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The 'Delta Lady' Speaks: Q&A with Rita Coolidge
Delta Lady: A Memoir is the apt title of Lafayette, Tennessee-born singer Rita Coolidge‘s new autobiography.
That classic Leon Russell-penned track and his signature A Song For You were inspired by Coolidge — also the muse of onetime beau Stephen Stills, who wrote Cherokee about the talented singer/songwriter.
But apart from her qualities as a muse of the highest order, Coolidge is a first class singer and songwriter– She co-penned Superstar, a monster hit for The Carpenters and also served as background vocalist for the likes of Eric Clapton’s After Midnight, Stills’ Love The One You’re With, Ray Charles’ Busted, Joe Cocker, Delaney & Bonnie and many more.
As she reveals for the very first time in the book, she came up with the unforgettable piano coda that graces the classic rock anthem Layla but was uncredited. Unflinchingly honest about her life, career and relationships with the likes of Graham Nash, Stills, Russell and onetime husband Kris Kristofferson, Coolidge reflects, “As you get older, you gather layers and layers and layers of life. And you learn to wear them and carry them proudly, or you let them take you down. And I choose to wear mine.”
Working on your autobiography, while doing deep self-examination, were there any revelations that you discovered about yourself that came out of being able to look at your life from a distance?
Rita Coolidge: Probably the best thing I could say after finishing the book, I don’t think I was as aware of it as I went along. But I think when I finished the book and read the first manuscript in one sitting and really just saw my life up through the divorce with Kris (Kristofferson) and saw my whole life condensed, it had such a powerful effect on me that I just started trembling and crying.
It was just so cathartic to see it all put together. So I think that really did have an effect on me, for sure. I think also realizing that how it affected me…I think that I felt it would probably affect other people in a similar way. It’s not their life but that’s just the story itself.
Can you pinpoint your big break that changed the course of your career?
Rita Coolidge: I really do think that Delaney and Bonnie, but specially Bonnie Bramlett, had such a profound effect on me just as a woman and as an artist, her struggle and everything she went through. But also the music that came from that band was absolutely the best music I had ever been a part of. There’s been none better. I think that really raised the bar so high for me as far as to where I wanted to go and the kind of people I wanted to work with and I think that bar is still that high.
Speaking of Delaney and Bonnie, you toured with Delaney and Bonnie and the band’s European ’69 tour and one leg of that tour featured a special guest player, George Harrison. What are your most indelible memories of George?
Rita Coolidge: George was such a profoundly gentle man and at the same time so charismatic. It was almost like a religious leader in a sense.
He had such a magnetic kind of energy around him. But he was so soft spoken. To me, he was like a holy man, just his energy, his aura, everything about him was more beautiful than probably anybody else I had ever met.
And at that time with his mustache and long beard he looked a holy man.
Rita Coolidge: Yeah, he totally did. There were a lot of people that had long hair and beards at that time but with George (laughs) it really was effective but it went so much deeper than that with him. I always felt like I was in the presence of greatness when I was around him. He was so very humble and sweet.
Didn’t he have a special song he sang for you?
Rita Coolidge: Yes, he would sing Lovely Rita by The Beatles (sings “Lovely Rita, meter maid”). (laughs) Every time I got on the bus. (laughs) It was like he would wait for me to get on the bus and sing it to me. It was so fabulous.
Working as both a lead singer and background singer on various high profile projects, from your perspective, what’s the difference between a good and great vocalist?
Rita Coolidge: I watch some of these shows; I’ll watch The Voice and I’ve seen some of American Idol, you know, some of the singers on those shows do vocal gymnastics. Those are not always, to me, the best singers. To me the best singers are the people that choose the notes that break your heart. I don’t know any other way to say it. It’s not about technique, it’s not about any of that, it’s really about understanding a lyric and being able to communicate that through your voice and touch people’s hearts.
It was quite a revelation that you had a hand in the beautiful piano coda in Layla by Derek & The Dominoes. Run us through how that happened and why have you not been credited?
Rita Coolidge: Well, I did try to get credit. That one especially I tried to get to Eric (Clapton). I couldn’t get to Eric because Robert Stigwood was his manager and there was no way to get past him. Stigwood basically said, “You’re just a girl, what are you gonna do?” Booker T and Priscilla Jones recorded the song and only had my name on it and nobody said anything.
I thought, that’ll draw ‘em out. If Booker T and Priscilla Jones recorded it and it and it doesn’t have Eric Clapton or Jim Gordon credited ‘cause Eric didn’t write that coda. He had nothing to do with it. It was a song that Jim and I had written. He came over to my house and had played three chords and he wasn’t a great piano player.
As a matter of fact, Bobby Whitlock had said Jim had played on the record when they did Layla by Derek & The Dominoes but because he was such a poor piano player, Bobby Whitlock had to replace his piano part. But Jim had come over and we were a couple at the time. We just sat down and wrote this beautiful love song called Time. We wanted to play it for Eric and thought he might cut it because it really was pretty and apparently it did appeal to him, right? (laughs) Well, at least part of it. (laughs)
I just never understood how anybody could do that because for my whole life, if I’m part of a songwriting session, I could have 50% of a song written and four other people come in and if each other of them contributed a line we’d split it four ways. It’s always equal when people are writing so I didn’t understand being completely left out.
Well, now people know who the true co-writer on the coda on Layla.
Rita Coolidge: Yes, but there’s been not a word from as they say, “Eric’s camp”. Eric’s camp is not responding. (laughs)
What impressed you most about Leon Russell as a musician and songwriter?
