Rita Coolidge emerged from the hippie-rock and psychedelic blues era as a stylist who transformed everything from folk, rock, country and soul into sensual pop music. In the years since her string of hit records during the 1970s, she formed a family vocal group, called Walela, whose music reflects the soul of their Native American ancestry.
Coolidge and her two sisters, Priscilla and Linda, were blessed with powerful singing voices. “I was singing close harmony with my sisters in church when I was two,” she told J. Poet of Indian Artist magazine. “And later on, we had solo spots during service. Since my father and mother and grandmothers all sang, music was a natural part of our lives, just like sleeping and eating.” Although Coolidge’s father, a Baptist preacher, was a full-blooded Cherokee and her mother was half Cherokee and half Scots, the three sisters were raised in a predominantly white Tennessee community. Their heritage was kept alive for them in the stories told by their maternal grandmother. “Mama Stewart…,” she explained to Poet, “kept the family history by writing songs. She wrote songs about her family and her journeys as a young girl in the 1870s and the lives of her children and songs about us, her grandkids.”
Attending high school in Nashville, Coolidge was a member of the same debate team as country/pop hitmaker Brenda Lee. When she was 15 years old, the family moved to Florida. While attending Florida State University, she formed a folk group called R.C. and the Moonpies and played gigs at frat parties to help finance her education. Far more lucrative was her work at Pepper Sound, a jingle studio in Memphis, where she recorded radio station IDs and commercial ditties. The studio honchos liked what they heard and gave her a shot at a recording her first record, “Turn Around and Love You.” The song was popular regionally, but only scaled the bottom of the national charts.
Coolidge moved to Los Angeles shortly thereafter. Her brother-in-law, Booker T. of Booker T. & the MG’s, introduced Rita to Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. She quickly made her mark singing backup vocals for such rock luminaries as Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, Dave Mason, and Duane Allman on the duo’s most popular album Delaney, Bonnie, and Friends. Through the years she would sing backup on albums for Clapton, Boz Scaggs, Harry Chapin, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills—who was inspired to write “Cherokee,” “The Raven,” and “Sugar Babe” about her.
Through Delaney and Bonnie, Coolidge met Joe Cocker, who hired her to sing backup during his infamous Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour with Leon Russell. Unorganized, unrehearsed, and intense, the show was the hottest ticket in rock music at the time, and each night Coolidge sang a powerhouse version of the Carpenters’ “Superstar.” The tour, which reportedly inspired Russell to write “Delta Lady” in her honor,
Born on May 1, 1944, in Nashville, TN; married Kris Kristofferson (a singer-songwriter), 1973; divorced, 1980. Education: Attended Florida State University.
Made first chart appearance with “Turn Around and Love You,” 1969; signed with A&M Records, charted with “Fever” and “My Crew” from The Lady’s Not for Sale, 1972; released hit singles “We’re All Alone,” “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher And Higher,” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do” from Anytime… Anywhere, 1977; had hit single with “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love” from Satisfied, 1979; released hit single “All Time High” from Love from Tokyo, 1984; with the group Walela, released Unbearable Love, 1997, and a second self-titled LP, 2001.
Awards: Grammy Awards (with Kris Kristofferson), Best Country Vocal Performance by a Group or Duo for “From the Bottle to the Bottom,” 1973; Grammy Awards (with Kris Kristofferson), Best Country Vocal Performance by a Group or Duo for “Lover Please,” (1975); Native American Music Awards, Debut Artist of the Year, Walela, 1998; Native American Music Awards, Song of the Year, Walela, “The Warrior,” 1998; Native American Music Awards, Record of the Year, “The Warrior,” 1998; Native American Music Awards, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —A&M Records, 1416 N. LaBrea Ave., Hollywood, CA 90028, phone: (213) 469-2411, fax: (213) 856-2600, website: http://www.amrecords.com Triloka Records, 23852 Pacific Coast Highway #745, Malibu, CA 90265, website: http://www.triloka.com Website —Rita Coolidge Official Website: http://www.ritacoolidge.com.
earned Coolidge a recording contract with A&M Records.
