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.