40 Years of Rickie Lee Jones – Revisiting The Jazzy Songstress’ Eponymous Debut LP

Rickie Lee Jones released her eponymous debut album forty years ago this month. Here, we look back at a classic LP that deserves a reappraisal.

You can see it in the Norman Seeff cover portrait. Insouciant, effortless cool: a brown cigarette dangling from puckered lips; sandy ash-blonde hair lightly falling over a gamine face; red beret propped atop a tilted head. It’s an image that announced Rickie Lee Jones to the world as a modish beatnik, an artist who married the stylish and the street, the artistic and the commercial.

Here was an album recorded with some of the best studio musicians in Los Angeles, produced by the team of Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, and released in the spring of 1979 through the major label Warner Bros. It was an album bolstered by a big promotional push – in addition to iconic music videos, there was a memorable performance on Saturday Night Live, not to mention a Time magazine feature for Jones’ professional live debut – and a cover image heaven-sent for huge billboards.

The influence of Rickie Lee Jones on a generation of songwriters that followed is palpable; you can hear the idiosyncratic, emotional abandon in Tori Amos, the commitment to authenticity and a light sprinkling of jazz in Fiona Apple, the poetic details in her lyrics that showcase a keen eye for observation in someone like Suzanne Vega, the hazy Americana speak-sing style in Sheryl Crow, the spectral neo-folk in Joanna Newsom. Rickie defies categorization, and did so even then, and her career as a whole has revealed that she really is the antithesis of a slick, big bucks-making machine.

That’s one of the reasons why her self-titled debut LP is so fascinating – here is the sound of a maverick original, a true artist, being given the budget and the musicians to make the raw beauty of her songs come alive. It’s the sound of a major label taking a chance on an untried, clearly diamond talent, a woman whose bohemian street style was not an act, a woman who really did, as she famously said, “walk on the jazz side of life.” It’s the sound of 1970s LA filtered through the romanticized past. It’s modern and old-fashioned, complex yet simple, emotional and good-time, all at once.

So how did it come to be?

Born in Chicago in 1954, Rickie was the runaway with the colorful back story of one-legged vaudevillian relatives, teenage pot-smoking escapades, and an itinerant lifestyle that ultimately landed her in mid-70s Venice Beach. She inherited a love and inherent understanding of music from her father (she later included his own composition “The Moon is Made of Gold” in her live set and recorded it for 2009’s Balm in Gilead) and was influenced by the mood and landscapes of the places her family set up home, whether those landscapes comprised the desert vistas of Arizona or the rains of the Pacific Northwest.

In California, Rickie began to take songwriting more seriously and started playing in jazz clubs and at Hollywood showcases. The “jazz side of life” was one of bars and clubs and seedy motels, immortalized in her vibrant, offbeat, daring songs of amusing street characters that also spoke of romantic yearning for love. She famously became the girlfriend of Tom Waits, appearing on the jacket of his 1978 LP Blue Valentine, and it is this association that has possibly plagued her career: let’s state for the record, Rickie Lee Jones is, in her own right, one of the greatest songwriters of her generation.

While Rickie may have fallen in with Waits and mutual friend Chuck E. Weiss, her four-song demo tape was also falling into the hands of bigwig executives in LA. “Easy Money” was quickly picked up and recorded by Lowell George of Little Feat, and Emmylou Harris notably described the tape as “the best thing [she had] ever received in the post.” Here was raw, unfiltered talent, incandescent and unique. Before long, Rickie Lee Jones was signed to a five-album major deal.

Hearing Rickie Lee Jones now, it isn’t hard to see how and why her songs struck such a chord. It’s an intoxicating matrix of jazz, blues, country, pop, and R&B. There are Springsteen-esque street characters, the vocal octave swoops and rhythmic changes of early hero Laura Nyro, the atmospheric canvases of Van Morrison, and the studio excellence of Steely Dan. But somehow Rickie melded these influences into a style and sound completely her own. The music is completely original, yet warmly familiar. It’s insistently melodic and beautiful, but sophisticated and layered. It’s fun and light but speaks of deep human truths.

