By Eleni P. Austin
Rickie Lee Jones once noted “I lived volumes before I was famous” She was only 24 when she burst on the music scene in the Spring of 1979 with her hooky hit single, “Chuck E.’s In Love.” She was born in Chicago in 1954 to Richard and Bettye Jones. Her paternal grandparents had been vaudevillians and passed their talent down to their son. Richard nursed musical ambitions, but worked odd jobs to support his family, which included a son, Daniel, and two other daughters, Janet Adele and Pamela Jo.
She endured a peripatetic childhood, moving from Chicago to Arizona and Washington. No matter where she was, music was her constant companion. her dad began teaching her songs as a toddler, starting with “Bye Bye Blackbird.” By her early teens, Richard had abandoned his family. Stung by his desertion, Rickie Lee quit the school and hit the road, hitchhiking across the country. Following a series of adventures, that ranged from good, too bad, to terrifying, she landed in Venice Beach, determined to have a career in music,
As a child, Rickie Lee was obsessed with the West Side Story, later inspiration included The Beats, The Beatles, show tunes as well as Jazz and Pop standards. Laura Nyro and Van Morrison were also early touchstones. All these influences coalesced, and she began writing her own songs. In L.A. she waited tables to make ends meet and began haunting Open Mic nights, coffee houses and the legendary Hoot Night at the Troubadour on the Sunset Strip. Her running buddies included musicians Chuck E. Weiss and her then-boyfriend, Tom Waits. The trio felt like a late ‘70s incarnation of Neal Cassady, Carolyn Cassady and Jack Kerouac.
After a pal sang a ragged version of Rickie Lee’s song, “Easy Money” over the phone to Little Feat frontman, Lowell George, he recorded it on his solo debut, I’ll Eat It Here. Not long after, she was signed to his label, the artist-friendly Warner Brothers Records. Produced by Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, her self-titled debut arrived in early 1979. It sounded like nothing that came before and felt like a revelation. The finger-poppin’ cool of the first single, “Chuck E.’s In Love,” and catchy tracks like “Danny’s All-Star Joint” and “Youngblood” coexisted alongside contemplative and confessional songs like “Last Chance Texaco,” “Coolsville” and “Company.” The cognoscenti caught on quickly, showering the album with rave reviews. It also shot up the Billboard charts, peaking at #3. Ultimately, it was nominated for four Grammys, winning the Best New Artist category.
Rickie Lee’s newfound fame was a double-edged sword. The first casualty of her success was her relationship with Tom Waits. When her fame eclipsed his, he broke up with her. Heartbroken, she relocated to New York City. It was there she wrote and recorded her second album and developed a heroin addiction.
Released in late 1981, Pirates was a heady mix of cinematic melodies and gimlet-eyed tableaus featuring streetwise strivers like Louie, Eddie and Zero. Once again, critical acclaim was unanimous. Constant touring made it almost impossible to write and record a third long-player, as a stop-gap measure she issued Girl At Her Volcano, a 10” EP that featured one original song a couple of Jazz standards and gorgeous renditions of The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” and The Drifters’ “Under The Boardwalk.” Her third full-length record, The Magazine, arrived in late 1984. An ambitious song-cycle, it found Rickie Lee newly sober, living in France, married to musician Pascal Nabet-Meyer A few years later, the couple welcomed a daughter, Charlotte Rose. For a time, she concentrated on married life and motherhood.
In 1989, she returned guns blazing, with the release of her fourth album, Flying Cowboys. Produced by Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, the record was a triumph. A potent mix of her streetwise swagger and the new-found joy of motherhood. Critics and fans alike took notice, the record climbed the charts, entering the Top 40. Suddenly, she was feted on MTV, VH-1, and was making appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Arsenio Hall Show.
Between 1991 and 2019 Rickie Lee released 10 more studio albums. Because she has never been a wildly prolific songwriter, four of those records, Pop Pop (1991), It’s Like This (2000), The Devil You Know (2012) and Kicks (2019), found her offering her sui generis twist to old favorites from The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Lerner & Lowe, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan, Hoagy Carmichael, The Rolling Stones, Tim Hardin, Donovan, Neil Young, Bad Company, Johnny Ray, Dean Martin and Skeeter Davis.
