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Off the Beaten Tracks: Rickie Lee Jones, Duchess of Coolsville

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THIS week’s subject featured recently in the Times Saturday Review column My Culture Fix. Rickie Lee Jones was asked who, in her opinion, was the most underrated figure around.

‘Myself,’ she replied. ‘Moi. Where’s my crown?’

You have to admire the old girl’s chutzpah. And she’s never been underrated in my book – a refreshing voice who combined jazz and pop sensibilities on some classic albums.

Rickie Lee Jones was born in Chicago on November 8, 1954. Her father Richard was a singer, songwriter and musician who worked as a waiter to keep the wolf from the door. His own parents were vaudevillians – ‘Peg Leg’ Jones sang, told jokes and played the ukulele while his wife Myrtle was a dancer.

In 1959 Rickie Lee and her three siblings moved with their parents to Arizona, whose landscape was to have a profound influence on her music. Her father having abandoned the family when she was ten, she had an erratic education and moved on her 18th birthday to California. By the age of 23 she was a regular club performer and it was at the Troubadour in LA that she met fellow musician Tom Waits, who became her lover and drinking partner. She can be seen in a red jacket on the back cover of his 1978 album Blue Valentine, pinned by Waits against the bonnet of his 1964 Ford Thunderbird. ‘The first time I saw Rickie Lee, she reminded me of Jayne Mansfield,’ Waits said. ‘I thought she was extremely attractive, which is to say that my first reactions were rather primitive – primeval even.’

That same year she was introduced to Lowell George of Little Feat and he included her song Easy Money on his only solo album, Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here. Following a bidding war she signed with Warner Brothers because she wanted to work alongside producer Lenny Waronker, who had found success with Ry Cooder and Randy Newman among others.

Waronker co-produced her eponymous first album with Russ Titelman. Musicians co-opted to perform on it included Newman and Dr John. Released in March 1979, it became a huge hit after her appearance the following month on the US TV show Saturday Night Live. She performed the songs Coolsville and Chuck E’s in Love, the latter of which shot to No 4 in the singles charts. Her bohemian appearance, beret, cheroot and leather jacket, led Time magazine to name her the Duchess of Coolsville.

Rickie Lee Jones opens with Chuck E’s in Love and introduces us to her jazzy style and unique, almost childlike voice. It was inspired by a phone call to Waits from their friend Chuck E Weiss, who announced he had fallen for a distant cousin. The number was nominated for the 1980 Grammy awards Best Pop Vocal Performance (Female) and Song of the Year. RLJ missed out on both those gongs but was named Best New Artist. In her acceptance speech she amused the audience by paying tribute to her lawyers and accountant.

The Last Chance Texaco, inspired by Arizona, is one of four songs that Rickie Lee included on a demo tape and is probably what got her hired by Warners. The rest of the album reveals her major musical influences to be Van Morrison, Laura Nyro and Waits himself. With sales soaring, she appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine – sadly, the same edition which chronicled the death of Lowell George.

As her success began to eclipse his own, Waits became more distant from his lover and she responded by taking heroin and cocaine, which repulsed him. A friend told the Independent: ‘For all the craziness he projects, Tom’s a fairly normal guy. That whole sort of jazz-junkie life was never his thing and I think it might have freaked him out.’

Waits broke up with Jones in autumn 1979 and she was devastated. After a six-month cocaine binge at the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard she sobered up and began writing for her second LP, Pirates, which has been described as one of the great break-up albums.

Released in 1981, it begins with the plaintive We Belong Together and continues with Living It Up,  whose three characters Louie, Eddie and Zero are said to be based loosely on herself, Waits and Chuck E Weiss. Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue) is another ode to Waits, as is A Lucky Guy, where she openly declares her love for him.

This was released as a single, reaching 64 on the Billboard chart, and so was Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking, whose finger snaps and jive beat were widely imitated on commercials for McDonald’s and other products.

Of Rickie Lee, the US critic Tom Moon wrote: ‘She uncovered rich metaphors in the frontier lifestyle of the American West and used them to illustrate modern fables about faith, mortality, overcoming adversity . . . she operated on a level of instinct – and group interaction – that is unparalleled in popular music. She created a pure, occasionally fragile sonic environment . . . conjuring brooding introspection and praise-the-Lord exaltation, touching a range of emotional points in between. It brought blue notes to the brink of tears.’

In 1983 Jones released Girl At Her Volcano, a short album of jazz and pop standards issued on ten-inch vinyl. The one original track, Hey Bub, had been intended for Pirates but failed to make the cut.

After a spell in Paris came her third full-length LP, 1984’s The Magazine. It was worth the wait. An opening instrumental passage kicks into a trio of great songs, Gravity, Juke Box Fury and It Must Be Love. Further highlights include Runaround and The Real End, both of which are heavily influenced by Sixties girl groups such as the Shirelles.

Having taken a four-year break from music, Jones returned in 1989 with Flying Cowboys, produced by the great Walter Becker from Steely Dan. It was rapturously received. Rolling Stone’s critic wrote: ‘While it explores a wealth of themes and musical styles, the album unfolds with the ongoing grace of one long song. What provides unity to the album’s varied elements is its seductive rhythmic flow, the down-home surrealism of Jones’s lyrics, the clarity and intelligence of Walter Becker’s production and, of course, the sensual elasticity of Jones’s extraordinary singing.’

There are some stunning originals on this record, including The Horses, the reggaefied Ghetto of My Mind, Satellites and the title track.

And a delightful version of the 1964 Gerry and the Pacemakers hit Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.  Jones also found time that year to work with Dr John on his album In a Sentimental Mood. Their duet on Makin’ Whoopee won her a second Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Collaboration.

In 1991 Rickie Lee released Pop Pop, an album of jazz, blues, rock and showbiz covers of which my favourite is the wonderful I Won’t Grow Up, from the 1954 Broadway production of Peter Pan.

Traffic From Paradise, which came out in 1993, is notable for a cover of David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel and two collaborations with Leo Kottke, Running From Mercy and The Albatross.

By now our lass was running out of creative steam. She has since admitted battling writer’s block. In 1994 came Naked Songs, acoustic live reworkings of her back catalogue plus a version of the fifties standard Autumn Leaves.

This was followed by the dire Ghostyhead (1997), an attempt at trip hop using electronic beat loops which in my view is a failed experiment.

She redeemed herself, however, in 2000 with another covers album, It’s Like This. It starts with Show Biz Kids, from the Steely Dan classic Countdown to Ecstasy, and also includes the Beatles’ For No One,  Traffic’s Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys  nd the Gershwins’ Someone to Watch Over Me.

In 2003 came The Evening of My Best Day, whose world-weary title track still manages to sound childlike despite the ravages of time. And in 2005 Rhino Records released Duchess of Coolsville: An Anthology – a triple CD package which is definitely the best introduction to a talent that sparkled brightest in the 1980s but is still pretty special, even if she says it herself.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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