Rita Coolidge: Well, Leon was another one who was not like other people. (laughs) He was just so different. He also had this magnetic personality. Leon was either in full Mr. America, Captain America mode or the other side of him, which was totally reclusive.
There was no grey area; it was black and white with Leon. When he was in his very rare performer/entertainer from he was just all over the place.
I was so impressed with his piano playing. I don’t know if you know that Leon had polio as a child and that’s why his left hand is so strong with his piano playing. I was always amazed at his piano playing. He loved Professor Longhair from New Orleans and I think that he had a great influence on him.
But I think Leon did Professor Longhair better than he did because he had Professor Longhair integrated into his own unique style of playing. There’s still no one like him. When we did the Mad Dogs & Englishmen reunion with the Tedeschi Trucks in September, Leon was in a wheelchair most of the time. He was clearly in so much pain with his back and physical problems that he now has. But when he would sit down at the piano and start playing it was electric. It was incredible.
Two of his greatest songs, A Song For You and Delta Lady were about you.
Rita Coolidge: To me, A Song For You may be the most beautiful song ever written. I have felt that way from the day that Leon wrote it. I mean, it’s so amazing. I think it’s the most beautiful love song ever written. So yeah, I’m totally honored that I had anything to do with that song. And Delta Lady is a great song too and it is my handle. (laughs)
Little did I know when Joe (Cocker) was recording Delta Lady at Leon’s Skyhill Drive Studios and I of course was there making tea for everybody. Little did I know that song was gonna stick with me for the rest of my life. It’s amazing. It is like when I recorded Higher & Higher. I didn’t realize I would be singing it at every single show for the rest of my life. (laughs) There are some things that stay with you.
You co-wrote the beautiful song Superstar but you weren’t credited for it.
Rita Coolidge: No, I didn’t get credit. I actually had started writing the song and went down to Delaney and Bonnie’s room. As Bonnie said to me maybe a month ago, “Honey, I remember when you came in the room with that song and you had half of it written. You sat down and you started playing it and we worked on it. And then Delaney came in.”
Then she told me, “I think we actually made a demo of it that night with the three of us singing it.” She said that Leon (Russell) didn’t have anything to do with it and that he already pooh-poohed it. (laughs) She also said, “Honey, I never knew why you didn’t say something about getting co-writer’s credit when the song came out and your name wasn’t on it.” She said, “Why didn’t you come forward and say something?” I think that I felt like I didn’t want to get Bonnie in trouble.
It seemed that my and Bonnie’s relationship was such a threat to Delaney that pretty much anytime I was in the picture and there was any kind of an argument that came from our sisterhood, she would get beat up for it. I think at that time I didn’t want to create any kind of problems for Bonnie.
What was your impression of The Carpenters’ hit version?
Rita Coolidge: I adored Karen Carpenter. I loved her voice; she had one of those voices, It was like Tammy Wynette; there was so much feeling and so much emotion in Karen’s voice. So I loved loved loved it.
The Madmen & Englishmen trek is still regarded as one of the most exciting tours of all-time, thinking back, what made those shows so significant?
Rita Coolidge: Joe (Cocker). To me, Joe Cocker was just the greatest. He got pretty railroaded because he had just finished a tour in England with The Grease Band and they had broken up. He had come to the States thinking he was gonna be able to take a break and get some rest.
He was exhausted and when he got there the tour was starting. There was no band; nothing was done. Leon said, “I will put together the band and I’ll do the arrangements and I’ll do everything but I have to be driving this bus. Nothing will go on unless I say so.” So in spite of the fact that Leon kind of made it his arena, when Joe hit the stage and started singing it didn’t matter what drugs he had ingested, he was the obvious and powerful voice and talent that drove that tour. Nobody was there for Leon; everybody was there for Joe.
You sang background vocals on the classic Stephen Stills song Love The One You’re With. In your book you cite that song as a good example of how to best use background singers. Can you explain why?
Rita Coolidge: Well I think when you listen to that record, I think the background vocals on that record just invite people to sing along. That’s the measure to me of a really successful background session; when it becomes as much a part of the song as Stephen Stills, and maybe even more so. Everybody would sing along when that song comes on the radio. People just start singing it because it really does sound like exactly what it was; just a bunch of great friends standing around a microphone and we happened to be musicians but it was the best time I ever had doing a session I think.
It was just so much fun. I mean, what a great song and what a great record that is.
You had relationships with several extremely charismatic and talented gentlemen. Looking back, was Graham Nash the one who got away?
Rita Coolidge: Yeah, probably. (laughs) I really have the deepest love for Graham and always will. As a matter of a fact, I’m gonna be in New York at the end of this month and Graham is gonna be interviewing me for a PBS show so that’s gonna be interesting. I can’t wait to find out what we’re gonna talk about. (laughs)
I think I’ve had those thoughts about Graham probably for my whole life but if I hadn’t been with Kris I wouldn’t have my daughter and I wouldn’t be the person I am today so clearly it was not meant to be.
What’s the primary spark that drew you in with Kris Kristofferson and what was the spark that drew you away from each other?
Rita Coolidge: Well, I think the thing that I loved most about Kris besides being drop dead gorgeous was his infectious sense of humor. We laughed at the same stuff at the same time and that really such a huge part of any relationship and part of the magic. There is sexual attraction, there is chemistry and there’s all this other stuff but when two people have an exact same sense of humor I think it’s the most inviting thing about a human being to me.
And the spark that pushed you away from each other?
Rita Coolidge: For me, it was the womanizing. I just realized that I couldn’t live my life that way and I saw women that did that. I knew women who were married to rock stars and knew that their husbands were with a different woman every night and they would settle for that because they didn’t want to lose him. But I couldn’t do it.