A Scissor Sister by Any Other Name

rita_jean_bodine.jpgRita Jean Bodine: Bodine, Rita Jean (20th Century)

Before succumbing to a silence she has regrettably yet to break, singer-songwriter Rita Jean Bodine produced two strikingly eclectic albums in 1974. They weren't her first sojourn into pop.

Her grandfather had purchased a piano for her even before she was born in Los Angeles on September 1, 1949 as Rita Suzanne Hertzberg. Little Rita was taking lessons by the age of four, Chopin, Bach, and Brahms being her heroes, but as she grew older she discovered that she also liked to sing, and write her own songs.

She formed The Babies, a girl group; after several unsuccessful singles for Dunhill/ABC, Bodine thought that stint would be her only stab at a music career.

Several years later, the UCLA graduate was working as a secretary, and when her business letters kept turning into poems, she decided to return to music as Rita Jean Bodine. The new name came from a friend who'd written a song with her in mind. Her original moniker didn't scan, but she adored her new incarnation and used it at a recording session as a joke. It stuck. Even when she married Stanley Morgan, the production assistant on her debut album, he agreed that Rita Jean Bodine was too musical to discard. On signing to 20th Century, it was the name she chose to be known by. Rarely have a name and a look been more compatible.

Like most constructs, the edifice of Ms. Bodine was iconic and glacial. A vamp tramp from an unmade Hollywood saga, she looked like a refugee from Biba, all hatpins, cocktail cigarettes, bee-stung lips, and floppy hats. An effete, camp diva, part early Pointer Sisters, part Noel Coward with pink nail varnish. If the English songwriter John Howard had an unintentional female axis of his look, it was Rita Jean. The album sleeves suggest an air of gentle sophistication, but if you close your eyes you'd swear this bitch was black. Her voice is a raw, agonized growl of emotional intensity. The first album is the more blues-based, and the less striking, though it does contain of wonderful version of "It Ain't Easy," the Ron Davies song covered by David Bowie on Ziggy Stardust.

The second album, Bodine, Rita Jean, is more sophisticated and electrifying. Opening with "Dynamite," a song that fires and fizzes with life, its verse is unrelenting. When she coats her vocals to James Brown's "Licking Stick," she sounds like she's on heat, dirty heat, but other songs have a warmth and sophistication that mirror the sensitivity of Joan Armatrading and Nina Simone at their finest.

Her closing song, "I've Been So Long," is a visceral tour de force on a par with Annie Lennox's epic "Cold." You can just imagine Bodine howling this lament of isolation and loss in a doorway in the dead of night with steam rising from the deserted streets. The song along merits the search for her neglected mistresspiece, but the entire album can't fail to enchant. The strange hybrid of blues soul and orchestrated disco suggests a blend of Cyndi Lauper and the Scissor Sisters. She really is their natural Aunt, but perhaps more serious in her delivery.

Her second album is dedicated to "Russ because he believes in white roses," and I guess Rita Jean will continue to appreciate those flowers of romance. She just seems that kind of woman, brazen, sophisticated, and vulnerable. Like most mavericks, she didn't overstay her welcome, but if there ever was a right time to return in hatpins, feathers, and all that thrift-store elegance, she should be dressing up to sing again. - Robert Cochrane

cochrane.jpg

Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and is presently completing Gone Tomorrow, a biography of the rock singer Jobriath, which will appear via SAF in 2007.

Rita Jean Bodine

Mr. Cochrane, you have done some great research. Do you know the name of Rita's manager from the mid 70's? If so, please email me. Thanks.

Rita

Mr. Cochrane,

This was a wonderful article about my friend, Rita! I have not seen her in many years.

I just fixed my record player, decided to listen to Rita's albums and then decided to Google her. I was delightfully surprised to see the Facebook page that provided the link to this page. It brought back a lot of great memories. I was a friend going to a local med school who used to visit Stan and Rita occasionally on the weekends during the years before her electrifying debut at the Starwood. She was a very warm, kind person with a great sense of humor. When she would play for us, however, she turned into another person! Her voice became gravelly and bluesy, quite unlike it usually was unless she had a cold. Her piano playing was tremendous. She was a great performer. I heard her perform once on stage. This was at her debut at the Starwood. It was a memorable night. She took on the persona of the record and was backed by one of the tightest bands I have ever heard. The stage designer did a spectacular job. No pyrotechnics (not that she needed them), but there were full size replicas of Palm Trees (or were they real?), and a big lush tropical set. It was a magical night full of dreams come true.

I hope Rita happens by and reads this. I have many fond memories of those days and would love to say hi and catch up.

my continued love and search for Rita Jean Bodine

i have loved this woman since first hearing her in the mid seventies. Began female impersonation in the late 80's and my very first lip synch number was her Frying Pan Song. My vinyls have long been gone but would truly love to find her again. What a gal!

Rita Jean Bodine

Heard her on the radio in Wellington, New Zealand, Xmas of 1974 singing "Dancing In The Street". Bought her first album then and found her second in Mill Valley Records, when living in SF in 1981. Hint of Bonnie Rait, Melissa Etheridge and Eva Cassidy but totally unique voice.

I keep searching to replace my existing vinyl which I have worn out over the years. Probably best kept as memories now.

Backing Vocals on 'Main Street Jive'

For those fans of Rita Jean, the 1976 album Main Street Jive by Australian artist Richard Clapton has some songs with her singing backing vocals - the track Suit Yourself is a good example.

The Dusty Connection

Holy frijoles -- the world is finally catching up to Rita Jean Bodine! I guess if you wait long enough. Thanks for this wonderful piece. But I'm surprised there's no mention of Dusty Springfield's cover of Rita's "That's the Kind of Love I've Got For You." It's one of the great lost disco epics of the era.

Facebook Fan Page!!!

Rita Jean Bodine

Mr. Cochrane:

This is the best article about Rita Jean I have ever read -- it may actually be the only one I've ever read -- but it's so wonderful, so rich, so poetic. Thank you many times over.

I had the great fortune to see Rita perform once at the Studio Backlot Cabaret Club in West Hollywood, California -- this was 33 years ago! She was clearly ahead of her time. Absolutely stunningly gorgeous and enormously talented. I wrote a song for her (which she didn't use, alas), and actually spoke to her on the phone. She seemed quite content with married life and I didn't get the feeling she had further interest in pursuing music, but of course I don't know for sure.

With all her talent it's hard to understand why she only did two albums, but thanks to Mr. Cochrane for pointing out her many wonderful abilities and writing about them in such a vivid, sensual way. What an absolutely superb article.

It would be a trip if Rita sat down and played the piano and recorded a few bluesy tunes. The voice she displayed at the tender of age of 25 would be about right just now. Great artist, songwriter, and person. Thank you again for dipping into a world that seems so distant, but really, was not that long ago.

-Tatami

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