Rita Coolidge has finally made the album that she has wanted to for so many years.
The Grammy-award winning singer who had a string of pop hits in the 1970s, including "The Way You Do The Things You Do" and "(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher & Higher," has released a sophisticated jazz record, "And So Is Love," on Concord Records.
Coolidge, however, isn’t jumping on the jazz bandwagon like other rock stars. Long before Rod Stewart was recording standards, Coolidge released "Out Of The Blues," an album with Barbara Carroll in the ’70s. Many will also remember that she had a hit with "Fever."
"Possibly, I should have been a jazz singer from the beginning," she tells JazzReview in the softest of Southern drawls.
Her new CD is produced by Jimmy Haslip, bassist and co-founder of The Yellowjackets, and John Burk, who spearheaded Ray Charles’ recent "Genius Loves Company" album.
Coolidge recently talked to JazzReview about her longtime dream of making the album, an upcoming Billie Holiday project and what’s ahead for her.
JazzReview: What inspired you to make And So Is Love?
Rita Coolidge: I’ve been trying to make this record for most of my life. I recorded my first jazz record in the ’70s. I’ve always loved jazz. I grew up listening to Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney. I’ve loved these singers. I’m still Peggy Lee’s biggest fan. I’ve always wanted to record a jazz record. I did one in the ’70s with Barbara Carroll. It’s been a journey. Probably almost every time since I left A&M I would go into a studio to do a record, I would say, 'Can we do jazz?' It would be "No, no. That’s not what you do." So, I just continued to press forward with it. Finally, my managers, Nelly and Jeff Neben, came on board about five years ago and said, "What do you want to do?" I said, 'A jazz record.' They knocked on doors until someone agreed. The first record company was in Japan, and then we came back to U.S., and Concord Records was the label that came on board. I love Concord.
JazzReview: After thinking about it for so long, what goals did you have mind for the CD?
Rita Coolidge: I wanted to make a jazz record. I didn’t want it to be a standards record. I wanted jazz players. I wanted it to be genuine. I think in that dream I knew that I would be challenged to do this and to be credible. Jazz radio is not very friendly to pop singers who decide to make a jazz record. But a lot of people have been. A lot of the people I’ve talked to like the record.
JazzReview: What were some of the challenges that you faced when making this record?
Rita Coolidge: I think the challenges for me was to go into the studio with these incredible jazz players and come up to their level of excellence. That’s always a challenge. They’re amazing. Jimmy Haslip was a real gift as my producer. He’s so great. He’s a great player, but an even more joyful human being.
JazzReview: How is it different playing with jazz musicians compared to musicians that you’ve worked with earlier?
Rita Coolidge: Well, the music is different. It’s structured differently. The arrangements were done by Russell Ferrante and Alan Pasqua. There were times we were recording three tracks a day. With pop records, they don’t move along quite as quickly. There’s more time with music that may not be as complicated It seems that jazz is more cerebral and more mathematical in a sense.
JazzReview: How are you a different singer today than you were earlier in your career?
Rita Coolidge: There’s 30 years of experience now. I’ve got my whole life. There’s a lifetime of experience, a lifetime of experiencing the road and the music and different players. It makes me a richer human being. I have a greater source of information to tap into, a wealth of life.
JazzReview: You’ve said that singing is about the spaces not taken up. What did you mean by that?
Rita Coolidge: I’ve fought this battle. When I would go into a studio with a rhythm session and we would record a track, I would love the space and the breath in between. But, by the time the record was finished and the overdubs were put in and background vocals and guitar solos, there would be no space in the record for the song to breath. I think that jazz, even though it may be more complicated, allows those spaces.
JazzReview: On the new CD, you’ve included two Peggy Lee songs, "I Don’t Know Enough About You" and "Don’t Smoke in Bed."
Rita Coolidge: I would have done more Peggy Lee if they had agreed. When I mentioned to John Burk that I sure wanted to record some Peggy Lee, he said, "As long as you don’t record ‘Fever.’" I said, 'I did that already.'
JazzReview: You had a hit with "Fever" in the 1970s. Did anyone tell you then that you shouldn’t do that song?
Rita Coolidge: No. I don’t think so. At that time, when I recorded "Fever," it charted country, pop, jazz and R&B, on all four. I can’t get played on jazz radio today.
JazzReview: Is that because you are so associated with rock and pop?
Rita Coolidge: I think so. I think you have to have a jazz pedigree to be on jazz radio.
JazzReview: Hopefully, you will break some doors down.
Rita Coolidge: I would love to. I’m performing at Lincoln Center. The month of September is Women in Jazz, so I’m doing jazz there in September. I’m in for the duration. Eventually, they’re going to have to let me in. I’m not stopping. My dream has come true, and I’m staying.
JazzReview: You mentioned this earlier, but it’s important to point out that this isn’t your first venture into jazz. You recorded "Fever" and you did an album with Barbara Carroll.
Rita Coolidge: Right.
JazzReview: What was it about Peggy Lee that connected with you?
