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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

DAVID WAS reporting:

One of the greater challenges of my professional life was co-producing an album with the formidable Rickie Lee Jones.

BRAND: Here's musician, producer and DAY TO DAY contributing writer David Was.

WAS: Rickie's checkered career is now anthologized in a three-CD set from Rhino Records called the "Duchess of Coolsville."

(Soundbite of song "Coolsville")

Ms. RICKIE LEE JONES: (Singing) 'Cause we was Coolsville...

WAS: The album that I worked on was a recording of jazz standards called "Pop Pop," two tunes of which show up on this collection and which propriety demands I leave to others to judge.

(Soundbite of song "Bye Bye Blackbird")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) ...that is so you, making my bed, then light the light because I'll be home later on tonight, blackbird, bye-bye.

WAS: The challenging aspect of working with Rickie Lee is what makes her work as a singer-songwriter so admirable. She has very high standards, knows what she wants and how to get it and takes no prisoners on the way. On a good day in the studio, she laid a firm knuckle punch to the fleshy part of my forearm and then asked with a smile, `So what do we do now, Mr. Producer?' I'm pretty sure that was a sign of affection.

(Soundbite of song "Up From the Skies")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) I just want to talk to you. I won't do you no harm. I just want to know about your different lives on this here people farm. I hear some of you have families living here...

WAS: But a bruised arm was a small price to pay for the rewards of working with a voice and sensibility that have often been emulated and never duplicated. Right off the bat the names Edie Brickell and Sheryl Crow come to mind as Rickie types, as well as Jewel and Alanis Morissette, all of whom owe her a debt for being the first female Beat poet in the mold of Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, who was her former paramour in the hoary glory days of their dissolute lower Hollywood years.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: Back in 1979, Rickie Lee burst through with a vengeance, winning the new artist Grammy and scoring a major hit record with "Chuck E's in Love."

(Soundbite of "Chuck E's in Love")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) How come he don't come and PIP with me down at the meter no more, and how come...

WAS: "Chuck E" was a slick and jazzy production from Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, best known for their work with Randy Newman. She was part of a Warner Records family that nurtured artists and took them seriously, a state of affairs woefully absent from today's scene.

(Soundbite of song "Satellites")

Ms. JONES: (Signing) Well, we were born forever...

WAS: A decade later at Geffen Records, Steely Dan's Walter Becker would help her produce "Flying Cowboys," which is a felicitous amalgam of his perfectionist obsession and her fearless expressionism.

(Soundbite of song "Satellites")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) So you keep talking in many languages, telling us the way you feel. Don't stop confiding in the road you're on. Don't quit. You're walking...

WAS: "Pop Pop" came next, and I learned more about singing working with Rickie Lee than I'd garnered in a lifetime of living and loving music. She always came to the studio just a tad underprepared, which at first gave me fits. Then I realized she was like a film director who rightly fears overrehearsing as actors, lest they squander their spontaneity.

Rickie Lee Jones likes living on the edge, if by that one means allowing a role for uncertainty in the creative process, and she never sang a song the same way twice.

(Soundbite of song "Easy Money")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) You say yeah, oh yeah, just tell me what you want me to do...

WAS: Some would say it takes a lot of nerve to call yourself the "Duchess of Coolsville," but then again, Rickie Lee is a kind of female Miles Davis, whom they called `the Prince of Darkness.' Both of them are remote and diffident personalities, thought it is those qualities that define cool vs. the hot ethic of wearing and baring your soul on your sleeve.

As wordsmith and vocal sculptor, Jones is at once emotionally proximate and densely poetic. She can punch me in the arm anytime.

(Soundbite of song "Bye Bye Blackbird")

Ms. JONES: (Signing) We'll be seeing you a little later, don't worry about me. See you a little later, blackbird, bye-bye.

BRAND: Rickie Lee Jones' anthology album is called the "Duchess of Coolsville." Our reviewer, Mr. Producer, is David Was. And you can hear full-length tracks from the album David Was co-produced with Rickie Lee Jones at our Web site, npr.org.

Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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