More than two decades after the release of her last CD, the singer/songwriter makes a passionate return.
BY JOHN LENTZ
In the early 1970s, my friends and I would make a weekly visit to a guitar player named Larry, who was known as much for his killer record collection as for his musical talent. Larry was probably a lonely soul; very few of his peers in our small Southern town understood or appreciated his music, politics, long hair, or cooler-than-thou attitude, but we did. Sprawled on the rug or on a beanbag chair in the corner of his bedroom, we spent many Saturday afternoons listening to the cutting edge LPs of the time, from bands like Johnny Winter And, Deep Purple, Mountain, Uriah Heep, Wishbone Ash and many more, all on a crisp, brand new pair of KLH 32 speakers mounted on his wall. If we listened to women’s music at all, it was Birtha, or Fanny, hard rockers that fit easily into our musical worldview.
One Saturday Larry said, “Listen to this.” We respected his talent, and by extension, his ability to separate quality music from the more shallow efforts of bands in it for the money and fame. I was expecting more of our standard fare when the opening bass riff of “Thunder and Lightning” by Chi Coltrane began to play; I was waiting for the power chords or a blistering lead to kick in when she began to sing.
I had never heard anyone like her, before or since, and my expression must have said it all.
With a knowing smile, Larry frisbeed the LP cover across his bedroom and into my lap. The cover photo was a head shot of a striking blonde in soft toned black and white, an angel landing in our den of smoke, pretense and teenage hormonal angst. In our circle of rock and roll freaks, Chi Coltrane was cool enough to become one of us.
By the time “Thunder and Lightning” had risen in the Billboard charts to peak at number 17, I had obtained my own copy of Chi Coltrane, the first release by the former teenage runaway from the Midwestwhose “presence and beauty,” according to one reviewer, assured her rapid rise to the heights of musical stardom. Categorized as a talent at least equal to heavyweight singer-songwriters such as Carole King and Carly Simon, the rock press adored Chi for everything from her musical virtuosity to her model’s good looks.
By the time I had worn the grooves of Chi Coltrane thin, she had released her second album, Let It Ride, a 1974 introspective that was a continuation of the emotionally baring, original theme of the first. Part slow ballads, part gospel influenced rockers, the second LP revealed more than the first album did of her deeply held but non-evangelizing Christian faith. Leaving the scene as quickly as she had arrived, it would be her last album for almost three years.
And then in 1977, during a random search in the “C” section of a record store, her third LP appeared before me like the sudden appearance of an old friend. Road to Tomorrow with its prophetic title would hold me as the first two had done, and I anticipated what would come next. But there was nothing. I would learn later that Chi had been in Germany for much of the 1980s and early 90s, where she released several albums on the CBS and Teldec labels and had a strong following there, but for most American fans there would be three long decades of silence, her songs becoming a nostalgic though sustaining voice from the past when it became apparent that she had truly left us… until now.
In case you haven’t heard, Chi Coltrane has returned with a full length CD that combines her “later years” greatest hits with three new recordings, including two new songs available only from her official website.
Her first release since 1986’s The Message (a German-only release), Yesterday, Today & Forever is classic Chi Coltrane, with many of the songs possessing the same stripped bare, emotionally transcendent quality of her first three LPs.
The CD includes two new songs in a package primarily consisting of cuts from her three German Teldec releases (Live!, Ready to Roll and The Message). While the majority of the songs may be familiar to European fans, they are new to most American listeners, and most stand up beautifully. Both longtime fans and those new to Chi’s music will not be disappointed.
Two selections are live versions of previously released songs, both old favorites, “You Were My Friend” and “Go Like Elijah.” They fit in nicely with the Henry Mancini-style riff of “The Last Train” and the catchy “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” The cathartic “On My Own”, is vintage Chi, while the artist rocks the house with the straight blues of the previously unreleased “I’ve Got a Feelin’.” But the standouts on the album are the title cut, recorded as a memory to someone who has passed on but who left their influence on the singer, and a newer, stripped-down version of “You,” a testament to her faith which first appeared on Road to Tomorrow. Either song may well bring tears to your eyes, both for the content and for the fact that this wonderful talent of song and substance, one whom her fans have missed so much, is back.
BLURT caught up with Coltrane from her home in Los Angeles recently in order to update her file, dip back into the past a bit, and more.
BLURT: You came upon the music scene in 1972 with Chi Coltrane, followed by Let It Ride in 1974. Then came Road to Tomorrow in the late seventies. You then moved to Germany and released four albums, three of them on the Teldec label in the 1980s, and that was about it for two decades until your new CD. What kept you away for so long?
COLTRANE: I had a debilitating illness for many years, similar to chronic fatigue syndrome, which left me too tired to tour. But I was fortunate enough to find a doctor who uses herbal treatments, and who has helped me overcome this affliction. I’m completely recovered and ready to resume my recording and performing career.
