Rita Coolidge Went From Abused Muse to Delta Queen

With all the things Rita Coolidge has gone through in her life, she’s deserving of the title Delta Lady. The 1970s singer-songwriter has gone from being a party girl and muse who dated some of the biggest names in music, to enduring a volatile marriage to Kris Kristofferson, to being robbed of credit in one of the most praised songs in rock music history.

Rita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson / Rita Coolidge / Rita Coolidge / Stephen Stills, Graham Nash.
Source: Getty Images

She was one of the most in-demand rock voices of the ‘70s as the legendary Delta Lady (of the song), but Coolidge, now 76, has so much more to her story than meets the eye.

Pain, Pleasure, and Everything in Between

In 1977, when Rita Coolidge was 33 and one of the star singers in LA, she was married to Kris Kristofferson and had just finished her sixth solo album. But behind that smile and under those long locks of hippie hair was a woman in pain. Her marriage was on the rocks, and she had just miscarried her second child.

A dated portrait of Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

In her memoir, Delta Lady, Coolidge doesn’t hold back on either the pain or pleasure her life has brought her. Like most stories, hers gets juicy right around the middle, during the 1970s, also known as the decade of decadence.

The Decade of Decadence

Coolidge calls it the decade of “blue jeans and limousines,” when rock stars were living their best lives as “counterculturists.” Thanks to memoirs like these (not to mention Patti Boyd’s and Marianne Faithfull’s), we get a candid look into what it was really like to live among the rock star elite (as well as a reminder that what can be one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare).

A picture of Rita and Kris during a party.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

“I just cried and felt this great relief and release that it was done. And then, also, I’m very nervous because I am very frank and I don’t hold back,” Coolidge said of writing the memoir.

It’s okay, Rita, frank is what we want…

She Hit the (LA) Ground Running

“I had not been in California two years when A&M Records approached me at the end of the Cocker tour to do my first album. If anything, it came too fast.”

Coolidge was born in Lafayette, Tennessee, but it was in Memphis that she was discovered. She met singers Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett and musician Leon Russell who convinced her to move out to Los Angeles.

A picture of Rita and Kristofferson before a show.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In LA, she got the gig of a lifetime as a background singer for not just Leon Russell, but major artists like Joe Cocker, Harry Chapin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Dave Mason, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills.

From Delta Lady to Gordon’s Girl

Soon enough, she was featured in Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and album. Along the way, she became known as “The Delta Lady,” inspiring Russell to write a song about her by the same name. Coolidge was a muse in that era, inspiring the likes of Eric Clapton and his drummer, Jim Gordon.

A dated portrait of Rita Coolidge.
Photo by Jim McCrary/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1970, Gordon composed a piece on the piano and played it for Coolidge, his girlfriend at the time. She then composed a second part to the piece, a “counter-melody,” and wrote lyrics to their new song. They called it “Time (Don’t Let the World Get in Our Way)” and recorded a demo.

That Song Sounds Familiar…

Gordon and Coolidge played the demo tape for Clapton, but nothing came of it. At least, that’s what she thought. A year later, as she was posing for a photoshoot, she heard a familiar piano progression on the radio. It sounded a lot like her and Gordon’s song… only it wasn’t, technically.

A picture of Rita Coolidge during an event.
Source: Pinterest

The thing is, while she collaborated with and inspired some of the greatest musicians of all time, she was treated like sh*t by most of them. In this case, the song “Time” was repurposed without her permission and became the infamous piano coda of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.”

The Minister’s Daughter Turned Abused Muse

But that wasn’t the worst thing Gordon did to her. For those who don’t know, Jim Gordon, the drummer for both Delaney & Bonnie and Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos, was extremely violent. He punched Coolidge so badly in a hotel hallway in 1970 that she was briefly unconscious.

A portrait of Jim Gordon.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By 1983, he was behind bars for stabbing his mother to death (he was later diagnosed with schizophrenia). It’s safe to say that Coolidge did not deserve the crap these men put her through. After all, she was the daughter of a Cherokee Baptist minister and a choir girl.

