The Duchess of Coolsville Richie Lee Jones hits big with a dash of scat and street poetry
That odd sound coming from the direction of your dashboard is not your old engine purring, for once, like a silver fox. It's a little tune on the radio with a dash of scat, a hipster backbeat and a lyric that truly glides, laid down in a voice of sweet rough-and-tumble. Chuck E.'s in Love, the most unlikely hit of the season, is fixing to elbow all the disco aside and find a snug niche for itself in the Top Ten. The song proves that despite all the flash and flack, disco still has a considerable way to go.
Whatever the fad, the Top 40 is territory that has not often been treated to the sound of well-groomed bop and is usually alien to lyrics of such well-tuned wit as these: "He was sittin' behind us down at the Pantages/ And whatever it is that he's got up his sleeve/ I hope it isn't contagious/ What's her name?/ Is that her there?/ Christ, I think he's even combed his hair!" For this song about the amours of Chuck E., and for a fine new album full of similar vignettes of life on the main stem, you can thank Rickie Lee Jones, 24, who has never cut a record before but who has sung in hard-times joints "full of bikers, degenerates, drunken men and toothless women" as recently as last year. She bought her first good guitar three weeks ago.
She is too good to be just a fluke, too tender to pass completely for the street-wise character she likes to play in her songs, too unexpected and far too unlikely to be a product of some commercial calculation. Jones' sound, respect, gracefully oldtime, never turns antique. She likes Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye and Laura Nyro, but she also talks of Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughan with respect, performs a stops-out version of an old Louis Prima tune to close out her concerts. Her songs have their origins in, and owe a friendly debt to, the work of such all-night-joint bards as Tom Waits. Chuck E. is a real character, a buddy of Waits' and of Rickie Lee's who has now become, according to the woman who immortalized him, "king of the sidewalk, the most popular guy on Santa Monica Boulevard."
Jones' songs all have a kind of Los Angeles lyricism, fast and relaxed and flush with exotic incongruity, like L.A.'s transplanted palm trees. "My writing is all from a particular neighborhood," she told TIME'S Jeff Melvoin. "I can pick any person on this street or the next and just be them." The titles fix the tone and set the stage (Easy Money, Coolsville, The Last Chance Texaco), while the songs spin out little narratives of hard luck and high spirits in the big town: "There was a Joe/ Leanin' on the back door/ A couple Jills with their eyes on a couple of bills/ Their eyes was statin'/ They was waitin'/ To get their hands on some Easy Money."