With the arrival of Delta Lady: The Rita Coolidge Anthology, one can only remark: what took so long? No other singer -- not Maria Muldaur, Bette Midler, Bonnie Bramlett, Carly Simon, or Linda Ronstadt -- more perfectly embodied the wide range of changes that popular music underwent from the late '60s through the mid-'80s, and continues to seek new means of expression today. This two-disc anthology on Hip-O offers the first complete portrait of this complex and multivalent talent on CD (though a box set would have been nice). Rita Coolidge scored her first chart hit with friend Donna Weiss' "Turn Around and Love You" in 1969. That song earned her a studio spot where she fell in with Delaney & Bonnie, Leon Russell, and a huge cast of musicians. Being a background vocalist on Delaney & Bonnie's classic Accept No Substitute earned her a place on Russell and Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen revue and the rest is history, including a handful of chart hits and guest appearances that stagger the mind.
Coolidge's period with A&M reveals that Coolidge is a singer whose gift of empathy for a song is singular. Indeed, in virtually every song one not only hears her voice, but also feels its smoky, throaty, body-caressing languor in every verse. She wraps her entire mouth around her syllables because they come from the deep, fathomless well that holds the fire in the belly. Her great earthy depth does not rely on pyrotechnics, but on passion and expression, the wealth of which adds another dimension to even a miniscule pop song and sends it forth to the listener with the temperature of a hot spring. All the evidence one needs is found in her live reading of "Superstar" (yes, the tune that became a smash for the Carpenters), where one can hear something completely outside the hit version's sentimentality. Coolidge brings the hue of painful memory -- of lovemaking, of shared tenderness and longed-for passion -- into the grain of the song; in its place lies raw, swollen, melancholy need. In addition, her performances of Dave Mason's "Only You Know and I Know," Booker T. Jones and William Bell's "Born Under a Bad Sign," Leonard Cohen's "Bird on the Wire," and Johnny Davenport's "Fever" are shot through with emotion that is equal parts physical and spiritual. And when it comes to expressing those intangible emotions that lie outside the margin of categorization, one need only to hear "The Lady's Not for Sale" (written by former husband Kris Kristofferson) to be moved outside the realm of one's experience and into that of the song. And Coolidge's country version of Eric Kaz's "Love Has No Pride" is nearly peerless in its white-out pathos and cavernous want (only Bonnie Raitt's comes close).
While the first disc is full of songs that represent "the Voice," with a few hits in the mix, disc two concentrates on the R&B and pop hits Coolidge garnered during the 1970s, such as her cover of "(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher," "The Way You Do the Things You Do" (her biggest smash), Boz Scaggs' "We're All Alone," and "Slow Dancer." But they are all here, from "One Fine Day" to "The Closer You Get" to Tom Snow's "You," and of course the John Barry/Tim Rice-penned "All Time High" from the James Bond flick Octopussy. But in these songs, too, there is a complete lack of artifice in her interpretations; she delivers each song honestly, from the belly bone and into the ether that goes beyond the microphone. In each and every case, it's the song that matters to Coolidge, not her own voice. If one goes to the later material, after the hits, and into the recent past with "Cherokee" and "The Way I Love You," where this set ends, the listener is the recipient of a voice that has, if it is even possible, gone even further into the mystery of song itself. Coolidge's maturity as a vocalist comes in allowing the song to move through her, not to spin it or rework its intent, but to allow it a hearing in the full light of its own day, in its own complexity, in its own world. That she has been able to effortlessly move from the spirit of one song to another, regardless of genre or production, is a rare gift; that she can give listeners the wellspring of her own unclassifiable wildness in her performances -- naked, unbowed, and filled with grit, grace, and mystery -- is a small miracle. With its wonderful packaging featuring many photographs and excellent liner notes by Scott Schneider and the artist, Delta Lady goes far beyond the boundary of a "for fans only" compilation. Indeed, it demands a complete reconsideration of the wealth and necessity of Rita Coolidge's contribution as an artist and as an influence on modern popular music -- a contribution that will continue, no doubt, to mystify and delight.