A Scissor Sister by Any Other Name


Rita 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.