Her six albums of original material included the hushed Traffic In Paradise (1993), the experimental Trip-Hop of Ghostyhead (1997), and the surprisingly pointed and political Evening Of My Best Day (2003). The Sermon Of Exposition Boulevard (2007) was a song-cycle inspired by Jesus’ own words. Balm In Gilead (2009) included a wistful version of her dad’s composition, “The Moon Is Made Of Gold,” as well a loving tribute to her 21 year old daughter, Charlotte Rose entitled “Wild Girl.” Following her move to New Orleans in 2013, she wrote and recorded her magnificent opus The Other Side Of Desire,” which arrived in 2016. There have also been a couple of live sets, Naked Songs: Live And Acoustic (1995) and Live At Red Rocks (2001), as well as a career-spanning box set, Duchess Of Coolsville: An Anthology. In 2021, she finished her much-anticipated memoir, Last Chance Texaco. It was everything her fans could have asked for, candid, funny, heartbreaking, dazzling, terrifying and adventurous. All in her own singular voice. The success of the book raised her profile exponentially, winning new admirers and reconnecting her with old friends. That included Russ Titelman, one of the producers responsible for her first two records. A musician first, he made his bones as the rhythm guitarist for house band the television series Shindig! She asked him to produce her next record and he suggested that Rickie Lee record her first Jazz album. The result is her 15th long-player, Pieces Of Treasure.
The record kicks into gear with a lush rendition of “Just In Time.” Breezy vibraphone runs and brushed percussion are juxtaposed by Rickie Lee’s throaty moan, as she eases into the song. Her mien is flirty and sanguine, employing her trademark slurred drawl, as she eases into the Jule Styne, Comden and Green classic. When she sings “No more doubt or fears, I’ve found my way, for love came just in time, you found me just in time, and changed my lonely life that day,” she could be referring to her relationship to music or Russ, as easily as a newfound romance.
When they were choosing the songs for this album, Rickie Lee and Russ had a couple of hard and fast rules. She had to be pretty familiar with the material, and the lyrics had to speak to her. Starting with hundreds of tunes, they winnowed the selection down to 10 essential tracks. At least three numbers are completely reconfigured and “Rickie Lee’d,” she confidently takes ownership of songs that previously belonged to Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.
First up is “Nature Boy.” written by proto-flower child, eden ahbez, and inspired by William Pester, the so-called “hermit of Palm Springs.” Surprisingly, the song springs to life with an extended Oud solo that unfurls like an improvised taqsim, atop rattlesnake-shake percussion. Rickie Lee’s wordless vocalese owes more to legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum than Ella Fitzgerald. Sun-dappled electric guitar and burnished piano is folded into the mix as she begins to tease out the familiar opening verse; “There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy, they say he wandered very far, very far over land and sea.” At once enigmatic and empathetic, she delivers the final verse; “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return” with hypnotic grace.
Effervescent electric guitar riffs succeed in stripping away the Teutonic gloom of Kurt Weill’s “September Song.” Of course, this mordant meditation on growing old probably resonates with an artist approaching her seventh decade. Taking a cue from Ol’ Blue Eyes, she includes two original verses; “When you meet with the young girls boys early early in the Spring, you court them with song and rhyme, they answer with words and a clover ring, but if you could examine the goods they bring, they have little to offer but the songs they sing, and a plentiful waste of time of day, a plentiful waste of time,” that are typically excised. But each one whimsically underlines the arrogance of youth. Brushed percussion, forthright upright bass, twinkling piano and shivery strings cocoon Rickie Lee as makes her final, melancholy point; “Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few, September, November, and these few precious days, I’ll spend with you, these precious days, I’ll spend with you.” Rickie Lee always zags when you expect her to zig, so it feels wholly apropos that she takes Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields’ Depression era toe-tapper, “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” and transforms it into a lachrymose torch song. The instrumentation and arrangement are austere, anchored only by courtly Spanish guitar. Still, her optimism shines through, her voice tender and almost vulnerable as she confides “I used to walk in the shade, with those blues on parade, but I’m not afraid, this rover’s crossed over, and if I never had a cent, I’d be as rich as Rockefeller, with gold dust at my feet, on the sunny side of the street.”