Falling for the Man of Her Dreams

For a girl who could “sing before she could talk,” she was elated to become a singer and work with the best. But she never signed up for such abuse. Russell, for example, wrote “Delta Lady” and “A Song for You,” about Coolidge, but he also asked her to have a threesome with him and Joe Cocker’s bassist, Carl Radle.

A picture of Jim Gordon playing the drums.
Photo by Estate of Keith Morris/Redferns/Getty Images

It was through these musicians that she met Gordon, “the most in-demand session drummer in the world at that moment,” she said. He was tall, charismatic, with “curly blond hair, blue eyes and a smile that would light up the world.”

After Midnight, Things Get Ugly

Coolidge and Gordon began dating and toured with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, a dream team of musicians. Once Clapton made the Delaney & Bonnie band, he featured Coolidge, Radle and Gordon in his backing band. They would record together and make hits like “After Midnight,” and she was having the time of her life.

Rita Coolidge performs on stage.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Then cocaine entered the picture, and Gordon started to show his ugly side. One night during Cocker’s tour, they were hanging out in Radle’s hotel room when Gordon, the man she “never felt closer to or more in love [with],” asked to speak with her alone.

She Wanted a Proposal, He Gave Her a Beating

As they walked into the hallway, Coolidge naturally wished he would go down on one knee and pop the question. But what he did next was the exact opposite of what she wished for. Gordon “hit me so hard that I was lifted off the floor and slammed against the wall on the other side of the hallway.”

A studio portrait of Rita Coolidge.
Photo by Jim McCrary/Redferns/Getty Images

She recalled how she “literally went flying” when he hit her. It knocked her unconscious. He then walked back into the hotel room, as if nothing had happened. Obviously, their relationship was over at that moment. But the tour continued on, and Gordon was never kicked out.

From Lover to Monster

What did happen, though, was that everyone made sure Coolidge and Gordon were separated and that she was safe. After that beating in the hallway, she never spoke to him again. Why the hell would Gordon do that to her? Coolidge blamed it on the cocaine, which turned her lover into a monster.

A portrait of Rita Coolidge during an interview.
Source: The Democrat

“If you stick around, you’re just asking for more,” she explained. “If you don’t get out while the gettin’s good… I don’t think I ever even had a conversation with him after that. I wouldn’t talk to him; I wouldn’t accept gifts. I didn’t want anything to do with him.”

Dancing With the Devil

Only later did she learn of his undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia. He heard voices, which only got worse with the drugs. The murder of his mother? He used a hammer and a carving knife. So, yeah, he was definitely insane.

A portrait of Jim Gordon.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“I knew there was something wrong with him and I didn’t want to be around it. I think I understood on some level that he was mentally ill.” She wrote in her memoir that the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour scarred her both emotionally and physically. And now we know why.

The Real Delta Lady

It’s obvious by now that the “Delta Lady” is Rita Coolidge. She was the main as well as one of the backing voices on the track. Coolidge met Leon Russell in 1967. In 1969, he was making arrangements and playing keyboard on Joe Cocker’s second album, so he contributed this song.

Leon Russell performs on stage.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cocker released it as the first single on the set. Russell then included the track on his first solo album the next year. Coolidge recalls when Cocker was recording the song at Russell’s studio in LA, she served tea to them and the crew.

A Song for Her

She had no idea that the song would become her “calling card.” On Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, when she sang “Superstar,” Cocker would announce to the crowd: “Here she is, our own Delta Lady.”

A backstage picture of Cocker.
Source: YouTube

Russell also wrote “A Song for You” about Coolidge, which also appeared on his debut album. The two broke up, though, as soon as their careers started taking off. Coolidge’s first album came out in 1971 and her first big hit was in 1977 with a cover of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

The Cocker tour was full of drugs and debauchery. While one half of the band was snorting lines, the other half was waiting in the hallway for their VD shots. “Everyone had made their own choices…. I think it’s important to realize that the book really talks about that period, and I don’t make any judgments on people,” Coolidge wrote.

