Rita Coolidge’s Holiday Cheer

The multi-Grammy-winning singer talks with Pollstar about her annual holiday tour, her new Christmas album, and how hard work and staying focused helped her handle two personal losses this year.

People not only love Rita Coolidge, but they write songs about her. Leon Russell penned “Delta Lady” about the young lady from Florida and Willie Nelson name-checks Coolidge and her then-husband Kris Kristofferson in “Devil In A Sleepin’ Bag.”

Coolidge’s star rose quickly after appearing on Joe Cocker’s famous 1969 “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour. Within 10 years she had several hit singles to her credit, including “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher,” “The Way You Do The Things You Do” and her timeless recording of Boz Scaggs’ “We’re All Alone.”

She also has a couple of Grammys on the shelf, having won those gold-plated statuettes for “best country vocal performance by a duo or group” for two songs she recorded with Kristofferson – 1973’s “From The Bottle To The Bottom” and “Lover Please” in 1975.

With her role in music history firmly established, Coolidge’s passion these last few years has been her annual Christmas tour. However, this year Coolidge has something extra for her holiday audience – an album to go along with her live shows. A Rita Coolidge Christmas (429 Records) lands in stores Oct. 30.

Photo: KVON Photography

Life is full of surprises. When you began your career, did you ever imagine you’d be where you are today?

I don’t know any 20-year-old that really thinks about what they’ll be doing. According to life at that time, I would be sitting at home [now] with a bunch of grandchildren on my knee. Probably in the back of my mind I always kind of dreamt of having my career for my life. But I don’t think a lot of 22-year-olds are looking 40-something years ahead and thinking about their life at that time.

I realized there really was a market for my music, probably after the third or fourth record. I think A&M was in it for the longevity of the recording process, and I think they made me look forward, to imagine this was something that’s not … my mom saying, “When are you going to get serious and get a job teaching? When are you going to get a real job?”

I think she only said that once, and it was jokingly. Before I started in the business I had graduated from Florida State with a degree in art to be a teacher. But before I went to Florida State I was on a summertime TV show in Jacksonville, Fla., and just had a ball. It was a musical variety show and I was a regular. To me, I was in heaven. I was like, “I don’t need to go to college, I have a real job right here.”

And my mother said, “No, no, you don’t. You go to college, get your degree and then, if you want to be on a little TV show in Jacksonville, that will be your decision. But right now it’s mine.”

Of course, I went to college in real life and that was way more fun than being at home and being on a little TV show.

Artists have remarked that during the early days of their careers they didn’t know if rock, pop or contemporary music as it was at that time would last more than a couple of years. While you were performing with Kris Kristofferson or hanging out in a circle of friends that included songwriters such as Graham Nash, did you think the music you were playing and listening to would still be around decades later?

I totally believed it would be around. Music is such a powerful way of speaking to people’s hearts. And you mention two men who do that so very well. Kris being such a great songwriter and writing songs so simple considering the man is a Rhodes Scholar. Lyrically, it’s perfection, but as far as the complexity of the music, he keeps it accessible for anyone to play with their guitar and to listen to.

And Graham, I’ve always felt he was like the Pied Piper. His music … I was so mesmerized, and enchanted by his voice and style of writing, the way he painted his pictures.

What you said about Kristofferson and lyrical perfection while keeping the music accessible – are those two factors you consider when looking for material to record?

When I’m looking for material to record … sometimes it can be a little more complicated, but it has to resonate in my heart. That’s why I probably love ballads so much. If I hear a song and I get that lump in my throat hearing it, I’ve got to sing it. It might be somebody else’s song that I just may sing at home playing the piano. But I have to make it mine. It kind of has to go through me and I have to kind of live that song. Songs that touch our hearts are the ones that stay with us and take us back to timelines in our lives. I really believe that’s been the power of the longevity of my recordings.

Songs like “We’re All Alone,” which Boz Scaggs wrote. I think Boz did a great job when he recorded it but there was something else, something intangible, like a God-given gift when I recorded it that really did speak to people’s hearts all over the world. I can’t explain that but I know it’s there.

Regarding songs like “We’re All Alone,” would you meet the writer before you recorded their songs?

No. I didn’t meet Boz until after I recorded it and it probably sold a million records. I ran into him somewhere and he said, “By the way, thanks.” We just became acquaintances. We would speak on the phone every now and then, but we were never buddies. I feel like some of my buddies, like Robbie Robertson, I could call him about anything.

