Delta Spirit: Rita Coolidge Reflects on Delaney & Bonnie, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, “Layla” and More

Dean Budnick on October 25, 2016

In her new memoir, Delta Lady, Rita Coolidge looks back on a rich, nuanced career. Coolidge began singing in the late ‘60s, recording radio station call letters in a Memphis “jingle factory” before she relocated to Los Angeles. There, she became a background vocalist in the studio and on the road with Delaney & Bonnie and the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour before she embarked on a solo artist path, while also collaborating with her then-husband Kris Kristoerson for a stretch in the mid-to-late ‘70s. The book’s title comes from the song written in her honor by Leon Russell, who figures in the narrative, along with Coolidge’s friends, lovers and colleagues, including Joe Cocker, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, George Harrison and Willie Nelson. Coolidge’s warm and winning personality shines throughout Delta Lady, although she is frank and forthright when discussing some of her personal and professional frustrations, such as the songwriting credits she never received for “Superstar” and “Layla.”

Your first tour was with Delaney & Bonnie and, in Delta Lady, you emphasize that they never quite received their due.

I think that Delaney & Bonnie probably influenced more musicians from that time than anyone else. It wasn’t just the people around us and it wasn’t just Southerners who had migrated to California together. When Delaney & Bonnie opened for Blind Faith, Eric Clapton saw the band play and how honest and how true those roots were. He wanted to play that music and, ultimately, he did.

Elton John and I were dancing at a party after a film premiere and he said, “I just have to tell you that I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it weren’t for Delaney & Bonnie and all you guys playing honest music.” As we found out a few years ago, he was obviously enamored with Leon’s music and had so much respect for Leon as a player, which we all do. [Ed. Note: John invited Russell to collaborate on the 2010 album The Union.]

The closest thing to Delaney & Bonnie is Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. They’re really good. I love them, but there will never be another band like Delaney & Bonnie. They were the first white band to hit the whole world with black roots music, and it was coming from a true place because Delaney grew up in Mississippi and Bonnie was from St. Louis, and they had both been making that music all their lives. When they came together, it was like the comets exploded, and when they broke up, it just broke my heart. I know that Bonnie loved Delaney more than life itself. I just think it had to do with the influx of cocaine and people being told that it wasn’t addictive and mixing it with alcohol. They would say: “Put the edge on; take the edge off.” Delaney pretty much spent all his time doing that and the edge seemed to take over his body and he just became mean. He was mean to Bonnie; he was mean to other people when it would just get away from him.

The other thing is that we came back from doing a big tour in England and Joe [Cocker] reached out and said, “I’ve got to have a band on the road in five days.” We had just come o a tour and weren’t working—nobody was on retainer—so we jumped right in to help Joe, never once thinking that we had, in a sense, put an end to Delaney & Bonnie because it was never the same after that with them. They were so hurt that they never tried to pull us all back together again.

Did either of them articulate that at the time?

No, they did not. I don’t think that they even realized it at all. I think that they felt abandoned and they were hurt. But their talent was obviously the core of the band and they planned on putting together another fabulous group of people and continuing, but it just never happened.

As you emphasize in the book, the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour also took its toll on Joe Cocker, who su„ffered from emotional exhaustion and financial ruin.

I think they went hand in hand. Joe worked his butt off and was the driving force. He was the star—he was the one everyone came to see. Everything was around Joe. Leon agreed to be the musical director, the ringmaster, but he said, “I’ll only do it if I have all the control—the songs, the arrangements—everything is my decision.” Then A&M came in, brought in the film crew and Joe watched all of this going on around him while having absolutely no control. So, from the get-go, most of the time, Joe felt powerless until he hit the stage—and then there was no doubt who we were there for.

After the tour was over, he went to [A&M Records cofounder] Jerry Moss because he wanted to buy a guitar, and there was no money. He probably came off that tour in debt and he didn’t have a place to live—he was sleeping on [producer] Denny Cordell’s floor, pretty much in the foyer of the house. Nobody was looking out for Joe. I would call and say, “Denny, where’s Joe? How’s he doing?” because I think there’s a nurturing side to every woman but, being a Cherokee woman, I think mine’s a little stronger than others. I recognize when someone’s in trouble, and Joe’s certainly someone that I cared about so much.