This record is pure pleasure, front to back. From the inventive arrangements and quirky instrumentation, she proves her Jazz bona fides again and again. Both “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “One For My Baby” are kissin’ cousins to early Rickie Lee compositions like “Weasel And The White Boys Cool” and “Woody And Dutch On The Slow Train To Peking.” The former is powered by warm piano notes, see-sawing guitar riffs, thumping upright bass strategically structured finger-snaps and a natty hi-hat kick. Originally written by George and Ira Gershwin for the Fred and Ginger RKO musical, Shall We Dance, the lyrics are an erudite encomium to an all-encompassing infatuation; “The way you hold your knife, the way we danced till three, the way you changed my life, no, no, they can’t take that away from me.” Her vocals mirror the melody’s terpsichorean lilt, tripping the light fantastic with a bit of swagger and sangfroid. The in-the-pocket groove is further elevated by a laid-back sax solo on the break, before she comes back swinging. It’s all too thrilling. The latter, a quintessential saloon song that Frank Sinatra first took ownership of back in 1947, was written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Downcast piano notes meander, anchored by spidery upright bass and a tick-tock beat. Rickie Lee’s delivery verges on just-the-facts-ma’am reportage. By the second verse; “I got the routine, put another nickel in the machine, feelin’ so bad, wish you’d make the music so easy and sad, I could tell you a lot, but you’ve got to be true to your code…” she’s leaning into the heartache. Pensive piano chords dart through the mix across an akimbo rhythm. Wily vocalese mimics a trumpet solo as Rickie Lee closes out the song with a wry chuckle and an off-hand nod to a celebrated Film Noir actress/director; “don’t worry about it, I’ll get home on my own, me and Ida Lupino.”
Meanwhile, the great Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Burke song, “Here’s That Rainy Day” is equal parts sumptuous and languid. Shivery strings lattice velvet-y piano, feathery guitar and prickly bass. Rickie Lee’s nonpareil phrasing is slightly behind the beat with each neatly turned phrase; “Where is that worn out wish that I threw aside, after it brought my love so near, funny how love becomes a cold rainy day, funny that rainy day is here,” the heartbreak feels palpable
Other interesting tracks include the gossamer grace of “There Will Never Be Another You” and the plaintive torch tradition of “All The Way.” The record closes with “It’s All In The Game,” best known as a jaunty, Doo-Wop number that became a #1 hit for Tommy Edwards in 1958. Russ and Rickie Lee recast it as a tender piano ballad. Lonesome lyrics chart the vagaries of love; “You have words with him, and your future’s looking dim, but these things your heart can rise above.” Caressing every verse, each word is suffused with world-weary regret, honoring a bargain she made long ago. It’s a plaintive and poignant end to a great record.
For this record, Russ packed the bench with an all-star team. They include guitarists Russell Malone and Jon Harrington, bassist David Wong, pianist Rob Mounsey and drummer Mark McLean. Legend Mike Mainieri and longtime Rickie Lee compadre Mike Dillon split vibes duties. Scott Robinson was a one-man horn section, playing trumpet, alto and baritone sax. Ryan Roberts played oboe and Ara Dinkjian added some distinctive oud colors. Aside from arranging vocals and strings, Rickie Lee enjoyed the luxury of just showing up to sing. Recorded in two studios in Manhattan and Queens it was completed in just five days (Rickie Lee quipped “we beat God!”).
In a recent interview Rickie Lee discussed the power of music and articulately defined her role; “What we’re talking from and to, are each other’s hearts and souls. Whenever you hear music that moves you. You are relieved of pain for a little while. So, that job never ends, that thing never goes away… my work, as I understand it, is that I touch people’s hearts in inexplicable ways. I can sing about an ugly man or I can sing about a beautiful bird. The thing that’s really going on is what’s in our souls. That’s why I’m singing.” Pieces Of Treasure is a labor of love. Playful, exuberant, shot-through with longing and a homesick kind of ache. She pulls you in and holds you close. When it plays through, you think “again please…lift me up and break my heart some more.”