But as that song took off, did you ever ask Boz Scaggs if he had any other songs that you could record?

You know what? The idea to record that song came from Jerry Moss at A&M. I walked in and Silk Degrees was the No. 1 album. But Boz hadn’t … released that song as a single. I don’t think there were plans for him to release it as a single.

Jerry said, “I got to talk to you. Can you come down?” So I walked into his office and he said, “Do you have Silk Degrees?” And I said, “Of course I do. Everybody does.” At that time, the number of releases, you could count them off in your head. There wasn’t the massive number of CDs and product that’s always being released now. The record companies pretty much dictated what was being released. Everybody has Boz’s record.

[Jerry said] “Let me play this song. This is in a million homes. A million people have listened to this song. I think it would be great idea for you to do it.” For that very reason – to have a woman sing the song and to do a beautiful arrangement. It was never a hard decision but it was brilliant of Jerry, who was always involved with A&M Records, to actually have that vision.

You’ve been doing Christmas shows for a while. What was the attraction that prompted you to start the Rita Coolidge Christmas tours?

I had always, from the time I was with A&M, wanted to do a Christmas record. And the record company said, “No. We don’t really want to do that right now. We want to focus on your career and on the hits.” Christmas music was a much smaller window at that time, they didn’t start playing Christmas music at Halloween like they do now. It was after Thanksgiving when they’d start the Christmas music. So they didn’t want me to do it.

But I always wanted to do a Christmas record. Since I didn’t have one, I decided to tour. At that point I had come to the realization that there’s more to being in the music business than making records.

Sammy Davis, Jr., God love him, when I was younger I used to kind of look at Sammy Davis, Jr., as someone to kind of laugh at. Then I met him and he gave me some of the wisest information. It was in the early 1980s and we did an AIDS benefit in New York with Dionne Warwick, Frank Sinatra and, I think, Liza Minnelli and Sammy, and it was a really great night.

I happened to sit next to Sammy and I said something about not having made a record in a couple of years. And he said, “Girl, I haven’t made a record … ever. If you’re a singer, it’s not about recording. You’re more than just a recording artist. You’re a singer. Go out there and hone your craft, find out how to make people happy with your music. There are plenty of records to be made. That’s easy. You go into the studio … sing the song and it’s done. The hard part, and the gift, is to be able to entertain people and to sing and to keep your instrument sharp.”

I absorbed everything that he said and thanked him with all my heart. It really turned my head around.

So when I started doing the Christmas tours, it was kind of with that mindset. I don’t have to have a Christmas record. I can just do Christmas shows because that is what I wanted to do. Because there’s so much great Christmas music and I just wanted to be able to tour and do Christmas music with my band.

I think it was two years ago, we had finished the Christmas tour, and, as always, I was signing autographs on whatever product that I had at the table. Everyone coming up would say, “Do you have a Christmas record? Are you going to make a Christmas record? Where can I find ‘Amazing Grace’? Have you recorded ‘Little Drummer Boy’?” every year.

And it really became apparent to the band, who often sit with me when I sign autographs. They certainly do now, because they’re on the record.

Photo: KVON Photography
“When I’m looking for material to record … it has to resonate in my heart. That’s why I probably love ballads so much.”

They came to me a couple of years ago after the Christmas tour, before we went home for Christmas, and they said, “We have an idea and we want you to think about it because we need to get started on it the first part of the year if you think you want to do it. We want to be the record company and the producers. We want to get the tracks built. We’ll get everything done. We’ll do it in our studios. We’ll get the tracks down and then just come up (Los Angeles) spend a few days and lay down some vocals. We’re going to do all the work, all you have to do sing.”

As they were getting things developed, they would send me the tracks and they were even better than they were live because they had more time with them. It just became a gift from these four guys because no record company at that time would have agreed to back a record. Record companies don’t do that. They pretty much want the product done when you take it in. At least with most people I know.

So that’s what happened. The band did it and we got it finished. It’s been so well-received. I think it’s such a great statement about the camaraderie and the mutual respect that I see with other bands that’s certainly in this band. I always feel that we all rise to the level of each other’s expertise. If one person is growing, we’re all growing. It’s a great family.

It does sound as if you and the band are very much a family onto yourselves.

Very much so. They’re my peeps. I haven’t been working much this summer. My father passed away at the end of February. I headed up north to help my sisters get the house packed up and get my mother, she was going to move in with me.

