By Mike Greenblatt
The three words that make this music journalist cringe is “Great American Songbook.” Hundreds of albums by hundreds of artists have tried to revive these overly roasted chestnuts since Harry Nilsson did it first so sublime in 1973. I should’ve known better, though, when it came to Rickie Lee Jones. Her particular brand of Kicks (OSOD/Thirty Tigers) is irresistibly delicious, her voice still provocative, sensuous, swaying with an almost Billie Holiday- or Edith Piaf-styled emotional resonance that makes the material truly come alive. Plus, since she’s such an iconoclast, she stretches the boundaries of what could even possibly be construed as such.
GOLDMINE:Bad Company? Really?
RICKIE LEE JONES: It may be odd for the audience looking at it from the outside to associate me with that kind of thing but if you really think about it or are well-versed in my selections, I’ve done “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Rebel Rebel,” and a very wide variety of unexpected covers through the years amidst, of course, “Lush Life” and “My Funny Valentine.” I just haven’t put them on the same record. Until now. The one thing about this group of songs is that they’re not staples, they’re kind of famous but not the first of choices. That’s kind of what I think they all have in common. I picked them very carefully.
GM: Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John… You do “My Father’s Gun” from that great album, another song I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years that you’d interpret.
RLJ: Yeah. I’ve liked that song for a long time, ever since I bought that album. Expressing this inexplicably difficult relationship we all seem to have with our fathers—adoring them but wishing we could bury them—is what I liked about the lyric. And in the case of the rebel soldier having to go on to carry his father’s gun and fight his father’s Civil War, that really appealed to me. Plus, it’s timely. Of course, I don’t really ever do things solely because they’re timely but, on a social level, this resonated with me in an emotional way.
The perilous backdrop of the Civil War made it a dangerous mission for me because somebody could always say, “Are you saying this racist soldier deserves your time singing a song about his feelings?” I found the war extraneous to his feelings yet an argument could be made otherwise. This is the kind of stuff I went over and over with in my head about this song. I even had to set it down at one point. But it’s me! I’m that person standing over the grave of my father, picking up his gun, and, in my mind, I know I will carry it forward but do something different with it. I’m going to take this gun and fight for something very different than what you fought for, Daddy. I won’t abandon you. But I’m not you.
So all these things happen when I sing this song and it’s hard to catch. It sounds easy to sing but that key change in the chorus is a struggle if you want to do it differently. So I cooked up that gospel thing and took most of the instruments out.
GM:“Lonely People” was a hit for the band America in 1974. You’ve brought out the inherent beauty of the tune far beyond what I used to dismiss as a rather lightweight pop hit.
RLJ: I was thinking how we end up growing old but we’re still alive and we’re still trying to do our best although sometimes the night can be really hard. I offer it as a rather serious song, more so than in the rather cute, happy and, uh, dismissive ’70s. The fact you thought it lightweight at first is but a reflection of that time. But it’s still a very honest loving thing to say: this song is, indeed, for all the lonely people. Don’t give up. I like that.
GM:You do not one but two Dean Martin songs, “Houston” and “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You.”
RLJ: I came to him late but my Italian friends in New Jersey remedied that. It’s easy to forget what an important figure he was. I wanted to do even more of his songs but then it would’ve turned out to be a Dean Martin tribute album.
GM:“Nagasaki” is a Tin Pan Alley song from the 1920s!
RLJ: l learned it from the 1937 Mills Brothers version. We needed a trad-jazz thing which is very big here in New Orleans [where she’s lived for years]. It’s happy and I wanted to do something with a joyful noise.
GM:What is it about that town that makes all the music there seemingly better than anywhere else? Is it in the water? The air?
RLJ: It is a city that loves itself, that loves the history of its music. When it wakes up in the morning, it sings the songs of itself. It’s kind of like Paris but it’s more about the music. Everywhere you go in this town, you hear the music or you see someone carrying their instrument. Music is this town’s flavor. That’s significant because it was in danger of becoming a Disneyland replica of itself. But they didn’t let that happen. They keep teaching it in schools. It’s authentic… although I hate that word. It emanates from the people who live here. I can’t think of another city so closely identified with its music. Maybe Seville in Spain? There aren’t very many cities made of music.
