Rita Coolidge to headline Bankhead summer concerts
By Lou Fancher
The high cost of living in California is driving even the stars away.
Two-time Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Rita Coolidge says in a phone interview the water bills due to the 1,000 avocado trees on her Southern California homestead are wiping her out.
“The reason I’m moving back to Tallahassee is water. I want to be where it’s tropical, go fishing in the Gulf, look at 100-year-old oak trees draped with Spanish moss. North Florida’s my home; it’s where I found my voice.”
Fortunately, a return to the city where Coolidge in the 1960s pivoted from majoring in art at Florida State University to a career in music doesn’t mean she won’t soon be back to the Bay Area. With the May 4 release of her new album, “Safe in the Arms of Time,” Coolidge will appear July 7 as part of the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center’s seven-show Summer Series at the Bankhead. Her previous Bankhead appearance in 2012 drew a capacity crowd eager to hear favorite hits from the past, including “Higher and Higher,” “We’re All Alone,” “All Time High” and songs Coolidge created with Walela, a Native American music trio that included her late sister, Priscilla Coolidge, and her niece, Laura Satterfield.
The 72-year-old singer first made her mark in the 1970s on award-winning albums made with then-husband Kris Kristopherson. She went on to top the pop charts with remakes of hits written by Jackie Wilson, Boz Scaggs and others. Coolidge has sung onstage and in recordings with a virtual who’s-who list of artists: Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Harry Chapin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and more. Her 2015 memoir, “Delta Lady,” chronicles life as a rock star and for many readers brought attention to Coolidge’s Scottish-Cherokee ancestry and her overlooked talents as a songwriter.
“I attribute my work ethic to my parents — remarkable people with strong moral fiber,” she says. “They raised four children who didn’t live in a bubble. We look out, recognize someone in pain or in need and serve. It has nothing to do with being Indian or a woman. I just want to be a good person.”
Perhaps that humble outlook — or more likely, the late 20th century — explains how an otherwise brave, assertive female artist forfeited full credit for her contributions. After co-writing a song with drummer Jim Gordon, a later song, “Layla,” written and recorded by Eric Clapton and in which Coolidge’s piano coda is featured, was credited only to “E. Clapton and J. Gordon.”
“Back in the days when I was young and naive, I had music stolen or was not given credit. I was told by Eric’s manager, Robert Stigwood, that I was a girl and the guys were huge, the managers had “deep pockets.” It happened with “Superstar” too. When Usher recorded it, he put my name as a writer, and I’ll never forget that. I only tell my story so other people are more cautious and won’t let it happen to them.”
The stories on Coolidge’s new album are similarly a blend of pain, uplifting recovery and strength. Three of the album’s 12 songs are co-written by Coolidge.
“It’s about the wonderful possibilities we have to experience love, embrace the tragedies, to keep going. The record is about that joy. I want for women and men to realize love is always around, you just have to open your eyes and heart.”
Keeping eyes open allows love in, but also, means being alert to danger. In the current climate of women in the entertainment industry speaking out against sexual harassment, Coolidge says her message goes across the casting couch.
“Men taking advantage of women, taking power; they’ve always done that. I tell women it’s not OK. That’s my heritage: Cherokees were a matriarchal society. Women held the power positions. Finally, people are listening.”
While carrying the torch, Coolidge finds pleasure in sharing the light with other artists. Included on the new album are a cut with lead singer Joey Landreth of the Canadian band The Bros. Landreth; two duets with Keb’ Mo’; and other collaborations. Even so, she mentions Janiva Magness, a soulful ballad singer on the same label whom Coolidge admires for reflecting “old-school, authentic R&B.”
And there is Mama Stewart, Coolidge’s grandmother.
“She influenced me from the moment I was born. We have a history of family stories being told in songs. When I lost my sister in 2015, it seemed that part of my writing went with Priscilla. I think I’ll never get that back,” she says.
But she will return to her roots. To majestic oaks cloaked in Spanish moss. To family, friends, new and familiar music lovers.
“My songs give voice. Some woman will hear, ‘I’m going to be OK’ in my songs and think, ‘That’s how I feel. No man is going to destroy my heart. I am a woman claiming my power.’ ”