So we got the house packed and I brought her here on May 20th. On May 26th she had a massive stroke. So she was with me until she passed Aug. 15th. I was taking care of her, I didn’t have anyone but my husband helping me. So my summer has been just a time of being with my mom and helping her crossover. I would think about playing music and my heart was telling me that I was doing the right thing and I would be back playing music again. That’s always going to be there, but you’re mom’s not.

She passed on the 15th and I had a gig on the 18th.

But you know what? Right after daddy died, the same thing happened. I had to leave the day after and do 17 shows in Florida. But somehow or other, the music is so healing. Especially being with a special group of people. We hold each other up in so many ways.

During your entire career, I’ve never heard of any “rock star” moments in the life of Rita Coolidge. No thrashing hotel rooms or making a scene. Are there any skeletons in the closet?

No. The closest I came to that was watching it go on all around me during the “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour. I was just out of college and on this huge tour and people are out of their minds. They’re doing all kinds of drugs and drunk all the time. That stuff was going on and I was honestly scared to death half of the time. There were a few people I could relate to. I wasn’t like a princess or anything. I had been Leon Russell’s girlfriend, but when he came out as the ringmaster for that tour, that was someone I had never met before. I think Joe was my closest friend on that tour. We would get on the plane at night and he would say, “Rita, I can’t do it anymore. I can’t do it.” And I said, “No, you can.”

And there would be nights when I would say, “Joe, I got to go home. I can’t do this,” and he would say, “No, you can’t leave me. You’re the only friend I’ve got.” So we just huddled down and got through it.

As far as that other stuff, I’ve always had very strict rules with people I’ve worked with. A lot of people were doing drugs and it was kind of accepted in the inner circle. I said, “I don’t know what anyone is doing, I don’t care what you’re doing, as long as it doesn’t affect the stage, that it doesn’t affect the show. I don’t care what’s going on at home. I don’t care if you and your wife had a huge fight or your house burned down, leave it at the hotel.” That’s all I ever asked.

Last month I went up to L.A. to do a song that will be on an album by a Japanese artist. The guy whose studio I used is Carmen Grillo who played with Tower Of Power and was in my band for several years. And he was a wild child, I’ll tell you. Of course, he’s older, he has a lovely wife and this incredible studio.

And he said, “Of all the people I’ve worked with, I learned more from you than anybody else. No matter what was going on, the show went on and everybody had to respect that. Whatever was going on with you, you were always there and we had to be too.”

Considering your career, the people you know and everything you’ve seen in your life, f you write an autobiography, what would you call it?

I have no idea. I think because I am so raw, emotionally, with the passing of my parents. My parents were the most important people in the world. My family, with all the kids and the grandkids, we were all up in Northern California five years ago for Christmas, maybe 25 or 30 [people] and that was just kids, grandkids and great-grandkids – and my daughter and her kids … it’s always been so important to me.

Coming from my ancestry … the stories from my grandmothers, the stories growing up as an Indian kid, we were often called Gypsies or Cubans or whatever. But growing up in the South and just my own personal experiences are great stories.

Being in college, being at Florida State during the civil rights movement and having eggs and tomatoes thrown at me while we stood in lines for anybody to come into these venues, coffee shops, and places of business. The black kids were over at Florida A&M and we were at Florida State. There were, I think, 13,000 students when I was there, and … three black students. So there was a vacuum in ethnic diversity there. I was probably the closest to a person of color at Florida State.

So my life has been really interesting, I wouldn’t know where to start. But I’m trying to figure it out … and it ain’t over. But I really really need to write this stuff for the people that have supported me all these years. It’s been amazing just how wonderful people have been to me. I always say treat people the way you want to be treated. And that’s pretty much how I live my life.

Photo: KVON Photography
“But I always wanted to do a Christmas record. … At that point I had come to the realization that there’s more to being in the music business than making records.”

Rita Coolidge’s concert calendar includes a benefit concert scheduled for Cleveland Heights, Ohio, at Nighttown Oct. 12. During October she’ll also play Patchogue, N.Y.’s Theatre For Performing Arts Oct. 13; and Las Vegas at Suncoast Hotel & Casino Oct. 27-28.

Coolidge returns to the road in late November, bringing her own brand of holiday cheer to Derry, N.H.’s Pinkerton Academy Nov. 29; Williamstown, Mass., at Clark Art Institute Nov. 30 and Fall River, Mass., at Narrows Center For The Arts Dec. 1. Visit RitaCoolidge.com for more information.