Rita Coolidge hadn't been in a recording studio for more than five years. But her habit for Christmas-themed tours -- now a tradition more than 10 years in the making -- inspired her longtime band to lure her back to the notion of recording a new album.
"They said, ‘We think you should do a Christmas record. We're going to build the tracks and you'll come up and be as much a part of it as you want. But you'll come up and sing and we'll do everything else,' " Coolidge says in a telephone interview from her California home. "It was such a fabulous thing."
So Coolidge, a music-business veteran with a long resume including work alongside luminaries like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson, recorded an album long in the making: her first Christmas record, just released.
She'll play selections from the new collection, along with hits and favorite tunes from throughout her career, in concert tonight at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
Coolidge will be backed by her longtime band of guitarist John McDuffie, keyboardist
John Thomas, drummer Lynn Coulter and Randy Landas on bass. She'll also be joined by the Williams College Gospel Choir for several numbers.
Her first big taste of the spotlight came when she was recruited as a backing vocalist by Bonnie and Delaney, and then the Joe Cocker tour that became a concert film and his classic live album "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." (Coolidge is a featured vocalist on the classic rock radio staple "Super star" from that album.)
She was later married to Kris Kristofferson for several years, and the two had a fruitful musical partnership that spawned several hits in the world of country music. Her 1977 solo album "Anytime, Anywhere" included hit interpretations of songs like "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" and "The Way You Do The Things You Do," putting a pop shine on these R&B classics. She logged four consecutive Top 25 singles.
She also founded a group with her sister and daughter, called Walela, focusing on Native American music, particularly that of the family's Cherokee heritage.
That exploration of her musical roots led to one of her most memorable experiences, she says -- performing some of this music, along with Robert son, at the 2002 Olympics.
"It was unbelievable to look out on the ice and see a thousand native people in fuller regalia. It was just overwhelming. We all just stood with tears freezing on our faces," she recalls.
Her recorded output has slowed in the past decade or so, but she's remained a familiar presence in concert, including her annual Christmas tours. Several songs on the Christmas album feature a rootsy, soul-informed sound, with elements of jazz and even tastes of Native American language and music (notably on a re-interpretation of "Amazing Grace"), reflecting the years of experience, onstage and off, these musicians have had together.
"We've lived with them," she says of these songs, "we've played them, and every year it's just like coming home to this music. So it's not like something new. It's a result of many, many years of doing this music."
The arrangements of songs like "Santa Baby," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "Jingle Bell Rock" had been worked up through years of live performance, and the record has the feel of something with musical roots rather than a quick, one-off session.
"That's the magic of playing with people that you know and love, and working together a long time. You can never get that with studio players. They may hit some higher notes every now and then, but it might not be the right one for me," Coolidge says.
The presence of the Williams College Gospel Choir tonight is not an anomaly -- Coolidge aims to recruit a locally based choir at each of her Christmas shows. She's also said she prefers to play multiple nights in smaller venues, rather than one big show in a more impersonal location.
It's part of her efforts to relate to her audience and invite them into the process.
"To me it's always great when you have those magic nights when it's more than just playing to an audience -- when the audience is drawn in and it really becomes just a circle. Out in the audience they feel like they're in the band. It's hard to explain but it's the way it's what I want all the time, for people to feel like I'm sitting in their living room playing music. And to be that comfortable with the experience and to go away with something." Friday November 30, 2012
What: "A Rita Coolidge Christmas"
Who: Singer Rita Coolidge and her band; special guests, Williams College Gospel Choir
When: Tonight at 8
Where: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown
Tickets: $40; members and students, $35
How: 458-0524; clarkart.edu