Since, as of 6th April 2020, we’re about a fortnight into coronavirus lockdown, I thought I’d introduce some of my favourite cult stars; they’re stars to me, at least, and to other devotees, but perhaps not to the wider world, much though they deserve to be. I’m thinking of the people in popular music I haven’t already written about but who I think are/were extraordinary. And there’s nowhere better to begin than with Rita Jean Bodine, a singer/songwriter (born Rita Suzanne Hertzberg in the late 1940s) on the 20th Century record label (part of the 20th Century Fox company). 20th Century had some brilliant acts but did not have the best reputation for breaking them successfully. Rita Jean made two albums for them (her only two albums, alas) in 1974, Sitting On Top Of My World and Bodine, Rita Jean.

So what’s special about her? The better question would be – what isn’t? The singing voice is exceptional; she can sing in a soulful, lubricious growl or a light, feathery, heartrending whisper. There is gravel and silk in her voice. Then there’s the songwriting; both her albums are roughly 60 per cent her own songs and 40 per cent well-chosen material from outsiders. Clearly, songwriting came naturally to her – her writing, both music and words – is unusually sophisticated. ‘Dynamite’ and ‘Pacified’ are particularly thrilling. There are ballads, there’s funk, pop and soul and a very slight sprinkling of camp on both LPs – just the right amount, in fact. Too much camp can undermine sincerity while too little can lead to earnestness.

Both albums are produced by the late Carol Carmichael (aka Carol Carmichael Parks), not only a producer but also a gifted singer and musician. Her skilfully layered backing vocals are a highlight of both albums. And let’s not forget RJB’s fabulous physical appearance – a deluxe, glossy, upper-echelon take on the retro styles sported by The Pointer Sisters and Bette Midler around the same time. The makeup featured on the sleeve of Bodine, Rita Jean is exquisite.

Sad to say, I know very little about Rita Jean Bodine herself. I bumped into these albums by chance on a trip to Cornwall in 2001 and then ordered sealed copies from Ebay when I realised how good they were. At one point, I managed to acquire a 1974 press release which included more biographical information, but after a number of house moves, a bereavement, a nervous breakdown and a few other calamities, I have no idea where I filed it. It revealed that Rita Jean was from Los Angeles and enjoyed playing Bach and Chopin piano pieces (you can hear her accomplished playing on the ballad ‘Do You think Of Her?’). At some point, she had worked at LA’s Knickerbocker Hotel (perhaps inspiring the Vaudevillian ballad ‘Knickerbocker Holiday’). I think she was interviewed by the Lillian Roxon; I recall flicking through one of Roxon’s pop/rock encyclopaedias at a friend’s house in Los Angeles and finding some quotes from Rita about the recording process. And I did briefly correspond with Carol Carmichael in the late 2000s, who said she was still friends with Rita. She told me that Rita’s heart was not in the second album (you wouldn’t know it from listening – if anything, it’s stronger than the first one) and that she was looking for a change of direction with a new producer. Rita Jean did get to strike out in a new direction with a non-album single, ‘Gentle On my Mind’ in 1976 (the b-side, ‘Roll The Holy Bones’ is much stronger), but then… nothing. No more music at least.

I would love to know more about this uncommonly talented artist and, perhaps, to interview her. I had one lead, which seemed to suggest she was now a rabbi, still in LA or thereabouts, and alive and well, but my attempts to get in touch hit a dead end. Perhaps I had the wrong person or perhaps, which of course I would respect, she did not want to break her silence.

There’s a lovely piece about RJB, with more biographical information and some great descriptions of her work, by Robert Cochrane here – and you can hear almost all her material on YouTube. I have made more than one attempt to get a RJB reissue project under way, but with no success so far.

6 comments

  1. I was fortunate to discover Rita Jean Bodine in 1974 thru a good friend and have loved, appriciated and shared her
    Music with almost everyone I know. I havr never tired of hearing her songs and have never stopped hoping for more. I. With several friends went yo see her perfotm live at the Backlot in Hollywood, however we has trouble finding the place. When we arrived we wrre ushred in, seated and our two drinks ,(minium) were broughg to our table. She finished her song ” Thats the kind of love I got for you” and said “thankyou-goodnight” . Of course we were all disappointed and after wandering about for 10 minutes and finishing my drink, my friends whisked me out and back to the car. A few years later I came upon her single of “Gentle on my mind” which was quite refreshing.
    If you do contact her tell her for me how much we love and admire her for ever

    1. Hi Bruce – Many thanks indeed for sharing your Rita Jean Bodine memory. What an amazing performer; it’s nothing short of criminal that her name doesn’t count for much in the wider world. I’m glad you got to see her live, even if you only got there in time for the final song. Gentle On My Mind appears to be her final single – I prefer the b-side. All best wishes, CD

  2. I can’t recall how I found about her, but I think she may have toured Australia at the heights??? of her success. Any way, I love her first album, especially “do you think of her” which is a beautifully constructed song, and so well played (I believe she played the piano). As for what happened to her, well I have no idea, but I still play that album, on vinyl, and still enjoy it greatly. I recall that Bette Midler’s album “song’s for the new depression” was around at the same time, and I couldn’t help but feel that Bodine’s was better. Let’s hope she gets the recognition she deserves at some time soon.

    1. Thanks, Scott. Yes, I’ve read online that she toured Australia, so your recollection is accurate. There was even a photograph of her standing with two Australian record label execs – it’s out there somewhere. I agree – ‘Do You think Of Her’ is either her finest or one of her finest songs, with the beautiful piano accompaniment (by her, yes) that’s more classical than rock’n’roll in character. Her second album ended in a similar vein with a piano ballad – a less subtle but very passionate one. I think both her albums are superior to Songs For The New Depression which is a decent LP but not exceptional.

  3. Thanks For All the Amazing Knowledge Charles. I stumbled across this record (Sitting on top of the world) in my parents collection (it still has a readings price tag on it, one of the remaining non-chain book + record stores here) here in Melbourne, Australia, so I can definitely attest to her popularity here in Australia, not sure if it was mum or dad’s record. I really wanted more info on her as I am currently constructing a mix which is female producers and performer-centric spanning a broad array of genres and stories here really help in providing some text to this story. Its truly a forgotten gem of an artist, Side A is definitely more upbeat, funky, soulful, groovy even if ‘Pacified’ cuts me to the core, Side B is more sentimental, softer, but her voice is just kinda incredible, is going to be difficult to choose which track to put in the mix, every one on the album has its own flavour. I wish i had more to impart or something more of use as you have provided me with some great daily reading.

    1. Thanks for your memories of discovering the record, Daniel. It really is tremendous. There seems to be a vague consensus (although this is based on only a handful of people) about her second album being the stronger of the two, but I think they’re close to equal. Extraordinary that such an above-average talent didn’t become more successful – but maybe that’s not extraordinary after all all, but rather just an indication of how much luck is involved. CD

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