Rickie Lee Jones
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Think of what you are about to read as a documentary film of sorts, replete with close-ups and fade-outs, starring the premiere song-stylist and songwriter of her generation, Rickie Lee Jones.
In this film we see: Rickie Lee Jones’ face, her distinctive mouth, and her thick, beyond shoulder length blonde hair as she walks down a road in a bucolic section of Tacoma, Washington, where she currently resides. It is springtime. She does not wear shoes. She carries a guitar. The sky overhead is as shiny as mica. As Jones searches for a place to sit and play in the sun, we see various aspects of her contemporary life come into frame, engaging Jones’ attention as she smiles, and listens, and reflects. We see her daughter, Charlotte Rose; Jones’ mother and siblings; various friends. All of these people come and go, passing in front of, and behind, our primary focus: Rickie Lee Jones playing her guitar and singing any number of her award winning songs: "Chuck E.’s in Love," or her interpretation of the classic, "Making Whoopee," for which she won a Grammy in 1990.
As Rickie Lee Jones sings, we hear, in voice over: Rickie Lee Jones is the second of three daughters and one son who are of Welsh and Irish ancestry. She was born on November 8, 1954, in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents, Richard Loris Jones and Bettye Jane Jones, both had peripatetic childhoods: her father lived from hand to mouth in a number of transient hotels, and rode the rails, wandering the country. Her mother was an orphan. She has described her family as "lower-middle-class-hillbilly-hipster.
The late Mr. Jones was a performer who supplemented his income as a waiter, furniture mover, and gardener. (Richard Jones’own father was a one-legged vaudeville and carny dancer named Peg Leg Jones. Jones says of her paternal grandfather: "I have one clipping of him, advertising his act, where his name is bigger than Milton Berle’s.") Bettye Jones worked as a waitress; later, she became a nurse.
Between jobs, Richard Jones taught his musically inclined daughter how to sing. And to honor that, Jones used to perform, in her early concerts, "The Moon is Made of Gold," a lullaby her father wrote for her. Since her family led a largely marginal existence, Jones lived in Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Arizona, and Olympia, Washington by the time she entered high school. By all accounts, Rickie Lee Jones was an extremely solitary child who was especially close to her older brother, Danny. Nevertheless, she preferred the secret world of her imaginary friends and playmates. In an interview, Bettye Jones said that her daughter’s imaginary playmates had "strange names like Bashla and SlowBeeSlow." She continued, "[Rickie] would take them with her to church."
When he was sixteen, Rickie’s brother, Danny, suffered a motorcycle accident that left him with one leg and partial paralysis. At the time, Rickie lived with an aunt. But she visited her brother in the hospital constantly. Her mother recalls that she would sing in the hospital’s elevator shaft. "You could hear it all around the hospital," Bettye Jones has said. "It was the eeriest sound I think I ever heard."
When Rickie was fourteen, she was living in Arizona with her father. Jones has said in an interview that her mother was always afraid she would run away--a heartbreak she couldn’t take--and so sent her to live with her father; her parents were separated by then. Jones recalls that she once ran away from her father as a result of his need to control his wildly imaginative young daughter, her burgeoning sexuality and charisma, and powerful talent. In an interview for a Rolling Stone cover story published in 1979, Jones said: "I never knew when I was gong to leave. I might be walking over to a kid’s house, then of all a sudden I would just stick out my thumb and hitchhike across three states."
In this, Rickie resembles Cissy, the heroine of Tom Robbins’ classic novel, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, the story of a young girl trying to find the world through the kindness of strangers offering her a ride to anywhere but here.
After high school in Olympia, which she had returned to in her mid-teens, Jones began singing more and more. She also wrote lyrics in a little notebook she kept. Sometimes, she’d sing the entire score of "West Side Story," to amuse herself.
By the time she nineteen, Jones was living in Los Angeles, waiting tables and occasionally playing music in out of the way coffee houses and bars. All the while, she was developing her unique aesthetic: music that was sometimes spoken, often beautifully sung, and while emotionally accessible, she was writing lyrics as taut and complex as any by the great American poet, Elizabeth Bishop. In her voice and songs, we saw smoky stocking seams, love being everything but requited. And it was during these years that Jones’ song, "Easy Money," caught the attention of one musician and then the music industry. The song was recorded by Lowell George, the founder of the band, Little Feat. He used it on his solo album, "Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here." Warner Brothers auditioned Jones and quickly signed her to the label.
Her debut on Warners, Rickie Lee Jones, released in 1979, won the grammy for Best New Artist. She was hailed by one critic as a "highly touted new pop-jazz-singer-songwriter" and another critic as "one of the best--if not the best--artist of her generation." In addition to the album’s brilliant songs--including the exceptional "On Saturday Afternoons in 1963," the haunting "Last Chance Texaco," and the popular "Chuck E’s in Love"--Jones was becoming a figure whose life was bearing a great deal of emulation by young women and men who found, in her deep and personal and idiosyncratic life and work, a model for the new generation of hipster: She was heralded as a trendsetter in dress (beret, subdresses, heels) and in lifestyle, given her by then famous relationship with two boys she helped to make famous, too: Chuck E. Weiss, a Los Angeles character, and the singer and songwriter Tom Waits, about whom Rickie has said: "We walk around the same streets, and I guess it's primarily a jazz-motivated situation for both of us. We're living on the jazz side of life."
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