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Rickie Lee Jones

Once the epitome of the word cool, boho blonde RICKIE LEE JONES looked set to take over the mantle of JONI MITCHELL when the former folk goddess chose bebop jazz as her next pit-stop a la “Mingus”. Pity then for many contemporary pop/rock fans, soprano Rickie will always be identified with one song: her signature tune, `Chuck E.’s In Love’, a memorable breakthrough in 1979. In essence, a jazzbo artist in her own right, JONES has proved over 15 studio albums that she could from time to time step out of her comfort zone.
A rebellious child, Rickie Lee (born November 8, 1954, Chicago, Illinois) and a friend ran away from home at the age of 15, stealing a car in the process; she was later expelled from a number of schools from Phoenix, Arizona to Olympia, Washington. Relocating to Los Angeles in 1973, JONES took waitressing work while writing and performing in her spare time; with her beat-poet jazz influences and West Coast piano-tinkling cool, JONES found a musical soul-mate in TOM WAITS (she’s allegedly the dame on the cover of his Blue Valentine LP), while the great Lowell George (of LITTLE FEAT) recorded one of her songs, `Easy Money’, sung to him over the phone by a mutual friend Ivan Ulz; it belatedly featured on his solo swansong/parting shot LP, `Thanks I’ll Eat It Here’ in ‘79.
With such notable references, it was inevitable Rickie Lee would sign to a major label; Warner Brothers releasing her eponymous Lenny Waronker and Russ Titleman-produced debut set late February ‘79. Eventually reaching the Top 3 (UK Top 20) following the success of her aforesaid classic concerning troubadour Chuck E. Weiss, the RICKIE LEE JONES {*8} album established her as a unique talent within L.A.’s musical elite. Her swinging boho narratives also divided opinion, but there were few waverers that didn’t have time for `On Saturday Afternoons In 1963’, `Young Blood’, `Coolsville’, `The Last Chance Texaco’ and her own reading of `Easy Money’. Although maintaining a friendship, she parted company with her beau TOM WAITS and, in the process, turned down a chance to collaborate with him on the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s forthcoming film, One From The Heart; her singing foil going to the country singer CRYSTAL GAYLE.
The more ambitious sophomore set PIRATES (1981) {*7} failed to spawn any hits, although her cult appeal again saw her breeching the Top 5 (Top 40 across the pond). Executing her direct observation-style storytelling like a lovelorn female equivalent to SPRINGSTEEN (examples: `We Belong Together’, `Living It Up’, `Woody And Dutch On The Slow Train To Peking’, `Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)’ and `A Lucky Guy’), there was a definite grace and soul in Rickie Lee’s songs.
1983’s GIRL AT HER VOLCANO {*5} was a Top 40 mini-set comprised largely of jazz staples and a few odds ‘n’ ends. As a cover of The DRIFTERS `Under The Boardwalk’ faltered in its attempt to chart, staples such as `My Funny Valentine’, `Lush Life’ and a medley of her own `Letter From The 9th Ward’ and The LEFT BANKE’s `Walk Away Renee’, couldn’t match the intrigue of the TOM WAITS, 1978-recorded `Rainbow Sleeves’.
Having kicked her heroin and cocaine addiction into touch and relocating to Paris, France, a lengthy spell of heavy drinking seemed to lift her from the frying pan in to the fire. Taking stock of her surroundings and writing one part song (`Theme For The Pope’) with former boyfriend Sal Bernardi, whom she met after WAITS, her third proper set THE MAGAZINE {*6} was ready in September 1984. Slated by reviewers from every direction, the Top 50-only James Newton Howard-produced set found JONES veering too close to synth-centric electro-rock for comfort. On closer inspection, her slurred sketches of life’s characters were beautifully structured but far too evasive and emotionally passive; only really `The Real End’ (a “Chuck E”-like minor hit) and the concluding 3-part `Rorscharchs’ suite, one wanted more.
Never the most prolific of artists, this time due to her having a baby (Charlotte) with French musician/composer hubby Pascal Nabet-Meyer, it would be a further five years before her re-appearance on Geffen Records. A DR. JOHN duet cover of `Makin’ Whoopee’ gave her a Best Jazz Vocal Collaboration Grammy in ’89 and a fourth set, the more accessible and grounded FLYING COWBOYS (1989) {*7} saw her finally being compared to the great LAURA NYRO. Produced by WALTER BECKER and featuring contributions from her aforementioned hubby (on `Just My Baby’, `Ghetto Of My Mind’ and `Love Is Gonna Bring Us Back Alive’), the album’s Top 40 position found JONES enjoying her most praiseworthy reviews in years; one cover featured her take of GERRY & THE PACEMAKERS’ `Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’.
More ill-advised fodder arrived in the shape of POP POP (1991) {*5}, a confused collection of unlikely torch ballad cover versions, with the exception of JIMI HENDRIX’s `Up From The Skies’. Mainly stemming from the nostalgic 40s and 50s, the DON WAS co-produced package failed to crack the Top 100, the Tin Pan Alley `Bye Bye Blackbird’, `I’ll Be Seeing You’ and the Peter Pan song `I Won’t Grow Up’, demonstrating her versatility if not her judgement.
While 1993’s TRAFFIC FROM PARADISE {*5} focused on her work with an array of star names, including BRIAN SETZER, David Hidalgo and guitar-picker/co-composer LEO KOTTKE (the latter on `Running From Mercy’ and `The Albatross’), it failed to puncture the Top 100 (again!). Stranger than fiction itself, no one could have ever imagined her covering a BOWIE song, let alone `Rebel Rebel’.
