Rita Coolidge: Muse To Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell, Crosby, Stills & Nash
Whether you know her as the singer of “All Time High” from Octopussy or the woman at the heart of songs like “Delta Lady” by Leon Russell and “Cherokee” by Stephen Stills, you’ve heard of Rita Coolidge. She may not be as famous as the men who were obsessed with her throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, but she’s had a fascinating life filled with good tunes and good friends. Coolidge was a musical muse for artists like Kris Kristofferson, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and a slew of singer-songwriters, but she was a talent all on her own. With two Grammy Awards and a memoir under her belt, she’s just as accomplished as famous artists she came up with.
She was born in Lafayette, but Memphis is home
Born on May 1, 1945 in Lafayette, Tennessee, Coolidge bounced around Kentucky and Tennessee as the daughter of a Cherokee Baptist minister. She says that she was singing before she could talk and knew that she would be doing it for the rest of her life. After moving to Memphis in 1967 she found herself in the city’s music scene rubbing elbows with Booker T. & the M.G.’s as well as singers Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. Along the way she met singer-songwriter Leon Russell who convinced her to move to Los Angeles with him and further her career. It wasn’t hard to persuade her and soon enough they hit the road.
Coolidge became the Muse for Leon Russell and Joe Cocker in Los Angeles
In 1969 Rita Coolidge was one of the most in demand women in the industry. Seemingly at the center of multiple song writing sessions, both “Delta Lady” and “A Song For You” by Leon Russell and Joe Cocker are written about her, but the her relationship with the two singer-songwriters soured when she decided to get out of Russell and Cocker’s party heavy scene. In 2019 she said that she’s not entirely sure if “Delta Lady” is about her in spite of rumors to the contrary:
When I went out to California, I drove out with Leon from Memphis. I lived at his house on Skyhill Drive for probably seven months or so. During that time, after I left the house, is when Leon wrote ‘Delta Lady.’ He produced the record for Joe at his studio on Skyhill. I’m told that he wrote it about me, and there’s a lot of poetic freedom in there. It’s a great song.
In her early days of living in Los Angeles she met Jim Gordon, an in-demand session drummer who who worked regularly with Eric Clapton. The two hit it off and started dating while touring with the singing group Delaney & Bonnie and Friends.
She was never credited for writing the finale to “Layla”
While dating Jim Gordon in 1970 Coolidge and the drummer often wrote together and she claims that one of their pieces ended up on Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos album. Coolidge writes that in 1970 she Gordon were composing a piece on the piano that they called “Time (Don’t Let The World Get In Our Way).” After recording a demo on cassette they played the song for Clapton but he never said anything about it.
Coolidge says that a year later she was in the middle of a photo shoot when “Layla” came on the radio. When the song reached its finale, a piano section with two melodies countering one another. Coolidge writes in her autobiography that she was denied songwriting credit and royalties for the song through bullying by Clapton’s manager:
I told my producer, David Anderle and A&M’s co-founder, Jerry Moss about not getting credit on ‘Layla’ -- in fact, I told everyone I knew. I finally called Robert Stigwood, Eric’s manager. All he said was, ‘You’re going to go up against Stiggy? The Robert Stigwood Organization? Who do you think you are? You’re a girl singer -- what are you going to do?’ I talked to David and he was sympathetic but said, ‘You know, you don’t have the money to fight this.’ And it was true.
Gordon allegedly assaulted her while on tour with Joe Cocker
While touring with Joe Cocker, Jim Gordon allegedly assaulted Coolidge in a cocaine haze in a hotel hallway. She says that everything was going well between them and that she was certain he was going to propose to her after hanging out in a band member’s hotel room all night. After asking her into the hallway Gordon hit Coolidge so hard that she “literally went flying” and was knocked unconscious. Gordon left her lying in the hotel room while he went back to his hotel room.