There’s an effortlessness about the record that belies belief; here was an artist who had it all: a unique voice that could careen from a whisper to a shriek and a croon to a cry; a fine ear for melody and rhythm; a cohesive vision; and, crucially, a steely core as an intuitive and imaginative songwriter. Rickie Lee Jones is pure ear candy; song after song packs a potent punch. There is the street-smart bravado of “Danny’s All-Star Joint,” the vulnerability of “Company,” the wistful nostalgia of “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963,” the shady swagger of “Coolsville.” It’s a burnt-orange canvas of truck stops, freeways, peaches on the beaches, childhood memories, a panoramic America. It’s LA, from the Tropicana Motel to the corners of Hollywood and Vine, from the iconic studio portrait all the way to the Warner Bros logo stamped on the back of the LP. It’s the 1940s in the 1970s, a good-time “bad girl” in a beret and a sundress with a feline voice that can cry, roar, keen, and purr. Rickie stood for traditionally feminine vulnerability as much as masculine bravado; this dichotomy and blurring of lines and gender stereotypes makes the fusion all the more alluring.  

“Chuck E’s in Love” was the song that announced Rickie to the world, with an insistently catchy guitar line, snaky rhythm, and lilting jazz inflections that pervaded the airwaves in the spring and summer of 1979 and took her to the US Top 5. It’s a song of romantic puzzlement, of pool halls and drugstores and public leaning posts, bringing the romance of the LA bar scene to life in a jaunty three-minute R&B-accented pop song. Rickie’s vocal performance, a textural masterclass of elided syllables and unconventional personality, announced a rare talent.

But it’s in the deeper cuts of the record that you really grasp the genius in her songwriting. “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963,” recorded in a single take at the Burbank Studios in December 1978, is a simple, beautiful ode to childhood and faded memories delivered on delicate piano and with a gorgeous, sympathetic string and woodwind arrangement by Nick DeCaro. “Stay inside that foolish grin,” she sings, “when everyday now secrets end – then again, years may go by.” It’s a song that stops the heart with its simple beauty; Tori Amos said she listened to it “over and over” as a teenager, and you can hear its influence in her own “Silent All These Years” (which features, wonderfully, another Nick DeCaro orchestral arrangement.)

The vulnerability and simplicity is then offset by songs like the good-time “Young Blood,” with its percolating rhythms and jaunty jazz-inspired arrangement (“you never know when you’re making a memory,” Rickie wisely intones) and the finger-snapping “Danny’s All-Star Joint.” Those incredible lyrics are just perfect, like Beat poetry; it’s a masterclass in street slang and dirty talk, and the rollicking arrangement, with its R&B percussion and bebop horns that alternately blare and brag, takes you right into a smoky jazz club.

 

A Hershey milkshake steamin’ on a stick 
For a Card Blanché sandwich 
Oh, lettuce get thick

It’s not because I’m dirty 
It’s not because I’m clean 
It’s not because I kiss the boys behind the magazine 
Hey boys? 
How ’bout a fight? 
Cuz here comes Rickie with the girdle on tight

And if she don’t know your name 
She knows what you got 
From Your matzo balls 
To the chicken-in-the-pot 

(from “Danny’s All-Star Joint”)

“Easy Money,” too, has a hazy jazz club feel but in an altogether different way. There’s an Eartha Kitt purr to it, a stripped-back arrangement of double bass, percussion, and supper club piano, the vision of Rickie in a boîte as smoke fills the air. “Company,” meanwhile, takes the jazzy intimacy but adds a widescreen, Stephen Sondheim torch song quality. It’s a towering vocal performance, a peerless, powerful croon – listen to how she sings “I remember you too clearly” and then compare it with the way she sings “I’ll see you in another life now baby” and marvel at her vocal dexterity. The emotions in her vocal performances are acutely felt, and, like the jazz greats, you never get the same vocal performance twice. (Seek out her 80s cover of “My Funny Valentine” for another fine example.)

Other songs point to the complexity of her future records. “Night Train” seems to follow the snaky path of its title, immutable and unknowable, seems to move along without the listener knowing quite where it’s going – but by the end, you can see the architecture of Rickie’s writing and can appreciate her genius: she knew all along where she was taking you on this night train, “broken like Valiums and chumps in the rain that cry and quiver…” Her songs don’t follow traditional structures, and that’s part of the thrill. You’re in safe hands with Rickie Lee.

“Weasel and the White Boys Cool,” meanwhile, is a six-minute R&B marathon, swaggering bluesy verses segueing into a shimmering, dreamlike, Latin-inflected refrain, which then orbits back round to the monolithic riff that remains a Rickie Lee Jones live set mainstay. She introduces friend and collaborator Sal Bernardi here at the same time as name-checking one of her primary influences (“Sal was working at Nyro’s Nook in downtown”) and it’s a phantasmagoric, whistle-stop ride past some sneaky characters – there’s “Kid Sinister with the Bus Stop Blues,” the “whore next door,” and Sal’s enigmatic “buddies and pals… Angela, Perry, and Mario.”


