GIRL IN THE SONG – PART 20- Rita Coolidge, Leon Russell, and Kris Kristoffersen


Delta Lady (L Russell) – Joe Cocker 1969 and A Song For You (L Russell) – Leon Russell 1970 and It’s Over (All Over Again) and I’m Down (But I Keep Falling (R Coolidge/K Kristoffersen) – Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristoffersen – 1973 and Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends (K Kristoffersen), and Love Don’t Live Here Anymore (K Kristoffersen) and Loving You Was Easier (K Kristoffersen) – Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristoffersen 1978.

Rita Coolidge (1945) was born in Lafayette (Tenn) of Cherokee and Scottish ancestry and in the 1970’s and 80’s she was one of the most celebrated singers/songwriters of her era, and would have relationships with such luminaries as Stephen Stills (who wrote Cherokee about Rita), Graham Nash, Eric Clapton (who recorded Layla which included a piano coda for which Rita was never credited), Leon Russell, and Kris Kristoffersen, and be the inspiration for many songs written by her lovers and partners. She was a raven-haired beauty with exotic good looks, who possessed a powerful contralto voice with ripe, rolling, vibrato hints, similar to that of traveling gospel singers of the southern states of the US. Early in her career she was mentored by Delaney and Bonnie (Bramlett) for whom she provided backing vocals, and co-wrote Superstar with Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett for which she was not credited until 1993, because of Delaney’s violent opposition to his wife sharing song credits with her. Below L-R – Coolidge performing with Delaney and Bonnie, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker.

She met session musician/ songwriter/singer Leon Russell (Claude Russell Bridges 1942) in Memphis and began a relationship with him in 1969, that would inspire the Russell composition Delta Lady, which became the apellation by which Coolidge was known, and the title of her 2016 autobiography. Joe Cocker would record the song in Russell’s studio in Los Angeles, and Coolidge would sing backing vocals, not suspecting that this would be the song with which she would be most closely identified. Below L-R Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour Group, Cocker and Russell live, Tour poster artwork.

Russell and Coolidge would accompany Joe Cocker on his 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour of the States, and when she performed such songs as Superstar in solo spots she would be introed as The Delta Lady, and Russell would accompany his muse on piano. The lyrics to the song were sensual and passionate and clearly Russell was infatuated with Coolidge “Woman of the country now I’ve found you/ Longing in your soft and fertile Delta/ And I whisper sighs to satisfy your longing/ For the warm and tender shelter of my body/ Oh you’re my, yes you’re my, Delta lady/Yeah you’re my me oh my/ Delta lady/ Please don’t ask how many times I found you/ Standing wet and naked in the garden…”

In 1970 Russell assembled a stellar crew of musicians and singers including Chuck Blackwell, Joey Cooper, John Gaille, Don Preston, Furry Lewis, Claudia Lennear, Kathi McDonald, in the studios of PBS affiliate KCET in Los Angeles to perform an eclectic medley of songs, this was music video 1970’s style, intimate and authentic, Russell’s secretary Emily was in the studio making a cake, also very cool the way Russell requires a re-take on Delta Lady after the first verse.

Russell was a gifted multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter with an intense, reclusive, and magnetic personality, his compositions ranged across many different genres including R&B, R&R, surf music, folk, soul, country, bluegrass, and gospel, and he was the go-to session musician for such diverse performers as Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Phil Spector, Tina Turner and others. L-R – Leon Russell artwork (x2), Jim Gordon.

In 1970 he wrote a second song inspired by his “Delta Lady” Rita Coolidge, titled A Song For You.  The song first appeared on Russell’s eponymous debut solo album in 1970, released under his Shelter Records label, it was a slow, pained plea for forgiveness and understanding from an estranged lover, Rita and Leon were drifting apart, the separation caused by conflicting touring schedules and infidelity was bringing the curtain down on their relationship, but Russell made one more desperate attempt to reignite the flame with this intimate song “ I know your image of me is what I hope to be, baby/ I’ve treated you unkindly but girl can’t you see/ There’s no one more important to me/ So darling can’t you please see through me/ ‘Cause we’re alone now and I’m singin’ my song for you…I love you in a place where there is no space or time.” A heartfelt piano ballad in which Russell poured out his love, regret and raw emotion, but Rita was moving on, and would briefly hook up with drummer Jim Gordon until he physically assaulted her, while Leon began a relationship with Carla McHenry with whom he would father his first child.