Even though she ended the relationship that night Gordon remained on tour. Everyone did what they could to keep them separated but it’s clear that they were protecting him and not taking care of Coolidge as much as they should have. In 1983 Gordon murdered his mother with a hammer and a carving knife. As of 2018, he is serving his sentence at the California Medical Facility, a medical and psychiatric prison.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Coolidge
When Rita Coolidge met the members of Crosby, Stills, and Nash she had such an effect on Stephen Stills and Graham Nash that she’s still blamed by some as one of the major reasons behind the group’s break up. She met the group at a recording session and despite hitting it off with Graham Nash, Stills finagled his way into a date with her. His obsession with Coolidge built even after she ditched him to rekindle things with Nash.
Coolidge and Nash dated for more than a year, and in that time Stephen Stills tried to commit suicide after writing the name “Rita” on a hotel mirror in lipstick and he fought Nash over her in a drive way. She never had a romantic link with David Crosby, but he had his own obsession with her. She writes:
He actually thought I was the devil. One night at Stephen’s I made a pot of beans and some corn bread. David rolled in — he’d been up for a few days, I think — had some beans and immediately passed out. When he woke up a few hours later he said to me, in perfect seriousness, ‘You put Quaaludes in the beans, I know you did — you’re the devil woman.’
I don’t think I really said that. But it’s well-known she was going with Graham, and I think most people noticed Stephen had a big crush on her. Whether they felt jealous of each other, or had any difference about it, I don’t know. I do know she went with Graham and she was very happy. And I know Stephen was pretty enamored of her. I personally think she’s a very nice lady.
Whether or not bad blood remains between the group and Coolidge, it’s clear that they couldn’t get over her. Stephen Stills and David Crosby each wrote songs about her. Stills recorded “Sit Yourself Down” and “The Woman from Tennessee” about her and Crosby recorded “Cowboy Movie” about the muse. It’s not Coolidge’s fault that these guys were all obsessive and drugged out of their minds, and it’s a shame that they place so much of the blame on their dissolution on her.
She married Kris Kristofferson and became a Grammy winner
While on a plane to Memphis in November 1970, Coolidge hit it off with Kris Kristofferson. He was supposed to go to Nashville but had such good banter with her that he followed her to Memphis. The two married in 1973 and became a writing and recording duo who pulled in Grammy awards for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1974 for "From the Bottle to the Bottom,” and in 1976 for "Lover Please."
Unfortunately all wasn’t well between the two. At the time Kristofferson was deep into an addiction to alcohol, and after the miscarriage of their second child in 1977 the two separated for good. Even though he belittled her talent and cheated on her throughout their relationship she says that she still has love for her former lover and singing partner. She said:
For me, I would give anything for my relationship with Kris; because we have a beautiful daughter and we are still very good friends. I just adore him. He wasn’t the right person to be married to, but I can certainly appreciate him from afar. When we see each other, it is always so much fun. We are better friends than we were marriage partners.
Coolidge isn’t a fan of “All Time High”
Even while she’s been the catalyst for plenty of wonderful songs, Coolidge has had plenty of hits. A fan favorite is the theme from Octopussy, “All Time High.” Supposedly Barbara Broccoli, daughter of James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, wanted Coolidge on the track so she played Rita’s albums around the house all the the time until Cubby asked about her.
“All Time High” was written quickly, and according to Coolidge it wasn’t finished until she was in the vocal booth. Even then, she feels like the song is incomplete. In 2019 Coolidge explained why she never performs the song live:
I got the phone call. Phil Ramone produced the song. They recorded the track and I was not there when they recorded it. I literally just came in and sang. When I went in to record in London, Tim Rice was still in the corner writing lyrics. It was a great record and it absolutely fit the film. But as a piece standing alone, I don’t enjoy performing that song because, to me, it was not complete. He was just trying to get it written as quickly as he could to get the vocals done. That’s just always been my feeling. Everyone wants to hear it, and I just don’t want to sing it.
She wrote a memoir and she’s still recording
Coolidge may be out of the spotlight but she hasn’t stopped writing or recording. In 2004 she married former UC Irvine computer science professor Tatsuya Suda before moving to Fallbrook, California. In 2016 her autobiography Delta Lady: A Memoir was published and she continues to perform from time to time. She may have been a muse to some of music’s greatest songwriters, but she has the awards and catalogue to prove that she’s a great artist in her own right.