As she gets ready to play in Ireland, Rita Coolidge tells Ed Power about her marriage to Kris Kristofferson, and how the idealism of the 1960s soon gave way to something more sinister
RITA COOLIDGE has lived a grand, cinematic life. She’s been a muse, a wronged wife, a grieving sister. With her marriage to Kris Kristofferson in 1973, she became half of one of the most famous celebrity couples of the 1970s.
Hers is a story brimming with laughter, tragedy, pain and joy —qualities that shine brightly on hits such as ‘(Your Love Has’ Lifted Me) Higher and Higher’ and The Way You Do The Things You Do’, as well as her Bond theme, ‘All Time High’.
She has set it all down in an unflinching new memoir, Delta Lady. Chronicling her life up to her split from Kristoffersen in 1980, the book is heartbreakingly honest and devastatingly insightful regarding the hypocrisies of the music industry. Coolidge, 71, opens up about her ex-husband’s serial infidelity, his drinking, and his (sporadic) violence, and the impact of their separation on her daughter.
But there is sweetness along with sadness. Kristofferson truly swept her off her feet — they agreed they would marry within hours of meeting in a Los Angeles airport lounge in 1971 — and their union was among the highest-profile of the decade. They were the age’s Posh and Becks, Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyoncé and Jay Z. The good times were very good indeed.
She was already a serial heartbreaker. Coolidge had dated 1960s’ stars Leon Russell and Joe Cocker, making for an awkward tour bus as the three set across America on the iconic ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ series of dates from 1970 (which would be released as a best-selling Cocker LP).
She was also involved at varying moments with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Her decision to leave the former for the latter is cited as contributing to the original break-up of the group. “When Graham told Stephen about us,” she writes in the book, “Stephen came out swinging.”
“It’s slightly scary talking about it,” she says, speaking ahead of an Irish tour that will see her play the National Concert Hall Dublin (May 11) and Opera House Cork (May 12). “The people in the book don’t necessarily know everything about what it contains. They will soon.”
Delta Lady is a breathless read, tracing Coolidge’s upbringing as part of a Cherokee family in Lafayette, Tennessee (population 3,000) and her experiences as a folk singer on Los Angeles’s famed Laurel Canyon scene, where she was a contemporary of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. But Coolidge aside, the central figure in the book is Kristofferson, who she describes as breaking her heart over and over but for whom she she clearly had feelings until the end (the two have a cordial relationship today).
“The book ends when Kris and I divorce,” she says. “I lived through a lot. I never felt that being a woman got me anywhere. But it didn’t stop me getting anywhere either.”
She movingly describes how the marriage became unstable as his fame eclipsed hers. When a glittering film career came knocking for Kristofferson in the mid-70s, everything changed.
He was from then on lost to her forever. “Movie stardom — something he’d never really sought — was overwhelming for Kris and helped fuel his drinking. Everybody wanted to touch him, everybody wanted to be with him. There was some part of him that obviously liked it or he wouldn’t have done it.”
His philandering was an open secret, she explains. Given his shamelessness, how could it not be?
“You have no idea how many women are so insensitive to the demise of a couple. Of course, if they know a man is blatantly unfaithful then probably they’re not the only ones — a fact that some of them prefer to ignore to flatter themselves.
“As I eventually discovered to my deep dismay, he could not be counted upon to be faithful. Given his inclinations and number of women coming onto him at every turn he had... a hard time controlling his appetites.”
Coolidge was the daughter of a Cherokee Baptist minister and grew up singing with her three siblings. She began her music career as backing vocalist, touring with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and other stars. But while not naturally comfortable under the spotlight, she nonetheless had ambitions towards stardom.
“I felt I had been incredibly lucky,” she says. “I always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. There were a lot of victories along the way. I feel blessed.”
While Delta Lady concludes on a tentatively optimistic note as she looks forward to the Eighties and life after Kristofferson, there would be further drama in Coolidge’s life.
In October 2014, her sister Priscilla was the victim of a murder-suicide. Her husband Michael Seibert shot her, then turned the gun on himself. “I continue to grieve,” Coolidge has said of the incident. “And I will for all my life.”
Lovely sounds from Rita Coolidge to get you through this Tuesday that feels like a Monday!
Tickets for her Cork... https://t.co/7y2zPeeS0V— Cork Opera House (@CorkOperaHouse) May 3, 2016
The 1970s were, notoriously, the age when pop turned dark and debauched. Sixties idealism had given way to something more self-involved and hedonistic.
Coolidge saw it first hand as Kristofferson fell into destructive drunkenness — when they went on the tour together he was often too inebriated to perform and would at the end of the night promise to refund the audience.
Afterwards, Coolidge would have to go back on and explain that her husband had not been serious in his offer and that, anyway, she would be not returning anyone’s money, as she had sang just as advertised.
The bad times had chugged down the track as money and celebrity infected rock’n’roll.
“There was a real tight musical community in Los Angeles through the Sixties. Then drugs came on the scene and people lost their humanity,” Coolidge recalls.
“It was when bands such as Alice Cooper and The Who and Led Zeppelin turned up. They were playing these huge arenas and everything changed. The bad behaviour came from those boys.”
She soon discovered just how destructive some of these “bad boys” could be. Coolidge was rendered unconscious when her former boyfriend Jim Gordon, drummer with Delaney and Bonnie and Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos, punched her in a hotel corridor in 1970. He later stabbed his mother to death and will be in prison until 2018 at least.
Coolidge witnessed plenty of excess first hand but did not generally indulge in person.
“On the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, there was always a party going on somewhere. I never went near it. I’d spend time with my friends — we’d go to somebody’s room and if we did anything it was smoke some pot and watch Johnny Carson. We were not part of those other things.”
Rita Coolidge plays National Concert Hall Dublin, May 11, Opera House Cork, May 12. Delta Lady is out now
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