A picture from the show.
Photo by LMPC/Getty Images

Coolidge was something of a serial dater herself in the ‘60s. She dated Leon Russell and Joe Cocker, which made the tour bus rides across the country (in 1970) a bit awkward. Then there were all the acid trips she took with Gordon on Clapton’s estate.

A Time of Awakening… and Stealing Credit

“The 1970s were a time of transition and awakening… I wasn’t always in the middle of it. But I was a part of a lot of things that were going on at the time.”

It was also a time of stealing other people’s work. Getting ripped off by Clapton and Gordon for the Layla composition was just one incident of many.

Rita Coolidge performs during the Mad Gods and Englishmen tour.
Source: Linda Wolf

She also had a part in writing Superstar, Russell and Bonnie Bramlett’s song that became a hit for the Carpenters. Coolidge was never acknowledged by the other writers until 1992. As for Layla, she believes she’s owed writing credits but “came to peace with the fact” that her name isn’t on the track.

Ripped Off by Her Boyfriend

“Jim was as much a part of stealing that music as Eric was,” Coolidge claims. “He just disregarded me, probably because I’m a woman,” as their manager made it perfectly clear to her. When she tried to contact Clapton, his manager, Robert Stigwood, told her, “What are you gonna do? You’re a girl. You don’t have money to fight this.”

A picture Jim catching some sleep on the plane during a tour.
Source: Linda Wolf

The official credit for the piano part was given to Gordon, but keyboardist Bobby Whitlock had his own recollection. “Jim took that piano melody from his ex-girlfriend, Rita Coolidge. I know because in the Delaney & Bonnie days, I lived in John Garfield’s old house in the Hollywood Hills and there was a guest house with an upright piano in it,” Whitlock said, adding, “Her boyfriend ripped her off.”

A Clash With Stills and Nash

Before we even get to her six-year marriage to Kristofferson, there’s the whole clash between Stephen Stills and Graham Nash that I’m sure you’re curious to know about. She found herself in a love triangle with the band members of CSN.

Neil Young, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash pose for a band portrait.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Many say that Coolidge broke up the band (in a Yoko Ono kind of way), although she dismisses the rumor. She did, however, confess to the fact that the guys fought over her. “When Graham told Stephen about us,” she wrote in her book, “Stephen came out swinging.”

The Most Intense of Love Triangles

Through good old-fashioned trickery, Stills tried to woo her away from Nash. This was before she and Nash became an item of their own. When Nash realized what his band buddy was doing, he then did his own wooing magic to keep her away from Stills.

A studio portrait of Rita Coolidge.
Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

It resulted in an intense love triangle. Stills’ response to Nash’s wooing was done with his fist. He physically attacked Nash in front of her. (At least he didn’t hit her, right?)

That’s it in a nutshell, but let’s get a little more detailed…

She Called Nash, but Stills Picked Up

Coolidge sang background vocals on Stills’ 1970 hit “Love the One You’re With.” While recording it, Nash was also in the studio, and Coolidge and Nash would talk between breaks. Nash invited her to see Crosby, Stills and Nash the following night.

Stephen Stills and Graham Nash perform on stage.
Photo by Nick Pickles/Redferns/Getty Images

Not sure if it was a date or simply a friendly invite, and “too shy to clarify,” she took him up on his offer. Nash told her to call him the next day before the show. At the time, he was staying in Stills’ home, so when she called Nash, Stills picked up.

The Plans Have Changed

That’s when her plans with Nash changed. Stills told Coolidge that Nash had “made other arrangements,” and told her, “I’m going to pick you up” instead. And so, she went to the concert with Stills that night, and they soon became a couple.

