tried so hard to write music for her and it was just so painful. So, I was thrilled that song came along”.
I ask how she kept going and what helped to pull her through the bad times. “Just having life experience behind me and knowing everything changes. As my father would say; every mountain we climb, there’s a valley on the other side. It seems like you can’t get over, but when you do, there’s a new day.
“Another way of looking at it; trying to realise that in the middle of struggle, tragedy and pain, there are lessons to be learned and there are even blessings as we learn those lessons. Just always trying to find happiness, because if you hang on to those painful memories, and some people can’t let go and I understand that, it’s just so painful.
“But if you can get around it, get over that mountain, there’s happiness. That’s our best state of being; love and happiness as Al Green would say”. So when she was being beaten, when she was being emotionally abused, when she was being cheated on and when she lost her sister in such horrific and violent circumstances, did Rita ever ask herself; why me?
“Well I’ve done that probably on a daily basis, all of my life”. She laughs. “The good and the bad. I feel like I’ve been extremely blessed; in the right place at the right time and I think I have grabbed at every opportunity that I could, not necessarily to shine but to learn”. Yep, a survivor not a victim is our Rita.
I felt like the luckiest girl in the world
“In the early days when I was with Delaney and Bonnie, and given that opportunity to go on the road with them, that was just the best thing that could have happened to a young singer. Because I was thrown into the middle of big musical tours, you can’t learn that any other way except by going through it.
“I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. I still do. Delaney and Bonnie had the best band, every band they had were just incredible musicians, and being in their band watching them, really set the bar for me”.
We talk about her first ever trip to these shores and the tour she did with Delaney and Bonnie, and their star-studded band, back in the late 60s. “The first time was with Delaney and Bonnie, I think it was 1969. It was fabulous. We stayed at Eric’s house (Clapton).
“It was a wonderful tour, with George Harrison joining us on the bus. Eric was the guitar player and I felt like I had stepped into rock and roll heaven; it was great. I remember picking George up at Friar Park (his 120 room, 1889 gothic mansion in Oxfordshire) in the bus, at six o’ clock in the morning.
“The whole tour was just constant music. PP Arnold was on that tour and we just sang all the time. It was great”. (Rita guessed it was 1969, but George Harrison did not buy Friar Park until 1970, so she may well be a year or so out).
“The next trip was after releasing my first record, and I came back over with my band The Dixie Flyers, and we opened for The Byrds. That was a really great tour”.
Well, I’d guess no interview with Rita is complete without at least one question about her marriage to Mr Kristofferson. So. With his alleged drinking and womanising, and the alleged violence at the hands of another boyfriend Jim Gordon, and not to forget the late Leon Russell apparently asking her to take part in a foursome, I cheekily asked Rita how she felt about her own judgement in choosing male partners!
I braced myself for the phone to be slammed down, but luckily I got a loud giggle instead. “I think it’s an interesting question. I think that I learned something from all of those people, but as you well know, I didn’t stay very long.
He wasn’t the right person to be married to!
“For me, I would give anything for my relationship with Kris; because we have a beautiful daughter and we are still very good friends. I just adore him. He wasn’t the right person to be married to, but I can certainly appreciate him from afar. When we see each other, it is always so much fun. We are better friends than we were marriage partners”.
Their daughter Casey, now 44, is in a bluegrass band called Yellow Feather. She also teaches ballet. She’s raising her three girls too. Rita’s granddaughters. “Casey is a pretty stoic mum and I wasn’t. I let her get away with everything. I think that’s why she’s so stoic”.
Rita lost her older sister Priscilla who was 73, in tragic circumstances only four years ago, when she was shot dead by her husband who then turned the gun on himself. Priscilla was a successful session singer who was once married to soul star Booker T. Jones.
Rita dedicated her autobiography to her beloved sister. The amazing thing is; and this probably says a lot about Rita as a compassionate human being, she actually arranged the funeral of the man who murdered her sibling, and took his ashes and scattered them in the desert, when his own family disowned him. Because she felt it was what her sister would have wanted. Wow!
