I recently interviewed Rita Coolidge, who has two Grammy awards to her name and decades of songs and albums along the way. We talked about her time touring with Joe Cocker, being in the studio with numerous legendary artists, singing a famous James Bond theme song, and much more.
I read that, similar to Barry Manilow, you started off doing commercial jingles. What was that experience like?
I didn’t do them like Barry did. I was living in Memphis right out of college, and I was working for a company that did radio spots. They were the call letters for radio stations. We would do a package and change the call letters for each radio station. After I had some success as an artist, I think I did a Folgers commercial and one for Ford. It wasn’t something I was known for. It was just how I got my foot in the door in Memphis.
How did you transition from that to being in the recording studio with Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, and artists of that nature?
Because I studied music growing up—I studied piano and sang with my family—singing harmony was just something I was born with. When I met Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett at Stax and moved to California, that was really when my big break happened. I got really lucky, and people trusted that I could put together the right group for the right artist. I could direct the people and come up with parts. It was a great time.
I didn’t realize that. So, you weren’t just singing backup vocals, you were directing as well?
Yeah. I would have a session with Herb Alpert, for example, and we’d have 16 singers. I’d make sure everybody was voiced in the right place and that they could all read the music and bringing people in and out at the right time. It was more than just making phone calls. I was actively in the studio.
What was it like being on the road with Joe Cocker for the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour?
Mad Dogs & Englishmen was, for me, a rock ‘n’ roll university. I had only been out of college for a year and had, kind of, a sheltered life. My father was a preacher and my mother was a school teacher. I had done some work with Delaney and Bonnie and been to Europe with them but there was nothing that could prepare me for Mad Dogs & Englishmen. When we left the A&M lot to go to the airport to get on the plane, there were 55 men, women, children, dogs—and I think the plane only held 45. So, there were people sleeping in the aisles on the plane. It was crazy. And that was just the beginning. (laughs)
I always felt that Joe Cocker was an underrated artist. I really love the last few albums he released before passing away. I thought he was doing some brilliant material up until the end. He had a certain warmth and emotion to his voice, and he could really tell a story in a way no other artist could.
He was a master. Absolutely! He had an instrument unlike anyone else. I was at his home in Sheffield and he had stacks of Ray Charles records—anything he could get his hands on. So, I knew that Joe grew up listening to Ray Charles and he had a big influence on Joe. There was nobody better than Ray Charles, and what a great guy to emulate…. If anybody else sang like Joe, their vocal cords would look like hamburger meat, yet he could do it night after night after night. He was amazing, and Joe was the sweetest guy in the world.
The Joe Cocker song “Delta Lady” was written about you and it’s the name of your autobiography. How did that song come about?
Leon Russell wrote the song. When I went out to California, I drove out with Leon from Memphis. I lived at his house on Skyhill Drive for probably seven months or so. During that time, after I left the house, is when Leon wrote “Delta Lady.” He produced the record for Joe at his studio on Skyhill. I’m told that he wrote it about me, and there’s a lot of poetic freedom in there. It’s a great song. The handle was my handle on Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and it has stayed with me throughout my life.
You were married to Kris Kristofferson and you recorded three duet albums together. Two of those albums were country music and garnered you two Grammy awards. What are your thoughts on Kris, your marriage, and the music you created together?
Kris is a wonderful man. He is an extraordinary songwriter. He’s been a close friend of mine and the father of my daughter, so I have nothing but glowing things to say about Kris. Our marriage was volatile. It’s all in the book, and it’s one of the reasons I wrote my book. Not to tell on Kris but to share my experience with him. He’s an amazing guy, and he’s a national treasure now. He’s still on the road, in spite of some issues he’s having with his memory. I think it’s wonderful that he’s still out there doing that. I love him dearly. When Kris and I broke up, I think that was the biggest heartbreak for our fans, more than the marriage counterpart. No more Kris and Rita records. I loved being in Nashville and recording. Of course, I’m not a country singer. But being married to one, the music that we made was country and we got two Grammy awards for Country Duo of the Year. It certainly worked. However, it was difficult to be in the studio with Kris. There were wonderful times, too. It was completely reflective of our marriage and our life.
You mentioned not being a country music singer. Your most successful album Anytime… Anywhere was a collection of cover songs, which were mostly R&B. How did you decide on the theme for that album? Did a producer come to you with songs for you to sing or was it your idea from the start?
