Rita Coolidge made an undeniable impact on the popular music of the '70s and '80s with multiple hit songs stemming from her solo work as well as her duets with former husband Kris Kristofferson. Music fans will certainly remember the vocalist from her 1977 hit, "(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher," but her story goes far beyond that song.
Rita Coolidge was born in 1945 and raised in Lafayette, Tennessee by her father, Dick, a minister, and her mother, Charlotte, a teacher. She also grew up with two sisters and a brother, Linda, Priscilla and Raymond. Coolidge's first foray into singing was at her father's church as well as with her sisters in a trio called The Coolidge Sisters. The sisters gained experience performing at local fairs and contests before growing up and going off to college.
Coolidge attended college at Florida State University as an Art major, but to earn money for art supplies, she turned back to singing. This eventually led Coolidge to Memphis, Tennessee, where she began singing for a jingle company and even recorded her own solo single, "Turn Around and Love You." While in Memphis, Coolidge was discovered by Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett of the duo, Delaney & Bonnie. The Bramlett's were so impressed with Coolidge that they took her to Los Angeles to work with them. When she got there, she was met with surprise, as people knew her song.
"When I got to L.A., I just couldn't believe it. Everyone knew who I was," she said, according to her 1978 biography. "I never even went back to Memphis. I just left everything behind and started again."
Once in Los Angeles, Coolidge began singing background vocals on records for some of music's hottest names, including Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and more. She received a masterclass in touring when she was invited on the Joe Cocker tour during which he recorded his live album, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Coolidge sings Delaney & Bonnie's "Superstar" on the live album. Coolidge did not receive songwriting credit for the song despite coming up with the initial idea, and the song later became a hit for The Carpenters.
In her memoir Delta Lady, Coolidge writes she was denied writing credits on "Layla" by Eric Clapton's band, Derek and the Dominoes, despite writing the piano coda with former boyfriend (and the band's drummer) Jim Gordon.
"When I got my hands on the album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, I looked at the label. 'Layla' was credited to 'E. Clapton and J. Gordon.' No mention of 'R. Coolidge.' I was infuriated. What they'd clearly done was take the song Jim and I had written, jettisoned the lyrics, and tacked it on to the end of Eric's song," Coolidge wrote (quote via Billboard). "It was almost the same arrangement. I have to admit it sounded stunning. Juxtaposing Eric's desperate verses about his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, his best friend George Harrison's wife, and the coda's -- make that my coda's -- wistful, winding melody, was a masterstroke. Following Eric's impassioned singing and guitar playing inspired by the torture of falling into a forbidden love, the coda was 'nothing less than bliss, the sound of love fulfilled,' a critic noted forty years after the song was recorded. Even without my words, Jim's and my original intent shines through. That didn't make being left out of the songwriting credits any easier. "
Coolidge writes that she was vocal about not being credited for penning a portion of what became one of the most well-known rock songs of all time.
"I told my producer David Anderle and A&M's co-founder Jerry Moss about not getting credit on "Layla" -- in fact, I told everyone I knew," Coolidge wrote. "I finally called Robert Stigwood, Eric's manager. All he said was, 'You're going to go up against Stiggy? The Robert Stigwood Organization? Who do you think you are? You're a girl singer -- what are you going to do?' I talked to David and he was sympathetic but said, 'You know, you don't have the money to fight this.' And it was true."
In the early '70s, the singer-songwriter launched her solo career, which began with her 1971 self-titled album and later Nice Feeling (1971) and The Lady's Not For Sale (1972). During this time (1970), Coolidge met Kris Kristofferson at the Los Angeles airport when they were both flying back to Tennessee. The two were married in 1970 and released three duet albums within the next eight years. The first of those albums, Full Moon, reached the No. 1 spot on the country charts. Coolidge and Kristofferson won Grammy Awards for "From the Bottle to the Bottom" and "Lover Please."
While she was married to Kristofferson, Coolidge saw continued success in her solo career with her cover of Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher," "We're All Alone," "The Way You Do The Things You Do," "I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love," and more. Coolidge and Kristofferson were divorced in 1980, which Coolidge attributes to many factors, including their grueling careers.
"There was a sense of 'the marriage is in trouble because there were longer periods of time when Kris would be away making movies and I had my solo career, which had taken off and was going great guns, and I think the distance between us started to grow," she once told the BBC.
Coolidge continued releasing music in the '80s, including duets with Glen Campbell and Booker T. Jones, and she earned another hit song with "All Time High" from the James Bond movie, Octopussy. In 1997, Coolidge, who is Cherokee, founded a Native American trio called Walela with her sister Priscilla and Priscilla's daughter, Laura Satterfield. Coolidge tells many of her life and career stories in her autobiography, Delta Lady, released in 2016.