November 8, 1954– Rickie Lee Jones
The first time I noticed her was an appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1979. She made quite an impression. Rickie Lee Jones has challenged my listening pleasure with an absorbing musical vision that defies classification. She doesn’t fit snuggly in the moniker of Singer/Songwriter; she has refused the careful eloquence of the Folk-Rock generation of artists like Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon that came right before her. She isn’t quite Punk and she isn’t really Pop, she skirts around the edges of Jazz, Motown, and Traditional R&B. If she simply must have a label, let’s call her style “Beatnik Cabaret”. Her sense of humor, musical dexterity and songwriting skills still engage me after all these years.
Like Willie Nelson, Jones is a true American original, a songwriter with an eloquent soul and a melodic sense that spans genres. Like Nelson, decades into her career, she sometimes records other people’s songs rather than her own. Like Pop Pop (1991), her album Kicks (2019) is devoted to her interpretations of Rock and Pop songs as well as a few old standards, and even when the material is familiar, Jones still finds something very much her own in this material. Kicks, recorded in New Orleans, doesn’t sound like country, even with the pedal steel guitar on her cover of Lee Hazlewood‘s Houston).
The album feels richly Southern in its comfortably laid back but with an impassioned tone and loose arrangements. On most of the tracks, her phrasing slides gracefully over the tunes, sort of like Jazz and in the playful sense of Boho cool that’s been her hallmark since her 1979 debut. The surprises on Kicks come in Jones’ choices of material like Mack The Knife and You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You, so well-suited to her talents, but didn’t expect her to dig into the back catalogs of Bad Company (Bad Company), America (Lonely People), Steve Miller (Quicksilver Girl), or Elton John (My Father’s Gun).
Jones brings a fresh emotional depth to the lyrics, and the space in the arrangements gives her all the room she needs to pull the heartache or hard-won wisdom out of these old rockers. There’s a bit of roughness around the edges of Jones’ voice these days, but her phrasing and imagination are as keen today as always, and the faint sweetness in her delivery has lost none of its power to charm and beguile. She’s still a unique talent, and the best moments here are a true delight.
Jones was born in Chicago. Her grandparents worked in Vaudeville with an act, Peg Leg Jones and Myrtle Lee. They had a musical comedy act with singing, dancing and jokes. Jones’s father was a singer, songwriter, painter and trumpet player, who worked as a waiter. Her family moved to Arizona when Jones was five years old, and that western landscape provided imagery for many of her best songs, especially Last Chance Texaco, Flying Cowboys, and The Horses.
“My first records were made for people my age. Neither young, nor old, we fall in between. I love all sorts of music, I’ve experienced life. I’m getting along and I pay my rent. I think my life is like everybody else’s. We’re older now. And it’s not all about me, or all about us. It’s about our kids, and our parents who are dying, and the things that are relevant to us at this age. I really wanted to talk to us. To my generation, music is the balm that keeps us going.“
Jones’s self-titled debut album had an immediate and profound impact on me, and really on the music culture of the late 1970s. It was a multi-million selling hit, with a successful world tour and with Jones on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Jones received five Grammy Award nominations in 1975: Record Of The Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance Female, Best Rock Vocal Performance Female, Song Of The Year for Chuck E’s In Love, and Best New Artist, which she won.
Her next release, Pirates (1980), is a masterpiece. It pushed the idea of the female singer/songwriter and received positively radiant reviews, including a rare five stars from Rolling Stone who put her on their cover again and dubbed her: “The Countess Of Coolsville”. It is included in Tom Moon‘s must-have book: 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die (2008).
My favorite Jones album is her third release, an EP, Girl At Her Volcano (1983), a cunning collection of jazz and pop standards which includes what may be the definitive version of Rodgers and Hart‘s My Funny Valentine. I have it on cassette, remember that format? Previously hard to find, I just discovered that it is available now on iTunes.
In 1988 Jones was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal for her version of Autumn Leaves. The next year her playful duet with Dr. John of Making Whoopee, won a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance.
Back in 2000, I was digging It’s Like This, a collection of fearlessly chosen cover tunes including Steely Dan‘s Show Biz Kids, Steve Winwood‘s Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys, Charlie Chaplin‘s Smile, The Beatles‘ For No One, and Leonard Bernstein‘s and Stephen Sondheim‘s One Hand, One Heart. Jones received her eighth Grammy nomination for this one.
