Two Time Grammy Winner Rita Coolidge

Delta Lady on Surviving Mad Dogs and Englishmen

By: - Nov 28, 2012

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Charles Giuliano I first saw you in a rock context. Since you grew up in Tennessee how is it that you’re not a Country singer?

Rita Coolidge At that time Country music was Hillbilly music. Not that I don’t respect it but it was Hank Williams Country twangy music. It didn’t fascinate me because it was all around me. When I was born we lived in north east Tennessee up near Kentucky. The music I heard was Bluegrass and Barn Dance.

When I was eight or nine years old my sister and I found a station which came out of Gallatin, Tennessee WLAC. It was a rhythm and blues station which went out to all of the south eastern United States. Gallatin was not far from where we lived. At night we put the radio between our beds and listened to Ray Charles, Sam Cook, Albert King. It was a whole different style of music which I started relating to.

CG And Elvis.

RC Oh my God yes. Little Richard. Oh my God. The first time I heard Little Richard, my brother was driving, it was after church on Sunday nights. My daddy was a preacher and we were going to the root beer stand. The only way he could go was to take me with him. My brother was playing the radio and I heard Little Richard. It literally sent my body into shivers and trembling. I said to my brother what is it? What is that?

CG Good golly miss Molly.

RC He said “ Honey. That’s rock ‘n’ roll.”

CG For a preacher’s daughter wouldn’t that be the devil’s music?

RC My daddy really didn’t go by those guide lines. According to fundamentalism, yeah, that would be.

CG Did you sing in church?

RC Oh yes, from the times I was two. I grew up singing with my sisters. My whole family sang in church except my brother, bless his heart, who just didn’t have the ear. Daddy was a great singer and songwriter.

CG I recall seeing you perform with your husband Kris Kristofferson.

RC Ahum.

CG Do you talk about that or is it off limits?

RC Oh no. I love Kris. We have a daughter together and three grand children. His kids before our marriage and his kids since our marriage. They’re my daughter’s brothers and sisters. I just love him. He’s such a great guy. He just wasn’t a great marriage partner. He’s really an amazing human being. I’m quite close to all of them.

CG As I recall he was a pretty strange stage partner.

RC (laughs) He had his moments.

CG It’s been a long time ago but I recall you just looking at him with a what the heck expression. He was pretty out of it.

RC That happened a lot when he had a little too much to drink. He would offer people their money back. Since we were on a double bill I would say “Not my half.” (both laugh)

CG You seemed to be in your right mind.

RC Yes. I’ve tried to maintain some kind of dignity. I have a glass of wine maybe after a show but not ever before. I encourage my players to wait till the show’s over then do whatever you want to. I’ve always had a rule about whatever they’re doing I really don’t need to know. I’m not their police but when they’re on the clock, if you have problems with your girlfriend, leave it at the hotel. When we go to work it’s with a clear purpose.

CG You run a tight ship.

RC We all love each other. I worked this summer with a guitar player, Carmen Grillo, who was in my band for several years and went on to work with Tower of Power. He said "There were so many times you could have just busted me wide open. As long as I played you always said 'Leave it at the hotel.'" He said “I learned my best lessons from you.” Later, when he got sober, he said of all the bands he played with mine was at the top of the list. If you’re a fabulous player, but can’t come up to the level of excellence with the unit, the other people in the band, well, it just doesn’t matter how well you play.

CG As a ‘60s survivor you were in the thick of it with Crosby, Stills and Nash, Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker can you talk about the energy of that period? We really believed that we were going to change the world.

RC I think we did. We had a good time trying, right?

CG Can you recall being with Leon Russell and touring with Joe Cocker? Russell was inspired by you to write “Delta Lady.”

RC After the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour Joe Cocker needed refuge and he would come to my house. I would put him in a room and cook for him and help him to get clean. He’d get clear and say “I’m good.” Then he would head back out into it. Joe and I were very close. The reason I didn’t leave the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and all the insanity, was because of Joe. He’d say “You can’t leave. You’re the only friend I have.” When I would want to run away he would say “You can’t leave.”

CG I caught the Mad Dogs gig in Boston at Symphony Hall. It was one of my favorite rock concerts from that era. That was an incredible tour. At a Tea Party gig I was doing a joint with Tim Crouse backstage when Joe smelled it and came in saying “Can I get a hit man?” That night he dedicated “I Get High with Some Help From My Friends” to Tim and Me.

From Mad Dogs I recall Leon as a kind of Svengali leading the band with that long silver hair and  top hat.