I was always in control of the songs that I sing. No one is going to make me sing something I don’t want to sing. I think that was my fourth album with (producer) David Anderle. Him and I had established a really great relationship. Booker T. Jones was part of that record as well. I always felt that there were songs sung by guys that needed to be sung by women. One of those songs was “We’re All Alone,” which was written by Boz Scaggs. I gave those songs new life.
I’m glad you mentioned “We’re All Alone.” That’s one of my favorite songs by Boz Scaggs. It’s just a wonderful song. When you approached this song, and the others, how did you go about applying your own style?
Well, just the fact that I’m singing it and Boz is not, gives it a whole different spin because it’s a woman singing a love song about being alone with her lover. As far as the orchestration, I think we recorded it in the same key that Boz did. Booker was on board then as co-producer, and we wanted it to literally have a shimmer to it—with the strings—and make it elegant and beautiful so it could reflect the perfection of the lyrics and the music that Boz wrote. He did an incredible job with that song. It’s just timeless! When you’ve got a great song and you’ve got a great team and I happen to be the singer, I don’t know where the magic comes in. I think it’s a combination of all of those things. Just having the right people together and the right song in the studio with the right musicians. There’s no formula. We’re all just trying to do it right.
You sang “All Time High,” the theme for the James Bond movie Octopussy. How did that opportunity come about, and what was that process and experience like?
I got the phone call from my record company and they said, ‘You’ve been chosen to sing the next James Bond song.’ I was amazed because I was always a James Bond film fan. Cubby Broccoli was producing the films at that time. With most films at that time, music was the last thing considered. The movie was almost completely shot before they chose me as the singer. I was told that Cubby Broccoli’s daughter, Barbara Broccoli, who now produces the Bond films, wanted me to be the singer but she couldn’t just say, ‘Dad, I’d like for you to use Rita Coolidge.’ So, she started playing my music at night when Cubby would come home from shooting all day. One night he said, ‘I don’t know who that is but she’s going to be the singer for the next Bond film.’ And Barbara went, ‘Yeah, it worked!’ I got the phone call. Phil Ramone produced the song. They recorded the track and I was not there when they recorded it. I literally just came in and sang. When I went in to record in London, Tim Rice was still in the corner writing lyrics. It was a great record and it absolutely fit the film. But as a piece standing alone, I don’t enjoy performing that song because, to me, it was not complete. He was just trying to get it written as quickly as he could to get the vocals done. That’s just always been my feeling. Everyone wants to hear it, and I just don’t want to sing it.
I’m friends with Melissa Manchester and she once told me that if a song is really successful, regardless of whether or not you like it, you have to sing it for a very long time.
James Taylor said, ‘When I recorded “You’ve Got a Friend,” little did I know I’d be singing it every night for the rest of my life.’ I had that with “Higher and Higher” and “We’re All Alone.” I understand those songs and the audience’s appeal. I’m happy to make them happy, but I just don’t do “All Time High.” I do the others. I’ve got enough of those hits that satisfy the audience without compromising my own needs.
In 2016 you released your autobiography. What was it like sitting down to write your life’s story? And what was it like to narrate the audiobook?
I did the audiobook in a day or a day-and-a-half. I did it faster than anybody who has ever done it (laughs). I’m just reading what I wrote. Writing the book was cathartic and freeing. It was scary at the same time. Before the book was released, I was lying in bed and thinking, ‘My God! What have I done? Now everybody is going to know everything about me.’ My agent said, ‘Stop. It’s a great book.’ It’s just like giving birth to a child or a new album. Once it’s out there, it has a life of its own. I just have to let go and hope that it is received well.
You’re part Cherokee. What does your Native American heritage mean to you?
It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me. It’s my family history. My years of making music as part of Walela with my sister and her daughter were wonderful. It was great being able to express songs about that part of our heritage. Since my sister was killed, I can’t even listen to those records anymore. I have so much compassion and love for the Native American people, but it’s hard for me to revisit the Walela music.
Are there any upcoming projects you’re working on?
No, I’m not. I’ve been approached to do another album and I’m deciding if and when I’m going to do that. I guess there’s an album in the pipeline. I’m cutting back on my work. I remarried in October and I moved to Florida. I like being home. I don’t want to be on tour anymore. I’ll do isolated things here and there but it’s time to rest. It’s time to be home with my family and my husband and enjoy this beautiful place where we live.
Be sure to catch Rita Coolidge at Iridium Jazz Club in NYC on July 10 and 11