I spoke at length to American singer/songwriter, Chi Coltrane, for the long-awaited 2017 remastered reissue of her three CBS albums. Here follows the liner note essay that appeared in the accompanying booklet:
“The piano is my axe”. So says Chi Coltrane and there are few who’d disagree after listening to the three albums presented here – each one marking a pivotal point in her development as one of the most exciting musical characters in the singer/songwriter movement of 1970s America. With her powerhouse songs, piano talent, ice-blonde beauty and extraordinary stage presence, Chi (pronounced ‘shy’) Coltrane was and is a natural star. While many of her fellow singer/songwriters were pioneering a laid-back, Laurel Canyon style, Chi was different – her ballads often had a European, classical melodic sensibility and her rockers were hybrids of gospel, jazz, blues and soul with a twist. There was a unique, transcontinental quality to her enunciation (perhaps owing to her parentage) and she was a genuinely thrilling, gutsy and versatile vocalist. As her three CBS albums (she also recorded for other labels) make clear, she was a pianist whose skills went beyond merely accompanying herself and into the realms of genius, her fingers mustering Elton John-style theatrics one moment and Rachmaninovian callisthenics the next. Now, at last, two of her much-missed albums, Let It Ride and Silk & Steel, make their first appearance on CD anywhere in the world, together with her blockbuster self-titled debut.
Chi, who grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, was by no means an ordinary child. Her talent with musical instruments did not have to be honed laboriously by years of classical instruction; she was a musical savant and an autodidact whose gifts at first went unnoticed at home. Chi recalls, “My mother was German and, at that time, having a piano in the home was something of a status symbol”. Before the Coltrane household had acquired the instrument, however, Chi was already beginning to master it. “I would go next door to my girlfriend’s house”, she says. “I was seven years old and we would play dolls, but then I discovered a piano in the living room. That was the end of the dolls. Then my mother remarried and at my stepfather’s mother’s house there was a piano. I played there and my mother was really surprised. She had got notes from the school saying, ‘your daughter is gifted musically’ but she hadn’t paid much attention to them”.
“I didn’t have any training and I didn’t need any,” Chi continues. “I played eight instruments by the time I was twelve. It would usually take me about an hour to figure out an instrument to the point where I’d feel comfortable playing it. It’s a gift and it’s indicative that my life was planned for me before I was even born. I think the Lord has everything planned before we’re born and it’s wonderful to be aware of what that plan is and to lock into it.” Chi eventually dropped seven of the instruments to focus solely on piano, explaining, “It’s the number one instrument in the whole world, and I thought ‘I don’t want to be a jack of all trades, I want to be a master of one'”.
During childhood, another aspect of Chi’s unusual giftedness became apparent – she had an innate ability to empathise and connect with animals. Music remained an insistent calling and Chi’s singing voice began to be developed through church. “I sang in the choir and then did solo numbers, so I got used to singing in front of an audience.” By her late teens, Chi was performing in clubs and, later, nightclubs and high-end dinner houses throughout Chicago. “I would dress older and let them think I was 21”, she confesses. “I shouldn’t even have been working in clubs. I had a crystal jar and people would drop money in there. My vocal coach told me that I should learn all these old songs from long before I was born – ‘It Had To Be You’, ‘Goody Goody’ and so on. He said, ‘When people ask how can a young person like you know those old songs, you tell them it’s because they’re the greatest songs ever written and they’ll put money in your kitty’.”
Besides singing and piano, there was a vital third aspect to Chi’s musical identity – songwriting. “I wrote my first song when I was about 18”, she says. Informed by disparate influences ranging from classical music to British Invasion pop, Chi began amassing compositions and making industry connections. “One night, the manager of Shubert Theatre was having dinner in the restaurant. He heard piano-playing and then a woman begin to sing. People around him were saying, ‘Oh – she’s starting! Let’s hurry and go into the lounge!’ He thought he’d better check this out so he followed them and was surprised to find that it was actually the woman singer playing the piano. He saw how my performance affected people – they were glued. Normally in piano bars, people talk, but they weren’t doing that with me. He told me that night he would like to represent me and he brought me out to the West Coast”. Chi made a six-song debut, which was duly presented to Columbia Records, and an audition was arranged. “Clive Davis asked me to sing one of my songs. I’d barely started – I don’t even know if I made it through one verse – and he said, ‘That’s it! I’m signing you’.”