RC He was the Ring Master of the circus. He had a great deal of power. Leon and I were boyfriend/ girlfriend when I went from Memphis to California. I drove out with him in his ’56 blue Thunderbird. From Memphis to California he never got out of the car once. Just to get food and check into hotels. He was afraid they would kill him. (laughs) He had this long beard and long hair. He was very paranoid. Introverted. There were definitely two sides to him. When he came across the lot at A&M wearing his Captain of the Universe outfit, the top hat and flag shirt. We were just like, oh my God, here he comes. (laughs) Mad Dogs was Leon’s show. He drove the whole thing. It wasn’t driven by Joe. Musically it was. His voice was the magic but Leon ran everything.

CG Have you kept in touch with these people. What’s up with Joe Cocker?

RC Joe still tours. He lives up in Santa Barbara and has been sober for decades. He tours and makes records. Leon still records but his health has not been well. A couple of years ago he made a record with Elton John. It was a brilliant record. Elton was just brain storming one day and said what happened to Leon. Picked the phone up and said "Hey you want to do a record together?" Leon said “I was watching a soap opera and thought about it for a half a second and said yeah. And laid back down.” (laughs)  Leon has had some severe health problems. His heart and while they were recording he had brain surgery.  A tumor or something which was growing during the recording of this record. He’s still working.

CG Rita what kept you going through such a time of madness? It was a period when we saw so many of our friends just drive over the cliff.

RC There were a lot of people who did not go off the cliff. Honestly,  I think it was where I came from. My parents. More than just instilling what we were going to do when we grew up it was more who are you going to be. Teaching us the virtues of just being true to yourself. Loving yourself and honoring the gift of life and God. In my life it’s got me through some really rough times.

CG How many children do you have?

RC just my daughter with Kris. We have three grand children. It’s just the best. The oldest one is 16. She’s an actress. A wannabe. She acts and sings. My daughter is a ballet dancer. She teaches ballet and dances with the Ashville Ballet Company. She reinvented herself. For years she was a song writer and worked with Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie. Then, when she started having babies, she said I don’t want to have my kids on the road. She married a Cherokee guy, her second marriage, and moved to North Carolina.

CG Can we talk about you as a jazz singer. I understand you made a jazz album with Concord. (And So Is Love)

RC I did. I did a jazz album with the pianist Barbara Carroll back in the ‘70s. (In 1975 for A&M) Her husband was my manager and Kris’s manager which is how I met Barbara. I’ve listened to jazz all my life, again, from being curious about other styles of music. I loved Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Then of course Peggy Lee who was the biggest influence. (Coolidge had a hit with a cover of Lee’s standard “Fever.”)

You find the music and listen to it. I wanted to do a jazz album even before I signed with A&M and had my first platinum album. I recorded the music with Barbara and A&M wouldn’t allow me to release it. They said we have to establish you as a mainstream artist before you can turn right.

We did nine sides in five hours with Chuck Delmonico and Colin Bailey. They were two really fabulous LA jazz musicians. It was in the can and I was able to get the masters in the 1990s. It was released in the ‘70s in Japan, and other parts of the world, but not in the U.S. It was called Out of the Blues. We were able to release it and add a couple of new tunes. Since then every time I would sign with new management they would say “What are you goals.” I would say “To do a new jazz album.” It finally happened with Concord and was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It’s something I’m most proud of. I was terrified I guess. I would leave my little country home in the avocado groves and go up to LA to play with all these great jazz musicians. I was thinking what the heck am I doing? Can they accept me? I was determined to do it.

CG Who were on the sessions?

RC There were so many different musicians. There were a couple of different bands and players.

CG What was the response to the album?

RC It charted. We made it to number five in the jazz charts. I did a lot of jazz gigs. I played at Lincoln Center. September was the Women in Jazz month. When it came out I played a week up there (New York) at Dizzy’s club. Barbara came. It was women in jazz and really amazing. Jazz players and jazz record companies and jazz radio stations are very elitist. Unless you can prove something they’re not going to open their circle to you. It was an honor to be included in some of those things and the jazz festivals. To do that I had to reorganize my band. I started auditioning players who could do everything from Pop to Jazz to R&B and Native American music. Some of the players stayed but it was a big job.

CG Will we hear a jazz tune when you appear here?

RC Possibly. I don’t have the set list in front of me. We do “Come Rain or Come Shine.” But I don’t know which one it is. Once the Christmas show is set, and I’m sure I have it upstairs somewhere. But I didn’t bring it to this interview. A lot of it is Christmas music because it’s basically a Christmas show. It’s lengthy enough to include other music.

CG At this point in our lives we reflect on our legacies. Has it been a good run for you?

RC Oh my God yes. It’s been fabulous. Are you kidding? I'm still out here doing my dream. Why I think I was given this voice. I don’t doubt it for a second Charles. I wake up in the morning and sometimes I don’t even know where I am. Where the hotel room is? Sometimes I even wake up in my own room at home and go what town am I in? Before the lights are on I do remember that I can sing. I thank God for it every day.

Part One

Review of Concert at the Clark Art Institute