A dated portrait of Rita and Stills.
Photo by Harper Collins

But something about Stills made her uncomfortable. On the way to the show that night, he asked her when her birthday was. When she told him it was May 1, he pulled over. Stills had just ended an intense relationship with singer Judy Collins, and her birthday was also May 1. Spooked, he pulled the car over to look at Coolidge “as if I should have an opinion about this.”

I Guess Stills Will Have to Do for Now

Later, at the show, Coolidge saw Nash, but he wouldn’t speak to her. Since he seemed “disinterested” in her now, she kept dating Stills for a while, but still “had my eye on Graham.” Stills, now her boyfriend, started writing songs about her, including “Cherokee.”

A portrait of Nash.
Source: Pinterest

She thought it was cool, but said that it would have been “really cool if I cared about him as much as he does about me.” Sooner than later, she got bored of Stills for being “extremely unsatisfying.” She decided to call Nash, the one she wanted to date in the first place.

Sneaky Little Stills… and His Pills

“I put this all together and realized what a sneaky, little bugger Stephen was, and that I really didn’t want to see him anymore.”

When Nash told her that Stills lied to her about making other plans that first night, Coolidge was “astounded.” Furthermore, Nash told her how Stills told him that Coolidge was the one who canceled on him! Hence the cold shoulder at the concert.

A picture of Rita Coolidge at the park.
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

With that, she and Nash started going out. But Stills was not done with her. He once wrote “Love Rita” with his finger on the bathroom mirror of a motel room. He also took a handful of pills that night and wound up in the hospital.

When Stills Came Out Swinging

“When I heard about it, the story didn’t surprise me, because Stephen was always about drama.”

As she and Nash, the man she thought was “as sweet as any human being I’ve ever met,” became a couple, Nash thought they should clear things up with Stills. When the two went to Stills’ house, he was standing in front of his door.

Graham Nash and Rita Coolidge pose together for a portrait.
Photo by Bruce Glikas/Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Nash said, “Stephen, Rita and I want to talk to you about something.” After a moment of what seemed like contemplation, Stills “came out swinging.” Coolidge wrote that it came as a “complete surprise” to both her and Nash.

You’re Breaking Up the Band, Coolidge

Nash, she noted in her book, was not a fighter. Eventually, someone pulled Stills away. While Nash and Coolidge were together for about a year, the fight caused a rift – one that took its toll on the band.

Rita Coolidge performs on stage.
Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/WireImage/Getty Images

If you’re wondering what the third band member, David Crosby, thought about all of this, you should know that he was not a fan – of Coolidge or the love triangle or the fact that she was breaking up the band. “He actually thought I was the devil,” Coolidge wrote about Crosby.

The Devil Woman and Her Beans

“They were in deep trouble before I ever got there. It just kind of blew up in the end.”

Coolidge recalled one night at Stills’ house, when she made a pot of beans and some cornbread. David came by, and after being awake for several days, he ate some beans and passed out.

Rita Coolidge performs on stage.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When he woke up a few hours later, he went up to Coolidge and said, “You put Quaaludes in the beans, I know you did — you’re the Devil, woman.” To this day, Crosby has blamed Coolidge for being the reason his band broke up.

On to the Next One

“Probably one of the greatest mistakes I made was not staying with Graham.”

Coolidge regretted not sticking with Nash. “We were so very young, and I didn’t want to marry anybody then.” But as one door closes, another one opens. Within a couple of years, Coolidge was in the arms of another famous musician.

A photo of Coolidge and Kristofferson performing together.
Photo by Dick Darrell/Toronto Star/Getty Images

On November 9, 1971, Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson were boarding a flight from LA to Tennessee. Within 24 hours of meeting each other, they had named their first child. Instead of going on to his intended destination, Nashville, he got off in Memphis with her.

Rita and Kris: A Match Made in Heaven

“I felt a connection with Kris the first time I looked into those blue eyes, and it wasn’t just because he was one of the most beautiful men on the planet.”