So it was important to me to help him come out of that pit, and I would do it by bringing him over to the house. We would watch TV and I would cook black-eyed peas and cornbread and whatever he wanted, and just get him rested. After a few days, the light would come back in his eyes and he would say, “OK, I’m ready to go back; I’m ready to face this again.” But it wouldn’t last very long. Gradually, he did come out of it and then—for the first time since I had met him some years before—I saw him kind of pissed, realizing that he should’ve got more out of that.

You mentioned Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. Can you share your perspective on the Mad Dogs & Englishmen reunion event with Tedeschi Trucks Band that look place at last year’s Lockn’?

Susan told me that when she and Derek decided to join bands—because they were both amazing guitarists and musicians in their own right— they sat down and watched Mad Dogs & Englishmen and saw the whole spectrum of what was going on and decided, “That’s what we’re going to do.” So they really put their band together and stylized their arrangements after Mad Dogs & Englishmen and, apparently, they also perform some of the arrangements from the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. I think that’s why Lockn’ was almost like stepping back in time. They have such an amazing band and their singers—oh, my God—and the players are just incredible.

For me, it was one of the highlights of my life to be a part of the Lockn’ Festival and to be able to hang out with Susan and their band and also with the Mad Dogs & Englishmen alums who are still active and play.

Those of us who were able to get back really share something that is unique in the history of music. We knew it then and we really appreciate it now.

Had you remained in touch with those musicians over the years?

Not really. I’ve stayed in touch with Pamela [Polland] and, every now and then, I’d run into the brothers [Daniel and Matthew Moore], but not really.

Claudia Lennear, one of Mad Dogs’ alums who made it to Lockn’, was featured in the film 20 Feet from Stardom. You’re someone who worked as a background vocalist and then became a lead singer in her own right. Can you talk about that transition to the front of the stage?

When I went to California, I had recorded a single for Pepper Records in Memphis— it was a new label from Pepper Tanner, which was a company that did radio spots for about 75 percent of the Southeastern part of the U.S. While I was in Memphis, I made my living not only doing some background sessions, but also working with Pepper Tanner. They started a label called Pepper Records and I had the first single.

Leon and I left Memphis and drove to California. It took us several days and, by the time I got to California, that record had shot up the charts. Within a couple of weeks, it was No. 1 in Los Angeles, a regional hit. It was called “Turn Around and Love You,” written by Donna Weiss. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I already knew Delaney & Bonnie, and then, I met the rest of the band, so it felt like I had a family in California. At the same time, people were walking up to me and asking for autographs and I was doing every TV show in LA, so I didn’t have to beat down a lot of doors to get my name out there. That’s just something that the universe or the good Lord did.

Because I was singing with Delaney & Bonnie, people started calling me to do sessions. I was coming from Pepper Tanner, where I had been doing the most boring radio spots to pay the bills— singing the call letters for radio stations, the same packages but with different call letters, which we would do all day long. It wasn’t challenging. We were like any musician just doing what was written.

When I got to California and was able to start doing background sessions and meeting all the wonderful background session singers, I thought it was the best job in the world. This was the era in which we would just stand there and overdub tracks and stack tracks and change parts. Every group would be specific to the artist but, many times, I was able to sit back and arrange background parts if the artist or producer didn’t have that done already. Sometimes I would go to work at 8 a.m., and go from session to session and not get home until after midnight. The whole day would just be so full of energy and wonderful music. I really loved it and I continued to do it after I began my solo career.

Delaney & Bonnie were not only the first real band I worked with, but also, without a doubt, the best band I worked with as a sideman. As far as moving from a background singer to the center of the stage, Bonnie made everyone feel like they were an equally integral part of the band. So when I did move to center of the stage on Mad Dogs & Englishmen, it wasn’t intimidating at all because, half the time when I was with Delaney & Bonnie, she was back there singing with me or would drag me up to the center of the stage to sing with her. [Ed. Note: Coolidge typically brought the house down while singing lead on “Superstar,” in addition to her role on background vocals.] She’s just such an amazing woman and she’s still probably just about my favorite woman on the planet. I love her.

Pepper Tanner originally wanted to release that single under the name Antoinette Lovely, yet you refused. It seems that there was such a power differential, with the leverage in their favor; however, you held your ground.

They wanted to change my name but I come from a family of strong women. I have Cherokee heritage and Cherokee societies were matrilineal—we had women chiefs. When a woman married, she didn’t go live with the guy’s people, the guy came and lived with her because the women had a great deal of power in Cherokee Nation. I grew up with the belief on a cellular level that nobody was going to tell me what to do when I knew it was the wrong thing.