1970 Homewood Sessions, soulful, scratchy, bluesy vocals- no autotune, pro tools, or gimmicks, just a man and his music, sublime keyboard skills, sadly he passed away in 2016.

In November 1970 Coolidge met Kris Kristoffersen (1936) at Los Angeles Airport, they were on the same flight to Tennessee, and Rita later described it as “love at first flight”, they began a relationship and married in 1973 and began to record duets together in a trilogy of albums between 1973-1980.

Their first album was Full Moon which featured two joint compositions by the couple, Kristoffersen certainly tried to accommodate his muse on this album which was released on Rita’s A&M label, David Anderle who had worked with Rita before was the producer, and critically the songs were in a slow tempo and a key that stretched Kris’s limited vocals to their upper limit, but emphasized the dreamy quality of her voice. Predictably these songs were love ballads that used keyboards and steel guitars to set the mood, with quirky titles like It’s Over (All Over Again) “Oh darling, don’t throw it away/ We know that we’ve both got so much to lose/ And the rest of our lifetime to pay/ We could be good to each other/ Better than we’ve ever been/ Oh darling, we’re starting all over/ Yes it’s all over, all over again,” and I’m Down (But I Keep Falling) “ “Cause I’m lost, but I’ll be lookin’/ I ‘ve been hurt, but l keep on hopin’/ “Cause I’m down , but I keep fallin’/ Fallin’ in love with you…” 

Genuine country sound, their vocals were slightly jarring though in duet, Kris was always at the edge of his vocal range, singing in a key more accommodating for Rita.

Lyrically these songs were a far cry from the trademark Kristoffersen literary allusions, deep imagery, and social consciousness of his solo songs, he moved further along the spectrum from country and gospel to pop and rock, almost to a bland easy listening genre, as he sometimes awkwardly crooned along to Rita’s cooing, but they were in love and had just got married, the fans made the album a hit, it picked up several Grammy Awards for Best Country Vocal Performance in 1974 and 76, and they would follow up with Breakaway in 1974 by which time their daughter Casey had arrived. Below L-R – Natural Act album artwork, Kris, Rita and daughter Casey, Rita Coolidge autobiography.

In 1977 Rita would have a miscarriage and a year later they would record their third and final album of duets Natural Act, and by this time the couple were estranged, and Rita’s singing career had blossomed, as she had hits with cover versions of Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Is Lifting Me) Higher and Higher, Boz Scaggs (We’re All Alone Now), The Temptations (The Way You Do the Things You Do) and Marcia Hines (You). Meanwhile Kristoffersen’s chart hits had dried up, as he increasingly pursued a career in movies. In her memoir Delta Lady: A Memoir she cited domestic violence, infidelity, and alcohol abuse as the reasons for the collapse of their marriage and ultimate divorce in 1980. As their marriage was floundering the rumour mill went into overdrive about real or imagined affairs that Kris was conducting with his co-stars Sarah Miles, Barbra Streisand, and Karen Black. Below L-R – Kris with co-stars Sara Miles, Karen Black, and Barbra Streisand.

Natural Act was a rather desultory affair, and several tracks carried a wistful poignancy such as Love Don’t Live Here AnymorePerfect strangers sitting down face to face/ Like we’ve never met before/ Nothing’s left between us/ But the space between us/ Love don’t live here anymore…”.

Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends was a Kristoffersen composition which had previously been a hit for Ray Price but a remorseful Kristoffersen chose to record it with his soon-to-be ex-wife “This could be our last goodnight together/ We may never pass this way again/Just let me enjoy ’till it’s over/ Or forever/ Please don’t tell me how the story ends.”

Heartbreak duet, hard to watch.

Loving You Was Easier would round out the trilogy of heartbreak songs by Kristoffersen on the album, the dour tone of these songs was reflected on the album cover, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, gone were the carefree, unkempt, lovers pictured on the first two albums of duets, and in their place were two separate individuals wearing smart clothes and strained faces.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s