Rita Coolidge has charted hits in almost every genre and won just about every music accolade possible, including two Grammy Awards.
In the 1970s, the former preacher’s daughter was everywhere. She was showcased on Leon Russell and Joe Cocker’s legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, while her duets and subsequent marriage to Kris Kristofferson generated Grammys, sold-out performances and headlines. Sandwiched in between were several hits: “Higher and Higher,” “We’re All Alone,” “The Way You Do The Things You Do” and “You.”
Last year she released “A Rita Coolidge Christmas,” featuring beautiful and timeless classics such as “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland.” On Thursday, Dec. 5, Coolidge will sing these tunes along with members of the Phoenix Children’s Chorus at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.
GetOut recently spoke to the songbird about her Cherokee roots, the mosaic of musical styles that have defined her sensational career, and the joy of Christmas.
Q: Why are there so many preacher’s kids in music?
RC: Music is such a powerful language, and I think a lot of preacher’s kids get into music because they’re exposed to it from the time they’re born. In my case, it was Sunday morning, Sunday night, choir practice, prayer meetings, etcetera. My mother was the church organist and both my parents sang. They even wrote songs together. Music was the fabric of our everyday lives. I was lucky in that my parents viewed music as an art form and not a threat, and we were allowed to listen to the music we wanted to – just not too loud. We only had a radio at that time, so how loud could it really get? (laughs)
Q: When were you first exposed to rock and roll and how did it affect you?
RC: My brother played Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” for me when I was a little kid. My goodness, I felt like my whole world was shaking. It made me cry. It made me tremble. The power of that music was a different kind of power… it was the rhythm and the texture and the power of his voice. That song really got my attention, and it made me realize that there was more than one kind of music. I grew up in Tennessee, and there was a lot of bluegrass and country – hillbilly music – but when I heard rock and roll, it just turned my whole world upside down. I then became a seeker of music and wanted to learn all types of different styles.
Q: Learn you did -- because you’ve recorded all styles of music, such as rock, pop, jazz, country, R & B and Christian. Was it a conscious or natural decision on your part to diversify your singing talents?
RC: I remember one day my aunt brought home a record from Peggy Lee, and I could and did listen to her all day. She’s someone I’ve admired my whole life. One of the qualities that I liked about her was that she just loved music and sang all styles of music. She jumped from blues to jazz to pop to orchestra music… she did everything. I recall reading a story about her where she told her record label that she wanted to record a Latin album. The label said, 'No, we’re doing this kind of music.' Then Peggy Lee replied, 'Okay, bye' and signed with another label. At that time, you could jump record labels because there were actual record labels. So learning about her as a young adult helped me in my career. To answer your question, it was a conscious decision, but I liked all kinds of music growing up and didn’t want to be restricted in my musical direction.
Q: In almost every endeavor you undertake and every interview you give, you always pay homage to your Cherokee Nation heritage. Why is this so important to you?
RC: It’s who I am. It’s where I came from. I wear it and carry it proudly. My father carried his blood proudly, and he walked his talk as a Native American man as a preacher. We are the children of the people who teach us, and I want to be a positive figure to young people and adults who listen to me or are drawn to me. I want them to know I’m very proud of my heritage and that all Native Americans should be proud, wherever they’re from. I want them to embrace their ethnicity because I certainly do.
Q: You’re performing “A Rita Coolidge Christmas,” a batch of holiday tunes recorded in 2012, at Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum on Thursday night. What special meaning do these songs hold for you?
RC: Christmas for me was always about being at home with my parents. As a kid, it was about what they provided for me, and then as they grew older, it was about me providing for them. They both passed away last year. I would always go back and make Christmas dinner for them and do everything they’d done for me. My grandmother used to quote the Bible and say, 'Once a man, twice a child.' And that goes for ladies, too. Most of the songs are a collection of memories for me growing up, and I talk about the songs during the show. I talk about their meaning and how I came to love them. When I sing them for Phoenix, I want the audience to love the songs, too.
IF YOU GO
What: A Rita Coolidge Christmas
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5
Where: Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix
Information: (480) 478-6000 or mim.org
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