In terms of career frustrations, you were denied songwriting credits on both “Layla” and “Superstar.”

I’ll preface this by saying I haven’t heard a word from Eric Clapton or his camp—I’m sure that he’s aware, but that’s kind of the way it’s been all along. Jim Gordon and I became a couple and dated for probably a year—he was the drummer with Delaney & Bonnie for a while and, during that time, the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour took place. Before then, we had written a song called “Time (Don’t Let the World Get in Our Way).” Jim had come over to my house one day and sat down—he was just noodling around at the piano and played a couple chords. He was not a great piano player, barely even competent, but he started noodling around and I sat down and started playing some chords and then started writing lyrics. We finished the song and decided that we should make a demo since we were on the way to England to record with Eric. The day we were in the studio with Eric, I sat down at the piano and played it and sang. Eric seemed to like it, so I gave him a cassette and left it on the piano. Everybody in Delaney & Bonnie were there— Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle. The whole band who was there witnessed it.

A year later, I was in the studio having pictures made for my new album on A&M and I hear this music come over the PA system in the studio and it sounded so very familiar. As it went on, it suddenly dawned on me—that’s my music, that’s why it’s so familiar. It had become the coda for “Layla.”

I heard Eric’s guitar and knew what had happened, but I still had enough faith in people to think maybe I had a writer’s credit. So I ran over to Tower Records and got the record and, tragically, I did not—it said Jim Gordon and Eric Clapton. They had totally just left me out of it.

Beyond the credits you were due, those publishing rights are quite lucrative. How aggressively did you pursue them?

With “Layla,” I went to [producer] David Anderle because David knew the song “Time”—Priscilla and Booker had recorded it on one of their albums. [Ed. Note: It appears on Booker T. and Priscilla Jones’ Chronicles record. Rita’s sister Priscilla was married to Jones at the time, and the “Layla” connection is irrefutable.] I went to David and told him what had happened and he said, “You’re not going to get to Eric— nobody gets to Eric. You have to go through Robert Stigwood, his management company, and the guy is just not somebody you want in your life—he’s not a nice man.” I knew Robert Stigwood, I’d been to his house, so I called and explained my case and he just said, “What are you gonna do? You’re a girl. You don’t have money to fight this.” And he was right.

So I went back to David and he said, “You can’t aff…ord to go up against them in this lawsuit.” Jerry Moss said, “You gotta let it go, you don’t have the money to fight the deep pockets of Eric Clapton and Robert Stigwood.” I’ve told this story my whole life and, when the book was released, I saw where people had written stu…ff, which I stopped reading, saying, “Why are you just telling this story now?” Well, it’s not just now. I’ve been telling this story since 1970. I didn’t sit back on my thumbs— I knew what had happened. And with “Superstar,” when that record came out, and I saw Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell, Bonnie even said, “Why didn’t you say something, Rita?” And I said, “Because, I knew if I did, then Delaney would beat the shit out of you and it wasn’t worth it.”

In the book, you suggest that sexism didn’t stop you from getting where you needed to go, although you certainly acknowledge its presence. Do you think it’s harder or easier for women in the industry today?

I think that women across the board in every job in this country are underpaid. They don’t get the same amount of money as men. Thank God for Taylor Swift, who is another strong young woman who takes no prisoners. She knows the di…fference between right and wrong, and the injustices against women and the inequality. But as far as that goes, I think I was always paid to sing through the unions— when I was doing background work—so there was no gender bias there.

So, as far as my profession, I can’t say that guys get paid more than women because that’s just probably not true. But I still think that within the hierarchy, men want to tell women artists what to do and how to record their music and how their songs should be written. To write a song and have someone say, “The song’s not finished, you need to write a bridge”—they would never say that to a guy. They would never do that with a guy because a guy would punch them out. It’s more of a power play and women are becoming stronger and having a bigger place in our society, and I think that a lot of men feel threatened.

Early in your book, you write, “I think there is something to be said for the years of living the music that you’ve been singing.” Can you talk about what that means to you?

When I was in my twenties with Delaney & Bonnie and the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, I don’t think I realized the depth that music has in people’s lives. I didn’t recognize that my voice had somehow reached into people’s hearts and communicated something to them, comforted them or just made them feel happy or remember something wonderful. Music does all of those things. I never dreamt that I would still be doing this stu…ff with a new record deal and touring for four months at 71 years old. It’s more fun than it’s ever been. It continues to be the best thing in my life.