Work on Chi’s first album began immediately. She was paired with producer Toxey French who had a significant track record as a studio drummer, his CV boasting work for Tommy Rae, Judy Henske, The Dillards, and Goldenrod. That same year, he produced the first album by LA-based singer/songwriter Patti Dahlstrom. Musicians were drawn from the absolute cream of the Californian crop; drummers Jim Gordon and Ron Tutt, Bread’s Larry Knetchel joining Leland Sklaar and Steve Lefever on bass, Dean Parks and Ben Benay on guitar, with percussion from Victor Feldman and King Errisson. Britain’s Paul Buckmaster filled out the sound with his never-less-than-revelatory string and woodwind arrangements, while horns were handled by Jim Horn. The studio luminaries were working with first-rate songs. Few artists were writing contemporary spirituals as stirring as ‘Turn Me Around’, ‘The Tree’ and ‘Time To Come In’. And, in the annals of popular music, perhaps only Laura Nyro’s ‘And When I Die’ exudes the same wise-beyond-her-years attitude to death as Chi’s jubilant ‘Go Like Elijah’. Also in the mix were fiery rock polemic (‘I Will Not Dance’), life-and-love-affirming up-tempo rock/soul (‘Feelin’ Good’, ‘Thunder And Lightning’), philosophical rumination (‘The Wheel Of Life’, ‘You Were My Friend’) and romantic balladry (‘Goodbye John’, ‘It’s Really Come To This’).
“I was so excited to be doing my first recording. I greatly believed in the songs and I was working with top-notch musicians who’d played on so many hits”, Chi recalls. The project encountered one hindrance: “The producer wanted to use someone else on the piano”, Chi remembers, “Columbia’s A&R Rep said, ‘What?’, my manager said, ‘What?’. They had a nice talk with him – I think it was just one or two sentences – and he was a different man”, she chuckles. Columbia brooked no arguments – Chi would play piano – and, as the process went on, she proved the very antithesis of the outmoded, passive girl-singer stereotype, throwing herself eagerly into every aspect of recording. “I said to the producer afterwards, ‘Do you think I could produce an album?’, and he said, ‘Are you kidding? You produced this one!’.”
When the time came to pick a lead single, there was some hesitation – Columbia felt that they had a whole record’s worth of singles. “I really believe that that’s the way to do an album”, says Chi. “I don’t like it when I buy an album and I find out that it has one or two great songs and the rest are all fillers. I don’t put fillers on albums. I’d rather write a song and not use it if I think it’s filler quality.” Eventually, Steve Popovich, the young, newly-appointed Vice President of Promotion at CBS, consulted Chi. “It was not easy choosing – we could have gone with ‘You Were My Friend’, ‘Feelin’ Good’, any of those songs. Steve asked me, ‘What do you think we should release?’ and we agreed on ‘Thunder And Lightning’.”
‘Thunder And Lightning’ reached No.17 on the Billboard Charts, almost entering the Top Ten in the Record World and Cashbox charts. The debut album, 1972’s Chi Coltrane (US Columbia KC 31275/UK CBS 65043), with its gorgeous sepia photography and textured sleeve, enjoyed a respectable three-month residency in the Billboard 200. Attempts to break Chi in the UK market, however, were scuppered; a proposed appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test was cancelled at the last minute because of a union rule stipulating that an equivalent UK artist needed to be reciprocally booked on US TV. In Europe, there were no such impediments and Chi’s career exploded on the Continent in spectacular fashion, with acres of press coverage, numerous television appearances and hit single after hit single, most notably ‘Go Like Elijah’ – a month-long No.1 in the Netherlands. The Continent embraced the photogenic young star without reservation – taking her to their collective heart and placing her in a select group of notables including Garland Jeffreys, Elliot Murphy and Lori Lieberman – American singer/songwriters appreciated with more fervour in Europe than in their home country.