GM:I understand you almost left “Mack The Knife” off the album.
RLJ: Because what could you possibly add to it that’s new? Bobby Darin still has the definitive version.
GM:I like Ella Fitzgerald’s when she says “we’re making a wreck out of‘Mack The Knife.’”
RLJ: I was thinking of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht 1928 original from Threepenny Opera in German. With that accordion! I probably should have put an accordion on there but I do not like having to simply replicate what’s already been done. I tried to subtly move through the different incarnations of it so by the end you’re swinging with the horns. And then at the very last verse, it’s really Rickie. We actually worked very hard on this one. It was way harder than we thought it would be. Singing it is so much fun but recording it is another thing entirely.
I liked singing “Quicksilver Girl,” too [the flip side of the Steve Miller Band’s 1968 “Living In The USA” hit single]. In 1969, hitchhiking, or just sitting around smoking pot, inevitably, that song would come on and it got embedded in my brain. It was a California kind of thing: just kick back and we’ll float away on a little cloud. And that is the one kind of music that I usually do not pick up on, that laid-back Southern Cali thing, but, in this case, I made an exception. We purposely stripped it down. I like that song precisely because it doesn’t go anywhere. My stuff always goes somewhere and it was delightfully refreshing to do a tune that was like a little cloud just passing by.
GM:Skeeter Davis hit in 1962 with “The End of The World.” Seems fitting now.
RLJ: The song has been dismissed because the original recording had so much reverb on it and was so stylized that is was like, “Oh, this girl is just feeling sorry for herself.” But had you heard Ray Charles sing it, for instance, then it becomes a country-soul thing, and that’s who I had in mind when I sang that song. Ray taught me how to appreciate country music after my initial aversion to it. I didn’t really want to include this song for this album because the lyric is so damn heartbreaking and sad enough to leak onto the rest of the record and you don’t want that! It’s just too damn depressing! But I love the horns so I decided at the very last minute that it could go back on.
GM: I got goosebumps at your version of “Cry,” the 1951 Johnny Ray hit. Maybe because of the nostalgia of it being my mom’s favorite song of all-time or maybe because Johnny Ray is such a tragic figure in pop music. There’s a movie there that has yet to be made.
RLJ:I actually learned it from the Ray Charles cover version.
GM:I love Willie Nelson’s version, too. Did someone suggest you do that one or did you pick it.
RLJ: I don’t usually find my way to other people’s suggestions.
GM:You won a Grammy Award in 1989 for your sexy duet with Dr. John on “Makin’ Whoopee,” a song Eddie Cantor first sung in 1928. There’s been so many versions since including Doris Day/Danny Thomas, Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Pops/Ella, Dinah Washington, Nilsson, Cyndi Lauper/Tony Bennett and Elton John, among them. You and Mac, man, it’s the best one! Tell us about Dr. John.
RLJ: I met him just before my first record in 1979. He was a lot like he appeared, always thinking about magic and talking magic. He was a gentle soul, but so troubled... like many of us. And, uh, he was a lover. He had at least two wives and a lot of children. I never got to know him any closer than when I first met him, though.
GM:Do you have an affinity with the pre-hippie beat generation of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg? You always came across early on like you belonged to a generation or two earlier.
RLJ: Nope! Never did. I used to think my family did, though. I came from an unusual family and they traveled a lot. They weren’t like regular people.
GM:So 19 albums in 40 years, wow. There’s always been a new Rickie Lee album out every few years even when you went into seclusion there for a while. You’ve kept up a steady stream of great music one after another so to what do you attribute your longevity?
RLJ: To you. And to people like you. You’re part of the reason people go out and purchase it and that enables me to keep working. Longevity is about business. I don’t attribute my ability to stay in business necessarily to my love of music, or even my talent. Music, though, is what I’m made of. My ability to sustain a career is entirely due to those who hear it and want to hear it again. I feel I’m in a spiral going upward right now. But, still, it’s about the audience. That, and also having the right people around me making the right choices.
GM:And the fact that you, unlike so many other greats, did not succumb to the pleasures of the road. Was there ever a point in your career when you almost did?
RLJ: No, I was never the kind of girl to have too much fun.