Coolidge married singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, one of Nashville’s most promising stars, in 1973. She’d sung backup on Kristofferson’s gospel hit “Why Me Lord,” a country crossover smash that earned Kristofferson plaudits as the new Hank Williams. When Kristofferson and Coolidge began recording together, however, critics claimed she was riding his coattails.
Kristofferson inadvertently did much to validate that impression by insisting that his wife be included in the movie projects and television appearances he was offered. According to Lee Hale’s book Backstage at the Dean Martin Show, for example, producer Greg Garrison wanted only Kristofferson for a prized duet spot with the show’s star. Despite the fact that Coolidge shared two Grammy Awards with Kristofferson, the producer fretted that she was a virtual unknown and accepted her appearance with poor grace.
Coolidge didn’t have a big hit under her own name until she covered Jackie Wilson’s 1967 classic “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher And Higher” on her 1977 album Anytime … Anywhere. Turning Wilson’s uptempo soul rocker into a sultry ballad, the single went gold. Despite this success, the singer still had her detractors, among them Robert Christgau who wrote in his Consumer Guide,“Rita Coolidge is now halfway to becoming Andy Williams with cleavage. It takes a very special kind of stupidity to slow ‘Higher and Higher’ into a down.” Coolidge had two other hit singles from the album, however, a cover of “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “We’re All Alone,” written by Boz Scaggs. The album went platinum, and Coolidge had finally arrived—but at great cost to her personal life.
With Kristofferson in demand for movie roles and Coolidge’s recording career heating up, the couple drifted apart. They divorced in 1980, a breakup reflected in Coolidge’s poignant hit for that year, “I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love.” Her final chart smash, “All Time High,” was the theme to the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy. The song gave her career one last big boost before she seemingly tumbled out of public view.
After her contract with A&M expired in 1984, Coolidge recorded for various independent labels; Critique, Permanent, 404 Music, and Varese Sarabande were among them. She dabbled in musical theater, took small singing roles in films, and even returned to session work, singing behind rock veterans Eric Clapton and Jimmy Buffet. She didn’t really make an impact again, though, until she teamed with sister Priscilla and her daughter Laura Satterfield to sing Coolidge’s “Cherokee Morning Song” for Robbie Robertson’s 1994 Capitol LP Music for Native Americans, the soundtrack for TBS’s Native Americans series. The trio knew they were on to something unique and formed the group now known as Walela.
Walela, the Cherokee word for “hummingbird,” is also the trio’s symbol. Their music, which features lush, close harmonies—setting up breakout solos by Satterfield—and spare instrumentation augmented by native flutes and percussion reflects the Native American experience. The trio write much of their material themselves, melding rock and gospel influences with their traditional message. Unlike many world music performers who have a limited audience, Walela has cultivated a growing fan base with appearances Good Morning America, Regis & Kathy Lee, and Late Night with David Letterman. Although still singing pop music when the occasion calls for it, Coolidge has returned to prominence by realizing the vision closest to her heart.
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It’s Only Love, A&M, 1975.
Anytime… Anywhere, A&M, 1977.
Heartbreak Radio, A&M, 1977.
Never Let You Go, A&M, 1983.
Inside The Fire, A&M, 1984.
Out of the Blues, Varese Sarabande, 1996.
The Millennium Collection-20th Century Masters, A&M, 2000.
With Kris Kristofferson
Full Moon, Monument, 1979.
Breakaway, Monument, 1974; reissued, 1991.
Natural Act, Monument, 1973.
Walela, Triloka, 1997.
Unbearable Love, Triloka, 2000.
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Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, editors, MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
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Whitburn, Joel, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, seventh edition, Billboard Books, 2000.
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Native American Music Awards, http://www.nammys.com (October 5, 2002).
“Rita Coolidge,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmovie.com (October 5, 2002).
“Rita Coolidge,” All Movie Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 5, 2002).
“Rita Coolidge,” CDConnection, http://www.cdconnection.com (August 28, 2002).
“Rita Coolidge,” Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (October 5, 2002).
“Rita Coolidge,” Robert Christgau Consumer Guide, http://robertchristgau.com (October 5, 2002).
Walela Records, http://www.walela.com (October 5, 2002).
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