[Photo by Astor Morgan © 2013; click image to enlarge.]
The chameleon named Rickie Lee Jones routinely falls into the cracks between pretty much any two adjacent categories: old and new; musical genres (blues, jazz, rock, pop, soul, R&B); “always been around” to “always new”… In her early recording career, starting with 1979’s self-titled album (shown at right), I always — and for no reason at all other than the most superficial, i.e., her album photos — associated her with Joni Mitchell.
But really, there’s no mistaking her musically for anyone else.
She may have been “around” for a while before that debut album, but I’d never heard of her until the title track started to be played, well, everywhere. (It eventually got as high as #4 on the Billboard “Hot 100” list.)
Like its songwriter, “Chuck E’s in Love” struck me immediately as sui generis. It’s got a funky sort of rhythm, and Jones’s voice plays with that rhythm and with the instrumentation in all kinds of interesting ways. (Nearly all of one verse, indeed, is more or less simply narrated, with no accompaniment at all.) At the end, the vocalization completely takes off into a soaring scat passage which concludes with a surprising lyrical twist. It sounded like nothing else on the radio back then.
Likewise, the rest of the lyrics offer evidence of an easygoing, witty personality behind them (If this ain’t healthy is it some kinda clean?, indeed). One verse rhymes “the Plantages” (an old Hollywood “movie palace”) with “contagious” — and she even manages to work in an expletive (“Christ!”) which back in the ’70s was probably interpreted (or, ha!, at least excused) as “Cripes!”
The song comes with its own little bit of an interesting back story, even:
Jones and singer-songwriter Tom Waits were lovers, for a good number of years. (Talk about sui generis — what a couple they must have seemed!) They lived in what Wikipedia calls a “musically fertile” neighborhood, with the Stray Cats, Frank Zappa, and others nearby — and shared their own lodgings with another stray musician: a fellow named Chuck E. Weiss. The story goes that Weiss mysteriously disappeared one day… “mysteriously,” that is, until he called them shortly thereafter. He told Waits (who answered the phone) that he’d moved to Denver to be with a woman. Waits hung up the phone, turned to Jones, and said — yes — “Chuck E’s in love.”
(That lyrical twist at the end of the song, by the way, is bogus; Jones and the real “Chuck E” never had a romantic relationship — although they clearly got along great, as the photo above (from Jone’s site) shows.)
One other thing I wanted to mention about Rickie Lee Jones: if you do a search for images of her on the Web, you will very, very likely leave the task in a markedly better mood than when you began. Why? She has a great, easy, smile, and — as you can see from the photo at the top — apparently laughs at the drop of a hat. (She does love hats, for what that’s worth.)