Rita Coolidge: Reaching Higher and Higher
There are the Grammys, and then there’s the supermarket. Both are marks of achievement and permanence in popular recorded music. Having just begun writing this piece, I walked into the Price Chopper Supermarket in Cooperstown, New York, and what do I hear? Rita Coolidge, and the refrain from her 1977 recording of “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher.” Now that’s a hooka high mark on the tree of pop.
Coolidge recorded her first single under her own name in 1969, when she was 24; this year sees the release of her latest album, Safe in the Arms of Time (Blue Elan BER1074). Do the mathat the time of writing, she’s one year shy of a 50-year career as a singer, performer, songwriter, bandleader, and recording artist. Speaking with Rita Coolidge was an opportunity to hear from someone who has directly participated in popular music-making and recording throughout half a century.
“Higher and Higher” is one example of how recorded music gets made. Chess Records in-house writers Carl Smith and Raynard Miner wrote an earlier version, originally titled “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” that became a hit for Jackie Wilson in 1967. Ten years later, Rita Coolidge and her sister, Priscilla Coolidge, recorded an arrangement by Booker T. Jones. When that recording was set aside, Coolidge asked Booker if she could use his arrangement on what became her hit album, Anytime . . . Anywhere (A&M).
Rita Coolidge grew up in a musical family, and those roots were amplified by childhood years spent in Nashville and Memphis. Her life story certainly contains examples of being at the right place at the right time, but that story also includes a few notable examples of the oppositeall outlined clearly and without reservation in her memoir, Delta Lady, written with Michael Walker (Harper, 2016). “Delta Lady” was the nickname, and the song, that Leon Russell dedicated to her along the way. That path has included two Grammys, 19 albums as a leader, three duet albums with her then husband, singer-songwriter-actor Kris Kristofferson, and 31 singles released under her own name or with others. The memoir also describes the tragic moment in 2014 when Priscilla, also a singer, was the victim of a murder-suicide. I spoke with Rita Coolidge in New York City, before she left to give a series of concerts in London.
Sasha Matson: Let’s go back to Memphis, where in 1969 you recorded your second single, “Turn Around and Love You.” You spent close time with everyone connected to Stax Records, including Booker T. Joneswho became your brother-in-law when he married your sister Priscilla.
Rita Coolidge: Memphis was the nurturing source, and I was the sponge. I went from studio to studio. I was there when Dusty Springfield cut Dusty in Memphis. I learned so much, from just being a fly on the wall. So when I had the opportunity to meet Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett at Stax, I felt that I knew enough that I could go to California and do something. I lived with my sister Priscilla and Booker T. Jones for a time when they were married, in California. Booker is the mellowest guy, and he always has music playing in his head.
Matson: I like what you said about your friends Delaney and Bonnie: about being prepared, then showing up and doing it, and getting a good result.
Coolidge: Their worst rehearsals were better than most people’s records. They were so good. The musicianship of their bands set the bar really high for me. I’ve always had really good bands, as the first band I sang with was Delaney & Bonnie.
Matson: You were there when the whole singer-songwriter genre was unfolding in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Not everyone is equally both a great singer and a great songwriter. The men have to deal with Dylan. The women have to deal with Joni Mitchell. What’s your take on her?
Coolidge: She’s the most brilliant female musician alive. She has the instrumenther voice is amazing. Her writingshe can cross genres in one piece. There’s no one like Joni. You can’t put her in a category.
Matson: Tell me a funny Bob story.
Coolidge: He’s so totally unpredictable. I was invited to a party at the Dylans’ house in Malibu. I had been warned”Don’t expect Bob to be very nice or even acknowledge that you’re there.” And the door opened, and Bob acted like I was his long-lost best friend! [laughs] Kris [Kristofferson] and I were with him, filming Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. He had no idea of continuity. Recording “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in Mexico City, Kris would get so frustrated. It was, “How are we supposed to sing this with you when you don’t sing it the same way twice?” [laughs] Bob is amazing, unbelievable.
Matson: The 1970s in Los Angeleswith everyone trying to make THE album, but not being that prepared?
Coolidge: There was a lot of that going on. $400,000 albums being mademost of it was time wasted, self-indulgentlockouts with the studios, lockdown [as] if it’s a prisonwhichever it is! We would have the studios locked for two or three weeks, and sometimes we wouldn’t even show up.
Matson: You specifically mention the L.A. studio Sunset Sound in your book, and also in the notes for your new album. You’ve spent a lot of time there over the years.
Coolidge: I’ve recorded in every room at Sunset Sound. It really does feel like home. They’ve maintained the quality of the studio. They have the wonderful live echo chamberyou can’t get that sound any other way.
Matson: Lifestyle. In L.A., the drugs took a tollnot everyone survived.
Coolidge: It changed everything in Los Angeles. I’m amazed now if I hear “So-and-so’s still doing blow,” and I say, “Are you kiddingand they’re alive? And they barely were alive then?”