The cast of characters in Rickie’s songs is intrinsic to the storytelling nature of her music in this period; her songs have a sweeping street melodrama to them, like Rebel Without a Cause or West Side Story (“how could a Natalie Wood not get sucked into a scene so custom-tucked,” she asked in 1980, on “We Belong Together”), and the dark, ghost town feel of “Coolsville” is a fine early example. Sinister piano chords, rumbling drums, keening guitars, and haunting wind chimes add to the chilly atmosphere as Rickie sings of the old-time gang of “I and Bragger and Junior Lee” (the same “Bragger” as in “Young Blood”). Rickie gave a commanding performance of the song on SNL and, alongside the completely-at-odds “Chuck E’s in Love,” staked her claim as a chameleonic artist who would refuse to be pigeonholed.

And then what can you say about the classic that is “The Last Chance Texaco”? I’ve always thought that Rickie Lee Jones is one of the keenest observers of America and American life, and for me “The Last Chance Texaco” is one of the best examples. It’s a wistful, bereft country-cum-torch song, the kind of desert-esque chords and lonely freeway vibe that recalls a Wim Wenders movie like Paris, Texas, clear blue skies and cactuses rolling by on empty roads. Rickie uses petrol stations and car parts as metaphors for loneliness, isolation, and incendiary emotions, and manipulates her voice from a bellowing croon to a growl, and then to a soaring belt and, finally, as the night-time draws in, to a spot-on imitation of speeding cars zooming by. It’s a tour de force.

Rickie Lee Jones ends with the sad epilogue of “After Hours,” a spare arrangement of gentle piano and strings, the sad-eyed Sinatra addendum to an album that takes us through many moods, many characters, many facets of human emotion and experience. “All the gang has gone home,” she fairly whispers, “we are so many lamps who have lost our way.”

Rickie Lee Jones went on to make more accomplished records; 1981’s Pirates, for instance, is, for me, one of the greatest albums ever made, and more than worthy of its rapturous five-star review in Rolling Stone. But this debut album is the one on which Rickie’s ensuing reputation was built, each song like a different chapter of the same novel. These songs captured a generation’s imagination, and are so enduring that they are still lynchpins of her live set forty years on – truly great, beautifully written music is timeless, after all.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why Rickie’s career didn’t scale those early heights again, and it’s also perplexing to consider why an album that was so successful – platinum-selling, nominated for five Grammys (winning one for Best New Artist), and securing a memorable Annie Leibovitz white stiletto-ed Rolling Stone cover – isn’t more widely known today, especially considering its far-pervading influence. I think one of the main reasons is that Rickie is, at heart, a visionary artist, one for whom commercial fancies and widespread popularity could never compete with being true to an artistic vision. While she may not have scaled commercial heights again, the fact she is still touring and making records that dance to the beat of her muse is the greatest triumph of all. How can records like the impressionistic The Magazine, or the haunting trip-hop of Ghostyhead, or the improvisational garage-rock of The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard signal anything other than a masterful artist?

This debut was the launchpad for the extraordinary Pirates, an album of poetic, nocturnal grace and beauty, a modern-day street opera where all the pearls of her artistry seemed to crystallize. But Rickie Lee Jones is where it all began: a perfect storm of an album that heralded all the components of her style, marking her out as a versatile singer, writer, and performer. (And doesn’t it just have some of the best song sequencings ever?)

If you haven’t listened to this incredible record in a while, dust it off and give it a spin. If you’ve never heard it before, go and investigate with immediacy. Forty years on, what better time to dig a little deeper into this record and, as a whole, into the catalog of one of the great artists of our time.

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5 Responses

  1. Yes, yes yes. Thank you for reminding me of how brilliant Rickie Lee Jones and this album is. I wished I had written this piece. I’m not American, but this album introduced me to much of that countrys culture. There are songs here that almost make me cry with their beauty. I finally got to see Rickie Lee Jones play live one time in London around 2009, and she still had it in spades. Thank you Rickie for being a beautiful part of my musical journey through life.

  2. I have been listening to Rickie since her first LP. Love her sound and Love her lyrics. Keep it coming Rickie.

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