Admirers of Chi’s music included Dusty Springfield. “She came to my home one day, and we talked and I played some of my music with her. She was a really nice person, I really liked Dusty. I was sorry that the world was deprived of more of her music by her passing. I’d done some of her songs in clubs in my teens.” Dusty cut a version of Chi’s ‘Turn Me Around’ for her 1974 ABC/Dunhill album, Longing, which was abandoned prior to release. After a recording hiatus, she attempted another version of the song for her 1977 comeback, It Begins Again. (Eventually, both versions came out when Longing was finally released in 2001 as part of the compilation Beautiful Soul: The ABC Dunhill Collection.)
For her second album, Chi stepped confidently into the producer role. “I didn’t know what the word ‘producer’ meant, but I knew I had to do it. When you’re producing an album, if you know what you’re doing (even if you don’t know that you know), you can do it without anything disrupting you. So it was much easier for me on the second album, even though it was a lot more work, because I didn’t have to convince anybody or run anything past them when they might not even have ears to hear. And the second album went gold in some countries before the first one did.” (Further vindication would come when Billboard singled out for praise Chi’s production in its contemporaneous review of the album).
The bulk of the recording took place at Mama Jo’s (North Hollywood) but since Chi was constantly doing European promo and live work, she was able to stop off in London to spend some time at Trident Studios, Soho. Roy Halee, who had engineered and co-produced Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry just a few years earlier for the same record label, was on board as mixing engineer. Additional newcomers to the Chi Coltrane ensemble included Bobbye Hall (congas, tambourine), Lee Ritenour (guitar), world-class songbirds Clydie King, Stephanie Spruill and Merry Clayton (particularly audible on ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Fly-Away Bluebird’ and ‘Who Ever Told You’), and German bassist Klaus Voorman. Returning to the fold were Jim Gordon, Ben Benay and Larry Knetchel. The British contingent included Paul Buckmaster (strings/woodwinds), Chris Laurence (bass) and Barry De Souza (drums). Chi handled piano, synthesiser and percussion.
Where Chi Coltrane had opened with a controlled explosion (‘Thunder & Lightning‘), Let It Ride (US Columbia KC 32463) kicked off with a certified barn-burner – ‘Hallelujah’. Composed by the songwriting team of Gary Zekley, Mitchell Bottler and Roberta Twain and recorded in 1971 by fellow CBS-ers, Sweathog, here the song is so wholly owned by the artist that it might as well have been written by her. It remains the only song by an outside writer on any Chi Coltrane album. The enduring myth than an artist’s second album can never quite achieve the same brilliance as her first was thoroughly discredited by Let It Ride. It was a masterclass in distilling the best qualities of a prior recording, rendering them purer and more concentrated. The modern-day spirituals were present (the title track), as was the aching balladry (‘Different Ways’, ‘Myself To You’) and the soulful, bluesy rockers (‘It’s Not Easy’, ‘Fly-Away Bluebird’, ‘Short’nin Bread’). There was some use of sustained allegory (Who Ever Told You) – a writing technique Chi would return to with ‘Slow Driver’ for her 1977 album, Road To Tomorrow.
Presented in an evocative, tinted sleeve – Chi captured by British photographer Tim Fulford-Brown in a moment of intense communication with her instrument – Let It Ride (1973) was a distinctive and eye-catching package (it’s hard to think of any singer/songwriter quite so adored by the camera – perhaps only Rosie Vela in the 1980s compares). Sonically speaking, everything was exquisitely aligned – the self-production, the arrangements, Chi’s breathtaking vocals and piano, and the supporting players all ascending to a plateau of near-perfection.