Matson: Some musicians, particularly singers, don’t like hearing their own recordings. Where are you with that?
Coolidge: I enjoyed my new record. I think that, in the past, records that, the second they were done, after spending so much time in the studio with themthe mixing, the masteringby the time the record came out, I was doneI just didn’t want to hear it. And I was playing the music live. But with this record, it’s in my car, and if I’m driving into town I will listen to itbecause I hear things, so many nuances, from great musicians. In the past, everything was live. In the early ’70s, I never overdubbed vocals. If there was a mistake in there, that just made it human.
Matson: Voices change over the yearshow would you describe where your voice is now?
Coolidge: I think it’s richerthat is the word I would use. I think there’s the voice of experience behind it. I’m full of gratitude that I still have a voice, that I can still singI never stopped.
Matson: Some of your peers’ voices are more intact than others. James Taylor has a fine-sounding voice still.
Coolidge: Fabulous instrument. There are so many elements involved. One of them is just being aware of how you sing, and to not try and sing the highest and lowest note that you can on every single song. You really have to pace yourself. And if you stop using it, it’s going to start to deteriorate a little bit, or change more dramatically. As we get older, our vocal cords get thicker. So everyone starts lowering the keys on songs that they’re doing. And just taking carenot being in a dry situation. I have an inhaler, I steam before I sing. Tricks like thatglycerine drops in my mouth.
Matson: If you have to talk, and then go performthat’s not going to be easy.
Coolidge: To do interviews all day, that’s hard.
Matson: What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you at a live performance?
Coolidge: With Delaney & Bonnie, in Germany. They thought they were coming to an Eric Clapton show, and Eric was a sideman. These skinheads started fighting in the audience and ripping the chairs up. And Delaney looked around and said, “I think we’d better get on the bus.” We ran out the back door and got on the bus, and these people were chasing us and rocking the bus as we tried to get away. [laughs]
Matson: Well, I will do you this favor. I thought we would get through an interview and not mention any of your husbands or boyfriends.
Coolidge: That would be great! [laughs] Well, it’s just amazing to me. Kris and I have been divorced for over 38 years or something, and people are still fascinated with that. That’s why I wrote the book.
Matson: I like the way you describe in your book about the way recording has changed. The whole world of Pro Tools, and Auto-Tuning vocalswhat do you think about that?
Coolidge: I think it’s just phony. I think it’s false. I think if people want to be singers, they need to do scales, and not just be turning knobs. I find it offensiveI don’t think it’s the right way to go. Fake vocals. Any of those effects that take away from the human experience, to me, it’s not natural. Do people Auto-Tune when they are doing live stuff? Is that possible? I’m sure if they haven’t done it, they will soon!
Matson: With music, there is Art with a capital A, and also the craft. Does that strike a chord for you?
Coolidge: The preparation, I think that’s the valuable partthe time that’s spent in advance of going into a studio: Choosing, writing, and arranging, making sure that everything is as good as it can be before the experience of walking in and recording with the musicians. Safe in the Arms of Time has shown me that more than anything.
Matson: Do you have a nice stereo? Some musicians don’t care about listening to music, and others do. Do you have a lot of records?
Coolidge: I just moved back to Florida, and they’re all in boxes. But I can’t wait to get them out. Vinyl is back. I think musicians typically have the worst sound systems of anybody. I was talking to Graham [Nash] last night, and I asked him if they had a turntable, because my new record is being released on vinyl, and he said nobut what should he get? I have some speakers I’ve had since the ’70s, which are old Philips speakers, and they sound brilliantthey sound great.
Matson: In 2005, you did an album of songs from the Great American Songbook in a jazz setting, And So Is Love [Concord CCD-2271-2].
Coolidge: When I first got to know Barbara Carroll, she would sit at the piano and play all those old songs, and I would just start singingI knew them all. I don’t know how. I love Peggy Lee so much, Blossom Deariesome of these singers, they are just amazing. I love that music.
Matson: Pick a couple songs from your new album that you like, and tell me why.
Coolidge: I love both of the tunes I wrote with Keb’ Mo’, “Naked All Night” and “Walking on Water.” One of them is the story of my life right now, and the other is about the impermanence of everything. Another song is “The Things We Carry.” It’s about my sister, and that I feel like I carry her all the time. I have not been able to perform that live, and I don’t know if I ever will.
Matson: What’s music for? Why do people do it?
Coolidge: Because they can’t help itthat’s why I do it. I couldn’t possibly do anything else. It’s a universal voice, and something that we share through time and space.
Matson: And there’s a truth-telling element, whether it’s instrumental music or music with lyrics.
Coolidge: That is absolutely right. Whether you are writing from a personal experience, or putting yourself in a position of someone who is having that experience, if you don’t feel like there’s truth there, it’s going to sound like fake music. If it’s real in my heart, if I believe it myself, then I am going to be able to communicate that. But if I don’t, then it’s just a bunch of bullshit. [laughs]
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