Rita Coolidge first made her name as a top backup singer in the Los Angeles music scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Her biggest credit in those years came when she sang “Superstar” on Joe Cocker’s best-selling 1970 album Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
Coolidge was too good to stay in the background for long. By 1971, she was recording as a solo artist for A&M Records, the legendary L.A. label co-founded by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. Coolidge recorded 12 studio albums for A&M, including 1977’s platinum-selling Anytime…Anywhere. That album spawned a pair of gold singles—a mellow remake of Jackie Wilson’s R&B classic “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” and a sensuous version of Boz Scaggs’ “We’re All Alone.” In 1983, she even recorded a James Bond theme, “All Time High.”
In 1973, Coolidge married singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson. They recorded three albums together, winning two Grammy Awards. They divorced in 1980.
Coolidge, 73, recently released her 18th studio album, Safe in the Arms of Time, and is set to play The Rose in Pasadena on Saturday, July 14. She spoke to The Tolucan Times by phone from her new home in Tallahassee.
You attended Florida State University in the ’60s, then lived in California for 50 years and now you’re back in Tallahassee. What made you decide to move back there?
Because there’s water and it’s green and it’s beautiful. I was born with a redneck gene, so I understand living in the South.
This is your 18th studio album over a 47-year span. That’s a lot of albums and a lot of years.
I think the 18th album was something that I didn’t take for granted as much as maybe I did the earlier albums. I think this album means a lot more. It’s a matter of having life experience behind me and also being grateful for the opportunity and for the blessing of recording at this time in my life.
You debuted on A&M in 1971. That was a great time to be at that label.
It was. A&M was a great label. There was such a feeling of family at A&M, more than any other label. I never went on the lot without going by Herb’s office and saying hi or going in and saying hi to Jerry Moss. The doors were always open in every department.
Was it a little bittersweet for you to watch the Carpenters’ version of “Superstar” become a smash in 1971?
Not at all, because I just adored Karen. There was something about that girl that just touched my heart. I loved running into her on the (A&M) lot. I loved her voice—as much as any singer that has ever recorded. I thought she had a golden tone. She was a sweetheart.
Do you still perform “Superstar” in concert? Have you always had it in your set?
Yep, pretty much.
You didn’t have a really big success until your sixth album, Anytime…Anywhere.
When I signed with A&M, they said, ‘We’re not trying to pump out hits. We’d love to have one, but we want you for the longevity of your career. We want to make records with you and build a fan base.’ There was just a sense of security there. When the album hit, and it was such a huge hit, I was so happy for the label which had been so very kind to me.
I don’t think you are ever ready when something that huge happens in your life. I had a three-year-old (daughter, Casey). I was very content with my life. Kris and I were touring and I would open for him. I was really happy with what we had going on. Everything changed so dramatically when the album hit. Suddenly Kris would be onstage and people would be screaming my name. I thought, ‘Well, this is just not going to work.’ (But) it was great on a lot of levels. It sold a lot of records and opened a lot of doors.
There’s a lot of talk nowadays about the #metoo movement and sexism. I imagine that you saw your share of that in the rock world of the early ’70s.
There were times I felt I wasn’t given an opportunity because I was a woman, but because of the way I grew up, I feel like I stood up for myself. Sometimes, women feel powerless, but I think because my mother was such a strong woman, she empowered her girls. (Editor’s Note: Coolidge was one of three daughters. One of her sisters, Priscilla, was also a recording artist.)
How did you get to be known as the “Delta Lady”? Who first came up with that?
Leon Russell wrote a song with that title after we broke up. Joe Cocker recorded it (in 1969). That became my handle and it stuck with me all these years.
Two years ago, you published Delta Lady: A Memoir (written with Michael Walker). What did you learn about yourself in the process of working on that?
I learned that I shouldn’t have written my memoir (laughs)…I think it was very cathartic to write everything down. People kept asking me to write my point of view, because I was in some incredible situations musically and I met so many people. So I finally agreed to write it.
Also, writing it made me go back and listen to some of the early albums. After the book was published, I started to really think about trying to capture the organic, raw feeling of some of those earlier records. So it shaped the direction of the new album.
You’re in a business where there’s a lot of burnout and even early deaths. You’re a survivor. What made the difference for you?
I just owe my parents so very much for instilling in all their children a value system that has stayed with me and kept me strong. All of my bands say I’m a great boss. We have a great time. I have not considered ever stopping. People retire for a few years and want to come back. I think if you drop the ball, it’s kind of hard to pick it up sometimes.
Does your daughter have musical talent?
She does. She’s playing at Farm Aid (on July 4) with her band Yellowfeather. They’re a bluegrass band.
I guess when your parents are Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge it’s inevitable you’re going to go into music.
She fought it for a long time. She was a ballet teacher and dancer. Casey has done so many things. But about two years ago, she finally gave in.
I have seen your age listed two ways and I want to get it right. You are 73 or 74?
I’m 73. I just turned 73. Please don’t add another year.
Rita Coolidge will play The Rose in Pasadena on Saturday, July 14. Call (888) 645-5006 for tickets and information.
Paul Grein writes regularly about pop music for such outlets as HitsDailyDouble.com.