“Let it Ride was a fantastic album”, says Chi, “part of my evolution as an artist”. It’s an assessment with which it’s hard to argue. The album is masterfully sequenced so that the light, coquettish ‘Feather My Bed’ precedes what surely ranks as the most astonishing moment – ‘Forget Love’ – an ethereal elegy to missed opportunity. Chimes tinkle in a breeze before an enigmatic story about the elusiveness of romance unfolds, Paul Buckmaster’s arrangement building and building to support the narrative. The song concludes as if in an echoing cathedral, pianos overdubbed on pianos, as Chi sings a hypnotic repetition of the mournful refrain. It is steeped in classical influences not dissimilar to those apparent on ‘Wheel Of Life’ from the first album and remains one of Chi’s landmark songs.
“It was a beautiful gift to me spiritually”, she remembers. “It just flowed all through me, and I went to the piano and played it like that. Everyone was astonished by ‘Forget Love’. It was so haunting, my manager said. It’s very relaxing and beautiful but it’s also very haunting. When I do it in concert, the musicians eventually drop out and I go into a classical rendition of the song, and I get carried away. Everybody is quiet and in another dimension, including me”.
Despite its stellar contents, Let It Ride had a tough time in the US market. Trouble was brewing at Columbia, with Clive Davis leaving the company under a cloud. Many artists associated with Davis found their albums either shelved entirely or issued without proper promotion. The latter fate befell Chi. While the album provided another sizeable European hit with ‘Who Ever Told You’, in America it was put out with minimal support. Having turned in a quality album to which she’d painstakingly devoted herself only to find it being insufficiently championed in the US, Chi felt the time had come to change labels. “I was being overlooked, so my attorney convinced them to free me up for other recording opportunities”. Next came the Peter Bernstein-produced Road To Tomorrow (1977), issued on the TK/Clouds label known best for its disco output. Chi was planning her second album for TK when fate intervened. “I had an appointment at the Beverley Hilton Hotel and I mistakenly went into a conference room where a CBS meeting was taking place”. The assembled record execs immediately recognised Chi and asked her to sign with CBS Germany, offering to buy out her TK contract. Before long, her fourth album began to take shape in earnest.
Many singer/songwriters who’d made names for themselves in the 1970s were interested in pursuing a change of direction as the decade came to an end, with several keen to explore rock and new wave. Billy Joel made Glass Houses. Andrew Gold made Whirlwind. Carly Simon made Come Upstairs. And Chi made Silk & Steel (Europe CBS 85277). Where Road To Tomorrow was full of luscious, pillow-soft moments like ‘Ooh Baby’ and ‘Less Than The Best’, Silk & Steel (though not without ballads) was a bracing, street-smart album, perfect for the turn of the decade.
“I really wanted to express my rock roots and my rock feelings”, Chi recalls. “I went more heavily into rock because the songs I was writing demanded it.” In truth, there had always been a rock sensibility underpinning some of Chi’s work; she points to ‘Who Ever Told You’ and ‘I Will Not Dance’ as early examples. Now, however, she was ready to journey into it more completely. Recording took place once more at Mama Jo’s, with Freddie Piro (the studio’s founder) and Larry Brown producing and Chi as Associate Producer and Arranger. Five electric-guitarists contributed, including session supremo Steve Hunter and David Mansfield, whose credits range from Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue to Bruce Hornsby and the Range.
Housed in elegant Norman Seeff photography, Silk & Steel (1981) birthed two singles – ‘Goin’ Round’ and ‘Blinded By Love’. Chi’s songs were in longer form than the standard three-minute single, so it took just eight tracks to make the album whole. It remains today a credible and creditable rock record, with a resilient and defiant spirit, mining subjects such as the exhaustion of touring life (‘Jet Lag’), the pitfalls and pleasures of romance (‘Goin Round’, Leaving It All Behind’) and the need to stand firm in the face of knock-backs and defeat (‘Kick Back’, ‘Anymore’).