The Other Side Of Desire (2015) is a very groovy album, It was Jones’s first album of all original material since 2003 and the first on her own label. It was fan funded, which is a real comment on the state of the music biz, when an artist of Jones immense gifts has to start up her own record company and dig for funding just to get her songs out there. The lovely, tender track, Juliette, is a love song to her rescued pit bull. I love her for that. In the liner notes, Jones writes:
“I am happy with the loss of prestige. That’s a powerful thing, to go from where I was when I started, not only me, but my whole generation, to people not knowing who I am. It’s not that I don’t want money. I really would like some money! But if I start doing it for money, it always ends up going awry. That’s my journey. It’s not Beyoncé‘s, it’s not somebody else’s, it is mine. And I have to follow that. I have to know it, memorize it, sing it every day.
My first 10 years were totally in fear on stage. Fear of being rejected, of seeing that perhaps I’m not really worthy of being there. Of them not liking me, and sending me home. Of me making a mistake. Then I decided to go on stage by myself. Up until then it always had to be in a band. And to do these pop songs alone, was so naked. And a kind of reversal happened. I realized, they’ve come to be loved. They want to be safe and healed for the two hours that they’re listening to me.“
At the start of her career Jones was a bohemian wild child. At 14 years old, Jones ran away to California. By 1975, she was living in the old beatnik neighborhood of Venice Beach, waiting tables and playing the local coffeehouse, Suzanne’s. Jones was so broke she sometimes slept under the Hollywood sign, but her songs were catching people’s attention.
One night, Chuck E Weiss was washing dishes in the kitchen of The Troubadour when through the doors he heard the sound of a girl singer. He listened to Jones do two songs and he was knocked out.
Tom Waits first spoke to Jones outside The Troubadour. Waits:
“The first time I saw Rickie Lee, she reminded me of Jayne Mansfield. I thought she was extremely attractive, which is to say that my first reactions were rather primitive. Her style on stage was appealing and arousing. Sort of like that of a sexy white spade.“
Soon, Waits and Jones were a couple. Loosened up by booze and a shared love of Jazz, the Beat poets and West Side Story, the relationship was passionate. Waits:
“She was drinking a lot then and I was too, so we drank together. You can learn a lot about a woman by getting smashed with her.“
Waits and Jones not only drank together, they drank and drugged with Weiss. The three pals ran around West Hollywood and crashed music industry parties. Jones:
“It seems sometimes like we’re real romantic dreamers who got stuck in the wrong time zone. So we cling, we love each other very much.“
Jones signed to Warner Brothers Records in 1978. For the cover of Waits’ album Blue Valentine (1978), the photographer Elliot Gilbert had staged the shoot in a gas station. For the photograph on the backside of the album, Jones vamped while Waits pinning her against the hood of his 1964 Thunderbird, while Weiss hovered in the background. They played their relationship like an outlaw romance, but Waits was actually intimidated by Jones:
“I think I was a lot more special than I ever knew, because I didn’t think I was very pretty or smart. I was real scared of everybody and everything. Tom was always, and maybe this is because I was in love with him, much more charming than me. And he seemed to really be able to make friends with big wheels and do it gracefully on their level.“
Jones’s first hit was Chuck E’s In Love, a song inspired by a telephone call Waits had received one night in his bungalow at the Tropicana Motel in Hollywood. It was Weiss calling to say he’d been smitten by a new girl. When Waits uttered the immortal line, Jones grabbed it.
After that appearance by Jones on Saturday Night Live, Chuck E’s In Love went to Number One on the Pop charts.
Jones’s life of instability and poverty left her unprepared for success. She tried to cope with alcohol and then with harder drugs. Warner Brothers didn’t seem to care what Jones was doing to herself, as long as she still was writing songs and kept on touring. Her relationship with Waits suffered. Her debut sold better than all of his albums combined, plus he was unable to deal with her drug use. In late 1979, they broke up. Waits moved to New York City and they never spoke again.
From We Belong Together off Pirates.
I say this was no game of chicken
You were aiming at your best friend
That you wear like a switchblade on a chain around your neck
I think you picked this up in Mexico from your dad
Now it’s daddy on the booze
And Brando on the ice
Now it’s Dean in the doorway
With one more way he can’t play this scene twice
So you drug her down every drag of this forbidden fit of love
And you told her to stand tall when you kissed her
But that’s not where you were thinking…
How could a Natalie Wood not
But now look who shows up
In the same place
In this case
I think it’s better
To face it
We belong together
Get sucked into a scene so custom tucked?
In 2021, Jones’s memoir Last Chance Texaco will be published. Because of the plague, Jones is postponing her spring 2021 tour to summer. But, she is live streaming two concerts this month, November 20 and 21, at her site: rickieleejones.com