In an age when MTV had transfixed its listeners by way of “unplugged” sets, singer-songwriter/guitarist/pianist RICKIE LEE JONES (and session bassist Rob Wasserman) stripped back the amps to reveal her NAKED SONGS – LIVE AND ACOUSTIC (1995) {*7}. Not at all bad, she strayed little from her greatest hits (but for the unissued `Altar Boy’), and proved her voice was still a force in the live environs.
Echoing old friends such as WAITS and others, Rickie Lee and co-producer Rick Boston sourced a younger generation for the languid trip hop and rolling beats of GHOSTYHEAD (1997) {*6}. While it was unlikely she travelled to Bristol, England for inspiration (from PORTISHEAD, TRICKY and MASSIVE ATTACK), the Chicago chick certainly realised there was more to her meandering muse on the SUZANNE VEGA-esque `Firewalker’, `Howard’ and `Road Kill’ and the shoegazy `Vessel Of Light’.
More convincing, insightful and downright entertaining than her earlier covers set, the Bruce Brody-produced IT’S LIKE THIS (2000) {*5} encompassed a broader range of material. Everything from TRAFFIC’s `Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys’ to MARVIN GAYE’s `Trouble Man’ were given the inimitable Rickie Lee treatment, with guest contributions from the likes of BEN FOLDS, JOE JACKSON, JOHN PIZZARELLI and TAJ MAHAL. Other renditions came from STEELY DAN (`Show Biz Kids’), The BEATLES (`For No One’), Charlie Chaplin (`Smile’), Lerner-Loewe (`On The Street Where You Live’), Duke-Gershwin (`I Can’t Get Started’), Hoagy Carmichael (`Up A Lazy River’), the Gershwins (`Someone To Watch Over Me’), J.G. Caldwell (`Cycles’) and Leonard Bernstein (`One Hand, One Heart’).
In a similar companion-piece-type vein, LIVE AT RED ROCKS (2001) {*5} made an interesting comparison to her mid-90s acoustic concert set; the icing on the cake was her Colorado-clapping take of `Chuck E…’ and a cover of VAN MORRISON’s `Gloria’.
In V2 Records’ THE EVENING OF MY BEST DAY (2003) {*7}, meanwhile, JONES had come up with one of her most satisfying and convincing sets in years. With a huge casts of session musicians and guests – including Wasserman, BILL FRISELL and GRANT LEE PHILLIPS – the album spliced fragments of blues, jazz, soul, gospel, folk, pop and rock into the kind of luminous, free-spirited musical poetry which JONES has long made her natural environment, and which would overwhelm lesser talents. Fired up by righteous indignation, the singer took a rare – if celebratory rather than berating – potshot at President Bush and his cronies on the testifying `Tell Somebody (Repeal The Patriot Act)’, while in general, her lyrical weave was more lucid, candid and compassionate than it had ever been; check out `Ugly Man’, `Bitchenostrophy’ and the title track.
Not just inspired but fully integrated into her boyfriend Lee Cantelon’s book “The Words” (depicting the words of Jesus Christ), JONES duly attempted to portray its pages by interpreting the arduous nature of the concept into songs. The results were finally unveiled for New West Records on THE SERMON ON EXPOSITION BOULEVARD (2007) {*8}. Augmented and co-produced by the author himself, RLJ brought shadows and light to the cathartic and spiritual `Falling Up’, `Circle In The Sand’ and the 8-minute finale `I Was There’.
Retaining BEN HARPER as a guest from her previous showing, and adding VICTORIA WILLIAMS (on `His Jeweled Floor’) and ALISON KRAUSS (on `Remember Me’) – both also featuring VIC CHESNUTT – 2009’s BALM IN GILEAD {*7} was partly spiritual, partly alt-country.
A million miles from her teething days rival, JONI MITCHELL, and more in line with MARIANNE FAITHFULL or SHAWN COLVIN, this lady was singing the blues on her third covers set, THE DEVIL YOU KNOW (2012) {*7}. Enhanced by the great BEN HARPER (who contributed an original: `Masterpiece’), her sparse interpretations showed her true roots: from The ROLLING STONES’ `Sympathy For The Devil’ and `Play With Fire’ to TIM HARDIN’s `Reason To Believe’ and DONOVAN’s `Catch The Wind’; others to shed her bittersweet tears and inner wounds were Ted Anderson’s `Seems Like A Long Time’, the trad `St. James Infirmary’, NEIL YOUNG’s `Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, The BAND’s `The Weight’ and VAN MORRISON’s `Comfort You’.
Marking 60 years on Planet Earth (now New Orleans to be precise) and 36 years since her debut set, 2015’s independently-released THE OTHER SIDE OF DESIRE {*7} took listeners through the memories of the lady herself. Fighting off “Emotional Rescue” comparisons for her `Jimmy Choos’ opener, she turned to back-porch/Opry-country for `Valtz De Mon Pere’ and The BAND-esque Cajun for `J’ai Connais Pas’. Produced by John Porter, the ghosts of LOWELL GEORGE and other maverick mystiques seemed to be the impetus behind `Blinded By The Hunt’ and `Feet On The Ground’. A solid album if somewhat timeless.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD-BG // rev-up MCS Jun2015

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