Rita Coolidge: I think there was something in her voice that resonated. The timbre of her voice, the texture, it resonated in my heart. I liked her style. There was a subtlety about Peggy Lee. It was powerful. There was a valuable use of space. Everything was not cluttered. Her voice was out front and was the key instrument. I loved that. We tried to accomplish that with this record.
JazzReview: Who were some of your other influences?
Rita Coolidge: I loved Rosemary Clooney, Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald.
JazzReview: It’s interesting you mentioned these ladies. Were they more influential than some rock or R&B singers?
Rita Coolidge: Yes, as far as my foundation absolutely. What you are listening to when you are forming ideas and tastes is really important. That’s why Peggy remained so important to me. I could listen to any one of the hundreds of songs I have by her, and they’re just fabulous. If I’m driving to L.A. and have anxiety about making the drive, if I’ve got Peggy with me, we’re cool.
JazzReview: The CD kicks off with "Come Rain or Come Shine." Tell us about that song.
Rita Coolidge: When I charted with "Fever" on all four formats, Ray Charles was the only other artist that had ever done that. I worked with Ray. I worked background sessions with Ray. We did some duets and TV work together. I was invited for several years to attend his birthday party and sing "Happy Birthday" to him. There was something about my "Happy Birthday" that Ray liked. I’ve always felt he was a friend. Shortly after 9/11, Ray and I were both being honored in Temecula, Calif. Most of the people who had been invited to attend this film and music festival chose not to attend. I think Ray and I were about the only two that did attend. He could reach out and touch me and know it was me.
JazzReview: On the CD, you also re-do your hit "We’re All Alone."
Rita Coolidge: It’s a song that I do all the time. That was a request from the Japanese. But it made perfect sense to me. I think they realized that it had been so long since I had done the first jazz record. I think they wanted a song to be a bridge that people recognized. I loved Alan Pasqua’s arrangement. My fear was if we did re-do it, it might not fit into the format of the music, but I think it works beautifully.
JazzReview: We should mention that you also work with Herb Alpert on this CD.
Rita Coolidge: Yes. Herb was one of the owners of A&M. He was the "A" of A&M. That was my first record company. Herb was always the sweetest guy. I never went into A&M all the years that I was signed with the label and did not go into Herb’s office. When I recorded the bossa nova tune, it just cried out for Herb.
JazzReview: Was there a track that turned out to be a surprise?
Rita Coolidge: One of my favorite cuts is "Cry Me A River." I’ve always loved the song by Julie London. I probably had a more traditional idea of how the arrangement would develop. When it developed with all these multi-dimensional expressions by the players, I think it brought something from the depth of my soul. When I sang that song, I felt it was almost as if some force had moved into my body. Things like that have only happened to me singing jazz. It doesn’t happen when singing pop. I get so deeply into the music, it feels like I’ve become someone else.
JazzReview: You seem to have always been able to pick songs that have a timeless quality to them. They don’t sound dated. Is that a conscious choice or has it happened naturally?
Rita Coolidge: That would have to happen naturally. I choose things by how they resonate in my heart. I was kind of known as a ballad singer. People would send ballads. Some of them would go over my shoulder and float off the top of my head, and I just didn’t feel anything. Then I would hear a song that would absolutely shake me. I’d say, "I’m cutting that one." With ballads, I’ve got to love the song. "Don’t Go To Strangers" is a song like that to me.
JazzReview: What did you learn from making "And So Is Love?"
Rita Coolidge: I learned that I can’t wait until I make the next one. I think I realized a dream. I feel positive about doing this music. It’s like I always knew I would. In a sense, possibly I should have been a jazz singer from the beginning. That’s maybe the only regret I have. Certainly, there’s time to do it now. I have the energy. I feel like I’m 12 years old. My grandmother passed at 104. She sang and wrote songs until she passed. I’ve got a good little distance to go before I quit.
JazzReview: You have an interesting project coming up called "Billie & Me." Tell us about that.
Rita Coolidge: I haven’t received my script, yet. I’m due to have a phone conversation about the music. It’s a musical featuring the songs of Billie Holiday. I’ll be narrating and singing three songs in the show. I couldn’t tell you which three, yet.
JazzReview: How did this project come about?
Rita Coolidge: It came about because of the new CD.
JazzReview: An anthology of your earlier work also recently came out.
Rita Coolidge: That’s right. It’s been about a year and a half. It’s on Universal, and it’s called "Delta Lady." Universal was absolutely marvelous about sitting down with me and listening to my input. It wasn’t something where they chose a bunch of songs that were best sellers. They did a marvelous job on the packaging. It’s a beautiful tribute.
JazzReview: On the new CD, one of the songs is "I Don’t Know Enough About You." What don’t people know about you?
Rita Coolidge: You know, I’m pretty much an open book. I say what’s in my heart, and I do it in my concerts. I don’t have a patter that was written for me. I don’t believe in that. I played the Carlyle for a month. I don’t think I was considered to be a cabaret singer because I didn’t have patter that was written. I feel that every audience is different, and I just really talk to people about what’s in my head and heart and how I relate to the music that night.