By Chris M. Junior
Writing “Delta Lady: A Memoir” was a deep emotional experience for singer Rita Coolidge, and the same can be said for when she finished reading the first manuscript.
“I literally broke down in tears and just shook,” the Grammy winner says in June during a one-on-one interview in her New York hotel room. “My body was trembling all over. Because there it was — there were those (difficult) years documented in what was to become my book. I think that there was a certain freedom in reading (about my life), seeing it capsulized and letting it go.”
Written with Michael Walker and released in April via Harper, a HarperCollins imprint, “Delta Lady” explores Coolidge’s self-described “layers of life,” some of which are intertwined. They include her stints as a backing singer with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen band (led by Leon Russell, who wrote the song “Delta Lady” in her honor) as well as with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett’s group dubbed Friends (which included future Derek and the Dominos bandmates Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, Coolidge’s ex-boyfriend). There’s also Coolidge’s rocky marriage to Kris Kristofferson, solo stardom in the late 1970s and the story behind her uncredited role in co-writing the Clapton signature “Layla.”
The experience of writing the book, Coolidge says, “was like having a child. (Editor Jennifer Barth) and I talked about that; she was the midwife while I was going through this. Once that baby was born, all you can do is nurture it — and part of nurturing it is being able to talk about it.”
Even after spending a bulk of this particular day doing press for “Delta Lady,” Coolidge is still sharp and lively by early evening and primed to keep talking about her book and much more. Wearing jeans, a black, long-sleeved shirt and black boots with fringe, Coolidge often leans forward in her chair, soaking in each question before delivering direct answers.
Goldmine: Unlike filming a movie or even recording an album, writing a book — in particular a memoir — would seem to be something that’s almost always done sequentially. With “Delta Lady,” did you start at the beginning of your life and continue writing in chronological order? Or did you bounce around as you wrote, then arrange and connect the chapters later?
RITA COOLIDGE: When Michael and I first got together and did the treatment and established how the chapters were going to be broken down, that was the only time it was sequential. After that, there were days where I just didn’t want to think about certain parts of my life. There were days that it was just too hard for me to think about some of the things with Kris, and there were other days when I could deal with it fine. After losing my sister (Priscilla in 2014), we had to stop the book for a while. Writing about Priscilla after that became totally different, because she wasn’t on this Earth anymore. So I did jump around a lot.
GM: Did you use diaries, scrapbooks or any other materials to trigger any recollections?
RC: You know what? I have this amazing memory. Kris used to say, “You have a mind like a steel trap” (smiles and laughs). Actually, with some of his memory loss in the past few years — which actually is getting better now; we have good news with that — he’d say, “I don’t remember stuff.” And I’d say, “You know what, Kris? I remember everything — sometimes to the point that it’s constantly replaying in my mind.”
GM: There’s a lot of heartache in your book. Talk about your approach in revisiting and writing about those experiences.
RC: Well, I wouldn’t know which heartache to begin with. The fact that I chose to write about them, I wanted that to be part of my truth. When I signed with HarperCollins and Jennifer Barth said, “If you choose me to be your editor, I would simply ask that you tell the truth.” And that just resonated with me so much, and I knew that she was the person I wanted to be my editor. It’s so important to tell the truth, and I think it also triggered some of the memories of the things that were pushed down. In telling those stories and telling about the struggles, it helped me remember how hard it was and how much stronger it made me. Every single time I got through another tragedy — whether it was going through the windshield of a car or getting knocked out cold by Jim Gordon, whatever — it made me stronger, and I really wanted that to resonate with women of any age. You don’t let (that stuff) take you down. It makes you stronger.
GM: To be burned once on a songwriting credit for what became a big and enduring hit is bad enough, but to have it happen twice almost seems unbearable. Was taking legal action over your role in “Layla” and the much-covered “Superstar” ever something you considered?
RC: With “Layla,” I was clearly told by Robert Stigwood that there was absolutely nothing I could do. They had the money, and I was a girl in California. When I talked to Jerry Moss at A&M and David Anderle, my producer, they said, “Basically, he’s right. They have big, deep pockets and all the funds in the world. You’re not going to win this, so don’t try to spend the money you don’t have.” So there was no recourse there.