Rita and her sister, and her sister’s daughter were in the band Walela (Cherokee for ″Hummingbird″) together. Her own Cherokee heritage inspired increasing involvement in projects that would benefit or call attention to Native American music, culture and issues. The trio with her sister and niece performed at the internationally televised Opening Ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Olympics along with Robbie Robertson.
Rita was honored with a ″Lifetime of Musical Achievement″ award at the 2002 First Americans in the Arts Awards, as well as being the recipient of a ″Native American Music Award for Lifetime Achievement.″
So what is it about this woman and plane trips? It was’ love at first flight’ with Kris Kristofferson when they met on board a plane. She also met academic Dr Tatsuya Suda on a flight to Japan, and got married again at the age of 58. Subsequently divorcing them both after romance in the clouds. So is it the food or the air?
“I don’t know. I am definitely not open to a relationship on a plane, we’ll put it that way,” Rita laughs loudly. “I’d probably run from anybody I met on a plane”. You could travel by ship, lady!
Rita met her current beau many moons ago. She reveals to me that she is now loved up with her former “college sweetheart”, and they had not seen each other for 48 years until about two years ago. She has now moved back to Tallahassee to be with him, and is blissfully happy today. “We met the day we both started college, we played music together and dated in college. I graduated before he did, he was in the service for a year.
Life is wonderful
“I went off…Then we visited each other for some time between Memphis and Tallahassee. Then I went off to California, and he went South and studied archaeology and wildlife biology. He has written several books and he has won Emmy awards for a nature series.
“He’s a wonderful man. Life is wonderful. I am having the best time. I love being in England, and being in New York and Los Angeles promoting the new record, and have been out there now for the last three-and-a-half weeks, but I can’t wait to go home. That’s always the greatest journey that one can make”.
Surprisingly, after so much bad stuff thrown her way, Rita doesn’t ever feel like she is waiting for the next bomb to go off in her life. “As human beings, we are always looking towards tomorrow or thinking about yesterday, and how it was maybe the best time of your life or the worst. Never being present.
“I think more than ever I try to be present, which is almost impossible for human beings, because we don’t have the struggles that wildlife has for survival. We pretty much do whatever we want. I try to be grateful for today”. Her ‘mission statement; on life: “To stay present and be the best you can be. Some days you wake up and it takes a little bit more effort, but you can find joy in every day”.
One of the curved balls she was thrown in her life, was when her then boyfriend, Derek and the Dominos’ drummer Jim Gordon, claimed credit for the famous piano coda she wrote, which is an integral part of the legendary Eric Clapton/Derek and the Dominos’ song, “Layla”. She has missed out on a lot of money in royalties without her rightful credit on that record and that song.
But she is philosophical about it. “The reason I keep telling the story is not for monetary compensation, but just to be given credit for my music. I think about it when I hear it, and think, ‘Oh, I wrote that’, but I’m fine with it now”.
Jim Gordon is reported to have beaten Rita badly in a hotel corridor when they were on tour with Joe Cocker in the early 1970s, and put her in hospital. That ended their relationship. He is in prison in California having been jailed in 1983 for killing his mother with a hammer and a knife in a psychotic episode. He was sentenced to “16 years to life in prison”, and 10 subsequent parole hearings since then, have all refused his release.
Rita’s favourite song on the new album is track three, “Walking On Water”. Trading vocals with Keb’ Mo’ was a thrill for Ms. Coolidge. “I literally have every Keb’ Mo’ CD. I’ve been a fan for decades.”
The leader of our country couldn’t tell the truth, and doesn’t know what it is!
A lyric in that song they wrote together, ‘there’s no such thing as solid ground’, maybe sums up her life? “I think it does, but for all of us. We are always trying to hold on to something and everything is constantly changing.
