By Andrew Gilhooley / 411
Music is such a ubiquitous backdrop to our culture that everyone can think of songs that define a particular time in their life. For those who grew up in the 1970s, one such song is likely to be “Chuck E’s In Love” by Rickie Lee Jones. Released in 1979, the mellow folk-jazz song was quite a marked contrast to the hits of the time, songs such as the Village People’s “YMCA” and Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.” Nevertheless, “Chuck E” reached number 4 in the charts and that year Jones received a Grammy for best new artist.
Critics hailed Jones as the new Joni Mitchell. She was, however, reluctant to be pigeonholed, and followed up her eponymous debut album with “Pirates” in 1981. “Pirates” was an album filled with much less radio-friendly cuts, featuring longer, more complex songs than its predecessor, with some darker themes. Then two years later she confounded critics again with an album of live jazz standards and studio outtakes entitled “Girl at her Volcano.” By this time, Jones was rapidly achieving cult status as an artist, drawing a fan base from across society’s spectrum.
The diversity of Jones’ material perhaps reflects her early life experiences. She was born in Chicago to parents who both had had little history of family stability. Her mother Bettye was an orphan and her father Richard was the son of a one-legged vaudeville dancer named Peg Leg Jones. He had spent much of his youth in transient hotels living from hand to mouth, and was a performer who supplemented his income by working a variety of jobs including waiter and furniture mover. Because of her father’s work, the family moved around constantly, living a largely marginal existence. Life was difficult, and Jones ran away from home twice in her teens before finally leaving home for good at age 18.
She soon found herself in Venice, CA, where she worked as a waitress and occasionally sang at coffee-houses and bars. She hung out with Tom Waits and Chuck E Weiss (the inspiration for her first hit song) and developed her own unique style of music. Her music caught the attention of Lowell George, the founder of Little Feat, and he recorded her song “Easy Money” on his solo album “Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here.” Warner Brothers signed Jones to the label in 1978, and a year later, she released her first album.
Over the course of her 25 years in the music business, Jones has constantly refined and reinvented her music. For example, she embraced synthesizers for 1984’s “The Magazine” and teamed up with jazz musicians for 1991’s “Pop Pop.” In 1994, she embarked on an unplugged acoustic tour, releasing a live album the following year. Her most recent release, 2003’s “The Evening of my Best Day,” is similarly eclectic, featuring Celtic themes as well as political sentiments reminiscent of the protest songs of the 1960s.
Jones is currently on tour to promote her latest album and you can see her on Friday evening at the Catalyst club in Santa Cruz.
First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, February 12, 2004
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