When it came to “Superstar,” I had written the verse and the chorus. And as Bonnie Bramlett said to me not long ago, “I remember when you first started talking about ‘Superstar,’ and Leon just poo-pooed that idea” (laughs and smiles). On the credits, it’s Bonnie and Leon — and Bonnie actually did have something to do with the song. I went to her room with what I had, and she and I sat down, then Delaney came in and started singing along with what we had. We actually did a demo that night with a guitar, the three of us. And Bonnie swears she’s going to find it one of these days.
The reason I didn’t do anything with “Superstar” is that Bonnie was getting knocked around (by husband Delaney) for just about anything. And I knew if I called and said, “This is not right,” or talked to anybody about it, she’d get a black eye. I protected her with my life at that time. I wouldn’t do anything that would cause Bonnie pain.
GM: Let’s run through some of the notable music figures you’ve worked with. Say the first words that come to mind when you hear their names, starting with Joe Cocker.
RC: Oh, my gosh (places right hand over her heart). When I met Joe, and he may have remained this way all of his life, he was innocent and naïve — almost childlike as far as the way he looked at the world and the people around him. Even on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, when Leon was commanding the stage as the ringmaster and Joe was starting to feel like it wasn’t his show anymore — even though it clearly was — he would just look around with these huge eyes all the time, (as if to say), “What the heck is going on? Mom? Somebody help me.” And I felt like I was that person he would go to (for help).
GM: How about Glen Campbell?
RC: Oh, my God (looks up and laughs). I’ve known Glen forever. One of the first shows that I did with Glen was in New Orleans with him and Tanya Tucker, when they were a couple. And you want to talk about a train wreck; it was a train wreck you couldn’t stop looking at (laughs). I’m down there with Barbara Carroll, this phenomenal jazz pianist from New York. We’re doing our thing together, but at some point, I have to join in with Glen and Tanya, and I felt like I had thrown into the briar patch.
GM: You could probably write a book all about this next one: Leon Russell.
RC: Leon is probably one of the most talented, gifted people that I’ve known in my life. And probably for a lot of his life, he’s been very unhappy. I think he’s his own worst enemy. But his talent is astounding. I was reminded again of that when he and I did the Lockn’ Festival (in 2015) with the Tedeschi Trucks Band. When he sits down at the piano, there’s nobody like him.
GM: Last but not least: Herb Alpert, whose A&M label released many of your solo albums.
RC: Herb is the sweetest guy in the world. I’ve known him so well for so many years, and he is still exactly who he’s always been. He’s so talented and so humble. He hasn’t changed a bit. I saw him and (wife Lani Hall) perform in San Diego within the last year, and I was absolutely blown away by their show. It was exquisite.
GM: Even though Boz Scaggs wrote it and included it on his career-defining “Silk Degrees” album, “We’re All Alone” is a signature song of your recording career. How familiar were you with it before Jerry Moss suggested you record it?
RC: I had the record; I had played “Silk Degrees” probably 150 times by then, and I knew every word. So by the time Jerry brought me into the office and said, “I think a girl should be singing ‘We’re All Alone,’ ” I said, “You’ll get no argument from me. I want to sing all of (Boz’s) songs.”
GM: What single from your catalog did you think at the time would be a bigger hit than it ultimately was? And what single’s success surprised you?
RC: I think “I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love” probably was a bigger record than I thought it would be because honestly, when I recorded that, I had no idea what that song meant (laughs).
I remember being totally surprised when “You” was a huge hit because it was a dance tune. All of a sudden, I’m being played in dance clubs, and everybody wanted to hear it at my concerts. And my feeling was, “I don’t do dance music.”
You know, one that I really loved — and I thought I was going to beat Boy George to the States with — was “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.” I had heard it when I was in England, and it was still pretty quiet, and I thought that I was going to be able to get that one out before Culture Club got here, but I didn’t. That hurt.
GM: In the epilogue to “Delta Lady,” you mention that Graham Nash has written some songs that you’re planning to record for an upcoming album. What’s the status of that project?
RC: We’re still in pre-production. The book just took over. I was supposed to be recording in May. But this book needed too much attention, and you can’t have two newborn babies at the same time from different fathers (laughs). You gotta do one at a time. So the record will be released next year.