It goes without saying that the two were head over heels. Coolidge and Kristofferson became an “It Couple,” just like that. “People were fascinated with us as a couple.” As for the daughter they named on the first day they met?

Kristofferson and Coolidge attend an event.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Her name is Casey Kristofferson (and she is also a musician). Kris and Rita married the same year they met, had their daughter in 1974, and recorded several duet albums together.

Or Not…

Coolidge and Kristofferson were singing together (both providing background vocals on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”), winning Grammys together (“From the Bottle to the Bottom”), and heading to the edge of their marriage together.

Rita and Kris perform on stage.
Photo by kpa/United Archives/Getty Images

The marriage started to unravel after Coolidge miscarried her second child in 1977, three years after Casey was born. Coolidge described their marriage as volatile, which she blames on Kristofferson’s alcoholism and infidelity. He was controlling, jealous, and questioned her about everything she did.

Her Man and His Women

One time, when she was chatting with a girlfriend of hers while shopping, Kristofferson “accused me of hooking up with her” because he thought they were taking too long. According to her, he was a “heavy drinker,” and “could not be counted upon to be faithful.” And as his movie career soared, so did his attention to other women.

A portrait of Rita and Kris.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Only after their divorce did Coolidge learn just how unfaithful he had been to her during their marriage. Women would come up to her and say, “Now that you and Kris are divorced, you probably don’t care. But he and I were together… could you tell him I say hi.”

The Drinking and the Dallying

Between the drinking and the dallying, the marriage was doomed to fail. He also grew abusive towards her. If a black eye from one artist wasn’t enough, Coolidge was also on the receiving end of Kristofferson’s fist. One night, when he was blackout drunk, he punched her right in the eye.

A photo of Kristofferson with Coolidge and their daughter Tracy.
Photo by Frank Edwards/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The next day, he claimed to have no memory of it. He was outwardly “devastated” and “apologetic.” By the mid-‘70s, he was drinking a quart of vodka every day, getting so wasted that he would ramble during their shows together.

Goodbye, Kris

He even offered the crowds their money back while on the stage after apologizing for his intoxication and crappy performance. When he finally quit drinking in 1976, after filming “A Star Is Born,” the damage had already been done. Coolidge had enough. She walked out in 1979.

Rita performs on stage.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

It wasn’t just his infidelity and alcoholism that broke her down. Kristofferson’s emotional abuse also included belittling her talent. “I was a recording artist. I was making an album every year or two, and I think that’s what he wanted really more than anything, but the films just kept coming at him.”

She Loved Him, but She Wasn’t a Fool

She admitted that it got to the point where she was crying every day, “and that’s not a good way to live.” When they divorced, she didn’t ask for anything from him. “My intention was never to vilify Kris in this book,” she wrote in her memoir, aware of how damning this information is.

A still of Rita during a performance.
Source: Instagram /@ritacoolidge

“I think I made it clear how much I care about this man; how much I’ve always loved him.” She eventually found peace and became friends with Kristofferson. She even has a good relationship with his wife, Lisa.

Losing Her Sister to a Murder-Suicide

Coolidge has dealt with other tragedies. In 2014, her sister Priscilla, who was married to Booker T Jones, was killed by her third husband in a shocking murder-suicide. “I continue to grieve and will for all my life,” Coolidge said.

A portrait of Rita Coolidge / A photo of Rita Coolidge’s album cover.
Source: Instagram /@ritacoolidge

In October 2014, Priscilla was killed by Michael Siebert, who then killed himself. The pain grew when Siebert’s ashes were delivered to Coolidge’s home, and she was forced to dispose of them. The wronged wife had now become a grieving sister.

A Car Accident at 13

Speaking of tragedies, Coolidge suffered a horrific car accident with her parents when she was 13 years old. The crash threw her straight through the windshield, leaving her face severely cut. She needed 60 stitches.