“As the time went by after we wrote the song, the leader of our country couldn’t seem to tell the truth and doesn’t know how or what it is. So all of a sudden, these lines we had written months before, started to resonate.
“Same thing with ‘Spirit World’. It seems to be so timely with the lyrics, ‘Watching all the boys and girls, we can learn a lot from children’. It really talks about the children’s movement to me”.
Rita feels that spending so much time on making this record, sets it apart from her previous releases. “We literally honed 1000 songs down to 12, and when we got to 40 or 50, I realised some were just not gonna be there unless I wrote ‘em.
“That nudged me a lot to get back into writing, and I love the stuff I wrote with Keb Mo and Stan Lynch (ex-Tom Petty drummer). It is so special for me. I found out a very valuable lesson; taking your time and not rushing at anything, the results are gonna speak volumes.
“I have two more albums to make for Blue Elan and I want to do more writing. This really sparked my writing ambitions. Stan lives in Florida and we are going to get together to write. I do want to spend some time at home. Joe and I bought a house in Florida in February, and I have maybe spent 10 days there since then. So I want to get back to Florida, unpack boxes and make a home”.
Rita was friends with Jimi Hendrix. She recalls some of her memories of him. “Jimi was a big fan of Delaney and Bonnie’s. They influenced so many people.
“He used to show up, at gigs in LA or anywhere on the road, and just walk on stage and start playing. He was just the most phenomenal guy and just the sweetest guy in the world”.
Rita reveals she has been song writing with Bonnie Bramlett, but those songs didn’t make it on to this record.
Now for a bit of a battle to get a straight answer out of Rita for one of my final questions, before we wrap up this Sunday morning chat. What is the one sentence that best sums up Rita Coolidge?
She laughs. “I’m gonna leave that up to you”. I say: No. You can’t get out of it that easily. Sorry. You may look absolutely gorgeous, have a fabulous voice and be famous, but that’s not gonna work with me.” She howls with laughter.
“Sum myself up? My mother’s daughter”. Hang on, that’s not fair, because I didn’t know your Mum. “Well if you like me, I am like she spit me out of her mouth. She was the best human being I have ever known. If I ever give credit to anybody for who I am in my life, it has to be my Mom and my Dad”.
Rita Coolidge would do absolutely nothing different in her life, if she had her time again. “Nothing. I wouldn’t do a thing different, because I think every choice I have made, every conscious move that I have made, has lead me to where I am now. I don’t believe in looking back”.
I started crying
But it was time to look back, when she penned her no-holds-barred autobiography “Delta Lady: A Memoir”, published in April 2016. Rita says she was maybe expecting some flak from some of her ex-fellas, about what she had written about them and how they treated her. Did she get any?
“Not a drop. I had some anxiety about that. You know, when I read the galley copy, sat down and read it instead of reading manuscripts in pieces; when I read the whole thing put together, I started crying. It was just so cathartic to see it all put together.
“Then the other part was, ‘Oh my God, what have I done’?” She laughs at that thought. “It turned out fine and I haven’t heard anything from anybody. Jim Gordon is in prison and Leon is not here anymore, of course”.
She says very nice things about her ex-flame Graham Nash, in the book. “I adore Graham. That continues to be a wonderful relationship. I saw him in New York recently, and I am so glad he is happy….”
Her new album was recorded at L.A.’s Sunset Sound, the famed recording studio where she recorded her first solo albums on A&M. Prompting Rita to comment: “A memory down every hallway”.
I was delighted to be sharing some of her fascinating and at times, blood curdling memories from an amazing life; thinking, surely her book and maybe some more of her anecdotes not in the book, would make a sizzling biopic movie?
Can I be in it as myself; the annoying nosey journalist who disturbs this US star’s relaxing Sunday morning? Now, what’s my first line? “Alright Reet, how’s it going gal?” What do you mean, don’t call us, we’ll call you?
“Safe In The Arms Of Time” was released on 4th May 2018 on Blue Elan Records
By Simon Redley