1970s star Rita Coolidge talks music and mourning after sister's murder
Losing her sister was always going to be tough, but losing her to murder has been sheer horror. Seventies singer Rita Coolidge – who plays two concerts in Ireland this week – talks to Hannah Stephenson about grief and forgiveness
SHE was the original 'Delta Lady', the Cherokee singer with long dark hair, chunky-buckled belts, leather trousers and Native American jewellery.
Rita Coolidge, daughter of a Cherokee Baptist minister and Cherokee-Scottish mother, was catapulted into the music industry in the late 60s during a time of huge creativity, becoming one of the most sought-after backing singers in the business, touring and recording with Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton and Crosby, Stills & Nash, among others, and going on to forge a successful solo career.
It has been a life of triumphs – including two Grammy awards, a multi-platinum album (Anytime...Anywhere) plus a string of hits – and heartbreak, often fuelled by the men she hooked up with and a torrid six-year marriage to the love of her life Kris Kristofferson, doomed to disaster as he womanised and battled booze.
All these stories – along with her widely reported claims that she penned part of Clapton's hit Layla but received no credit – are charted in her memoir Delta Lady, from her childhood in Lafayette, Tennessee, to becoming one of the most sought-after vocalists in Los Angeles in the 1970s. She's still performing, finishing off a tour of Britain and Ireland with concerts in Dublin and Cork this week.
But the most agonising time of her life happened less than two years ago, when her beloved older sister Priscilla, also a singer, was murdered at her home by her husband Michael Seibert (66) who then killed himself.
This hugely distressing episode is mentioned in the epilogue of Coolidge's book, which she dedicates to her sister.
"It was very painful to write, but she was such an important part of my life," she says now. "She was like my twin. We talked every day. We wrote music together for decades. She was my best friend from the time I can remember anything, and to lose her at all would have broken my heart.
"To have lost her at the hands of a crazy man with a gun made it unacceptable. It took me so long to be able to accept the fact she was not going to be calling me."
Coolidge (71) recalls phoning her sister on her 73rd birthday – the last time they spoke, and the day before Priscilla was found dead.
"Some time after we'd spoken on her birthday, her husband killed my beautiful, brave Priscilla with a handgun and then – as it is inevitably phrased in newspaper accounts of murder-sucides – turned the weapon on himself," she writes.
Coping wasn't easy. "I had so much to do, because I became the matriarch of the family at that point, as Priscilla had been after my mother died. I became the head of the family and had so many things to take care of to honour her and make sure all the arrangements were done, and I made the arrangements for her husband as well, because that's what she would have wanted.
"I put one foot in front of the other for days. I cried – and I still cry – endlessly. I couldn't breathe, but I got through it with the support of my family and friends."
She suspected that things weren't right at her sister's home.
"I didn't think he was crazy, but I didn't like him at all. I never liked him. I always felt he was a conman because he always had these big business deals that were going to come through, and sometimes they did and financially they'd be in great shape, and then the bottom would fall out and nothing would be happening. I knew that, financially, they were unstable. I don't know why that led to his murdering my sister...
"We'd been inseparable since we were little, when Priscilla told me she'd been waiting for me to be born."
Her sister, who had previously been married to musician, songwriter and music producer Booker T Jones, did approach her for help, she reveals.
"She talked to me in the months leading up [to her death], and I knew she was unhappy. She'd talked about leaving Michael. I suspect he realised that she was going to leave him and thought, 'If I can't have you, nobody can'."
She was at home alone, in Fallbrook, California, when she received the news of her sister's death, and immediately began calling close friends and family.
"I was in a state of shock and confusion from the suddenness of it all," she recalls. She was still grieving the week before Christmas, when a black box arrived at her door containing the ashes of her dead sister's husband.
"He was not loved by his family, who wanted nothing to do with his remains, so I had arranged to have his body cremated – I know that's what Priscilla would have wanted," she writes.
"The ashes were delivered to my house, but I didn't want him inside the house. Initially, I put him out in the groves that border my property and put him under an avocado tree.
"I woke up on New Year's Eve realising that they were still there. And I didn't want him on my land. I wanted to take care of it before the New Year came."
She dug up the box and drove out into the California desert, hoping for a sign.
"And then I saw it – an actual sign off to the right that said: Trespassers will be shot on sight. And I said to myself, I think I found my sign."
It was there she disposed of Seibert's ashes.
"They didn't poetically waft away in the wind – they just fell from the box and lay there on the dead desert floor."
Her husband, Japanese computer scientist Tatsuya Suda, has been supportive, but she now turns to long-term family who knew her sister better, she says, and still struggles to accept what Seibert did.
"I can't forgive him for taking my sister, but he's not here for me to confront," she says. "I hope that I'm able to forgive him, because holding on to resentment and those feelings are only harmful. He doesn't exist to me."
:: Rita Coolidge plays the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Wednesday (nch.ie) and Cork Opera House on Thursday (corkoperahouse.ie). Delta Lady by Rita Coolidge with Michael Walker is published by Harper.