What were the circumstances around your first contract with Columbia/CBS (now Sony) Records?
Before “Thunder and Lightning” was a hit, I was playing and singing in clubs, and then a manager came in and said he’d like to represent me, and to get me going with concerts and recordings. I said ok, because I really didn’t like the idea that people were forced to drink to stay and see the show at the small clubs I was playing. You know how it is; in some places you have to keep ordering drinks or they ask you to leave. I was worried that because of me, they wouldn’t get home safely.
Clive Davis signed you just prior to his departure from Columbia Records, didn’t he?
Yes. I met with the A&R Department in Los Angeles, and they flew me to New York to meet Clive Davis. Clive had a piano in his office, and he asked me to sit down and play. I don’t remember what it was, maybe “Goodbye John” or “Time to Come In”, both of which would appear on my first album, but he stopped me after about one verse and seemed very impressed. He brought me to the CBS label.
Back in the 1970s, in addition to your touring schedule you appeared on television programs such the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and “The Midnight Special” where you hosted one week, along with many others. Do you hope to take this comeback to the level of public exposure that you had before?
Absolutely. I really want to go all the way with this again and really stay there. I just couldn’t before because I didn’t know how to deal with the health problem. But I think when you have a setback there are reasons for that, and there’s something you’re supposed to learn. I think I have more to contribute and have more to bring into my music now.
Is there a specific story behind your new single, “Yesterday, Today & Forever”?
Definitely. I think everyone can relate to that, because almosteveryone knows, or will know, someone whom they loved dearly who has died; a most beautiful person and someone who was low profile, but who really changed your heart. One of my favorite lines in the new song is “The armor bearer changed the warrior’s heart.” You’ll never forget them, you’ll always love them, and you’ll always, always remember them.
The new version of “You,” which originally appeared on 1977’s Road to Tomorrow LP, is one of the most beautiful songs on the new CD. What motivated you to re-record what was already a classic Chi Coltrane tune?
The newer version of “You” was used in a film in 2007 called Spiritual Warriors. The producer asked me to do it, so I recorded it for them in just a couple of takes.
Regarding your upcoming European tour: will you be performing solo or with a band?
A band. I will be playing piano, of course, and will be accompanied by bass and drums. My first concert to kick-off my comeback will be for about 50,000 people, in Vienna, in June. The information is on www.ChiColtrane.com.
Why did you choose not to re-sign with Teldec in 1987?
They wanted me to renew my contract, but I was really feeling burned out, you know? I wasdoing 300concerts 365 days in a year. I was just really going, going, going. And as long as you feel you have the energy, why not? But you pay later. It’s not wisdom to do that. It’s important to pace yourself so that you keep your energy.
When did your health problems start?
After the 1987 tour promoting my CD The Message. I would go for three nights without any sleep and still go to meet my manager for dinner and stuff and would go to the studio. I thought, well, I can handle it, I can do it. But you can’t; you pay later. You’re just using up your reserves. That wasn’t wisdom on my part, but I plan on showing more wisdom now.
When did you move to Germany and how long were you there?
I don’t remember the exact year, but I started touring there in 1978. I kept it up and kept it up and would sometimes be there for two or three years in a row and then come home to Los Angeles to take care of business and stuff. Then I’d go right back there again.
You moved back to the U.S. in the 1990s to stay?
After I did the collaboration with Tangerine Dream [“I Just Want to Rule My Own Life Without You”, released in 1991 as a 3-song EP by Polydor] and then the Rainforest Project [“Shot to Despair,” on the1990 World Wildlife Federation CD El Dorado]I pretty much stayed in L.A. after that because I was having this problem with the energy thing. I also decided to build a recording studio.
What kind of feedback have you received so far from the new CD?
Well, to quotePaul Buckmaster, who did the arrangements, he said about the song “Yesterday, Today & Forever” that he had to stop a few times while working on the song because of the emotions it stirred in him. He said: “I think this may be the most beautiful song that I’ve ever heard.” And Charlie Donovan, in England, who reviewed my albums in the past, said that he recently played the song for a group of people over there; he said that when the song finished playing, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. So, the feedback has been very positive.
Have you played publicly since your return to the United States in the 1990s?
Yes, but they’ve mostly been benefit things, not where I’m committed to tours or anything like that, and obviously not club dates because that’s not my particular scenario.
Do you think it will be an adjustment for you to go back on tour after such a long time?
I’ll have to let you know (laughs).
How can one obtain a copy of your new CD?
Go to www.ChiColtrane.com and click on the link to buy material. There you can purchase both Yesterday, Today, and Forever and the greatest hits CD of the early years, Golden Classics, that came out a few years ago.
Chi Coltrane’s fall European tour will commence with dates in Holland in October. Tickets for the tourgo on sale soon. For information, email Peter Boone at firstname.lastname@example.org.