A dated album cover of Rita Coolidge.
Source: Instagram /@ritacoolidge

Until she wrote the memoir, only family members and close friends knew about that accident, which had traumatized her for years to come. Writing the book was “cathartic,” she said. “Just talking about the automobile accident I was in when I was 13 was huge. I haven’t talked about it publicly before.”

The Nelsons, Panic Attacks, and Special Brownies

Coolidge admitted that after finishing her memoir, she “almost had a panic attack.” She had made a choice to not keep any more secrets – to lay it all out there. But with every tell-all book comes severed ties between (former) friends. She called up some friends for advice, one of them being Connie Nelson, Willie’s ex-wife.

A portrait of Connie and Willie Nelson at the time.
Photo by Art Zelin/Getty Images

They have been confidantes since they met back in 1973 at a Fourth of July concert in Texas (Willie Nelson was headlining). Back in those days, Coolidge would have fun with the Nelsons, like the time the three went to Disneyland together and got stoned on special brownies.

The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth

“Rita absolutely did call me,” Connie said. “I told her, ‘The truth is the truth, and you can’t argue with it.’” The truth has indeed been the main thing that Coolidge wanted to reveal with her memoir, but she also wanted to speak up about violence against women.

A picture of Connie Nelson.
Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/Corbis/Getty Images

Take it from her; she survived a very misogynistic industry. “Women were not treated equally. It just was part of the way society looked at women at that time,” she wrote. “It was a time of change, not only with Civil Rights in this country, but women were demanding to be treated as equal.”

At the Hands of Men

Coolidge wrote candidly about violence against women. Early in her career, she met Tina Turner, who took off her wig to show Coolidge a long scar on her skull. “This is what he does,” Turner told her right then and there (referring to her then-husband, Ike Turner).

Tina Turner performs on stage.
Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Coolidge also talked about her friend and singer Bonnie Bramlett, who also suffered at the hands of her man, Delaney. Coolidge didn’t put the blame on one person or thing, but she said it had a lot to do with society at the time. “Maybe men really felt like women kind of belonged to them.”

The Wise Sammy Davis Jr.

“The greatest irony of the whole Sammy experience is that, for so many years, I was very irreverent towards him.”

Coolidge met the late Sammy Davis Jr. one night at a Frank Sinatra event, and she credits him for providing her with an epiphany in the middle of her career: that music is its own reward.

A picture of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

She said that her friends bought her a copy of his autobiography, because she tended to make so many jokes about him “because he seemed to be so jive.” Then, when she literally sat down and chatted with him, it changed her life.

He Changed Her Life

They sat down at a table in New York City one day when she was in her early 30s, after splitting with Kristofferson, and he told her things “that changed me and my life, in a lot of ways.” One thing that really resonated with her was that “you never know where the special musical moments are going to come from.”

A photo of Sammy Davis Jr. during a performance.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

“That was one of my first real lessons in growing up,” Coolidge stated. She said she grew to love Sammy and was deeply saddened when he died.

Records Don’t Matter

For a while there, the recording process lost meaning for her, and became routine. “When he told me to sit back and just be with my craft, and be one with it, it was life-changing.” He told her that “records don’t matter” – all that matters is that she’s a singer and she can relate to her audience.

A portrait of Rita Coolidge.
Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

“Hone your craft,” he advised her. She believes that if it wasn’t for that chat with the late Rat Pack member, she probably wouldn’t be making music today.

Her Second Husband

Coolidge has been married twice; the second wedding took place in 2004 when she married Tatsuya Suda, a world leader in computer architecture research. Suda is a Japanese citizen who retired in 2010 after a long tenure at UC Irvine.

Rita Coolidge performs on stage / A mugshot of Tatsuya Suda.
Photo by Timothy Norris, Getty Images / Source: Orange County Register

Allegations of professional misconduct surfaced, which prompted his retirement. In 2014, Suda pleaded guilty to receiving illegal payments – a felony charge. While records don’t show an official divorce, it seems as though Coolidge is in another relationship with a former college lover named Joe Hutto.