Rita Coolidge’s career has been a varied 40 years of singing and performing, a free spirit comfortable with not being pinned down to any one genre. But the most significant thing about the mystical, enigmatic, good-time Coolidge is her role as both muse and ingénue to some of the greatest musicians of all time. In a stroke of art imitating life imitating art, the multiple Grammy award winner has sung alongside such rock luminaries as Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton and Kris Kristofferson. She has lent her sultry voice to their live performances and recordings, and has even been the inspiration for some of their greatest hits (occasionally while wedding bells chimed in the background). In a recent interview with Pulse, Coolidge reminisced about her career and the many icons she’s sung with, starting at the most poignant era in show business.
After years of session work in the 60s, Coolidge received her first big break with Delaney & Bonnie, appearing on their Accept No Substitute album in 1969. The group came together in Memphis in the late 60s, a time and place Coolidge recalls fondly: “Memphis was a real music destination. There was Chips Moman, American Studios, the whole Memphis sound with Booker T. & the MGs, Stax Records and Hi Records. There was so much going on at that time with all the studios popping out hits all the time. It was so exciting to be there.”
Coolidge sang on several tours with Delaney & Bonnie. The shows at the Royal Albert Hall in London with Eric Clapton became the Delaney & Bonnie & Friends live album On Tour with Eric Clapton, originally released in 1970 and reissued as a four-disc box set in 2010. The concerts were particularly memorable to Coolidge who reeled off the names of the guitar players on stage: “Dave Mason dropped by. There was George Harrison, Eric [Clapton] and Delaney [Bramlett]. Was it just the four guitar players (laughs)?” Even with all the guitar-star power, Coolidge recalls Bonnie Bramlett’s contribution the most: “Bonnie wore a crushed red velvet dress and snake skin boots and she was doing these James Brown moves with the mic. In the papers the next day the headline read, ‘Mae West hits Albert Hall.’ Bonnie stole the show.”
Coolidge and various other Delaney & Bonnie alums went on to take part in the seminal Joe Cocker tour, album and film Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Coolidge looks back with glee and wonder at the tour and how it came together so quickly. “Leon Russell was the ringmaster,” says Coolidge. “He pulled the whole circus together. Joe Cocker needed a band for his tour and movie. Joe called Leon [Russell]. Leon called me and said, ‘Put a choir together.’ We only had four days to rehearse.” As much a roving party as a tour, the DC8 they flew in had “Cocker Power” emblazoned on the outside and performances often included up to 40 or 50 people on stage. “There were no rules anytime,” Coolidge says. Her rendition of “Superstar” is one of the more memorable moments.
Cocker’s bandleader for Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Leon Russell, wrote one of the other highlights “Delta Lady” about Coolidge. It would be the first of several songs written for or about her. Willie Nelson mentioned her (and Kris Kristofferson) in “Devil in a Sleeping Bag” and Stephen Stills wrote “Cherokee,” “The Raven” and “Sugar Babe” about her. When asked about Russell’s song though, Coolidge said, “I think the one that Leon wrote that moves me more is ‘A Song for You.’ To me, that is one of the most beautifully crafted songs that I’ve ever heard. I wanted to record it, but honestly my voice doesn’t do it justice and I love the way Leon sings it.”
In 1973, Coolidge married Kris Kristofferson and they recorded three duet albums together, garnering two Grammy awards. Before they divorced in 1980, she would see her greatest solo achievement with her 1977 album Anytime…Anywhere, which featured hit singles of her renditions of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher,” Boz Scaggs’ “We’re All Alone” and The Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”
Coolidge continued to release solo albums in the 80s, 90s and 00s, and also became known for her annual holiday tours, which led to her first Christmas album A Rita Coolidge Christmas, to be released later this month.
Though she sang with and behind icons of folk, rock, country and soul, Coolidge succinctly summed up her musical career in the liner notes to the retrospective Delta Lady: The Rita Coolidge Anthology: “Maybe it’s made me harder to sell, but I like being hard to categorize. For me, it’s always just been a matter of my love for music preventing me from landing in any one place.”
Rita Coolidge Live