(Side note: The first time I wrote about this album, I was a callow post-adolescent, insufferably opinionated. Wanting it to sound like Let It Ride Mark 2, I struggled to adjust to what seemed a strikingly different sound. With the passing of a few years and the acquisition of mature ears, I now have no hesitation in placing it on an absolutely equal footing with Chi’s earlier albums.)
From the beautiful, choral bridging passages in ‘Travel Light’ and ‘Don’t Forget The Queen’ to the hot groove of ‘Goin’ Round’, Silk & Steel yields abundant rewards with each listen. As ever, Chi has something to say; note the meditative, anti-materialist message of ‘Travel Light’ and the pick-yourself-up philosophy of ‘Kick Back’. The latter suffered from unintended ambiguity, as Chi explains: “People think ‘kick back’ means relax, but that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying ‘fight back – let ’em have it!’. When I do it in concert now, I sing ‘fight back’ and that’s what I would sing on the record if I could do it over”.
It would be an oversight not to give special mention Chi’s Silk & Steel vocal performances. From anguished howls to birdlike swoops, soft, plaintive whispers and all-out growls, this is rock-singing of the highest order, deserving the kind of accolades enjoyed by Heart’s Ann Wilson.
Never one to tread water, Chi continued to experiment after moving to Teldec (part of Warners) with a pair of self-produced albums, Ready To Roll (1983) and The Message (1986), preceded by 1982’s self-explanatory release, Live!. But then, apart from a collaboration with Tangerine Dream for a TV soundtrack song, there was radio silence. In the pre-internet era, when an artist withdrew from performing and recording, it was not always possible for audiences and fans to glean even the faintest clue as to what was happening. There were no social media sites, no blogs, no websites. As the years passed, Chi’s catalogue was only sparsely represented on compact disc and even when the web became part of everyday life, she initially had no presence on it. It turned out that nearly two decades of ceaseless work had taken a pronounced toll:
“I had been doing a lot of touring – a lot of it – like 300-and-something concerts a year”, says Chi. “I had been working too much and I suffered a severe case of burn-out. If I was driving a car, I’d stop at the red light and then horns would be honking like crazy because I was already in a deep sleep by the time it turned green. No doctor could tell me what it was. They’d say, ‘Well – go to bed early’. They didn’t understand that however early I went to bed, I’d get up at 9 o’clock and by 11 o’clock I was ready to go back to bed. They were no help to me. I didn’t get an accurate medical diagnosis until my hairdresser recommended that I go to a certain holistic doctor who identified and treated the problem in 2007”.
A rejuvenated Chi immediately set to work in support of a multi-label best-of (The Essential Chi Coltrane) which appeared on V2 in some territories and Sony in others. It included a show-stopper of a new song, ‘Yesterday, Today & Forever’, more than sufficient to reassure fans that her talent was undimmed by the passing of time. “It was as if I had just awakened from a short sleep that was in fact 17 years – to me it felt like a short period because I was out of it the whole time. It was a lot like the story of Rip Van Winkle, except that I didn’t wake up with a long beard!” It wasn’t just Chi’s music that emerged unscathed by the two-decade slumber; her appearance and demeanour remained remarkably youthful and vibrant.
By 2009, Chi was back in live work, pacing herself to prevent a second burn-out. Now, she is working on a new album, her first since 1986. “I have my own studio and I work with Pro-Tools. Yamaha donated a seven-foot concert grand for the album – it’s fantastic. The left-hand bass notes just growl with power. When they came to pick it up, I told them it was harder for me to part with that piano than it is to go through a breakup with a boyfriend!”
As she reflects on the CBS years, Chi concludes, “Each album represents a lot of work. It’s a great experience, especially when you have all the songs ready and you go into the studio. It’s obviously more work if you’re producing and arranging the music yourself, much more than if you just go into the studio to sing and play, but you don’t have to fight a battle to realise your vision and in the end it’s so worthwhile because you have real fruit, a product you’re really pleased with. It’s something wonderful.”
Charles Donovan, London, 2017
With thanks to Chi Coltrane and Andy Gray