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Intersections: The Education of Rickie Lee Jones

<i>The Evening of My Best Day</i>, the latest CD from Rickie Lee Jones.
The Evening of My Best Day, the latest CD from Rickie Lee Jones.

With her 1979 hit "Chuck E's in Love," Rickie Lee Jones established herself as a musician with a bohemian image and a penchant for storytelling. On a dozen albums, Jones has combined plaintive vocals with lyrics that could stand alone as poetry. For Intersections, a Morning Edition series on artists and their inspirations, NPR's Tom Vitale talks with the singer about the varied sources that informed her style.

The daughter of a Sinatra-style singer and granddaughter of a Vaudeville performer, Jones says performing was all she ever knew. She says she first realized she wanted to tell stories through song at age 8, while watching West Side Story.

"I'm still a real musical theater person," Jones says. "I never separated the song from the text. It was natural to me that you would turn and sing the song. I never felt odd about that."

As an adolescent, Jones became captivated by a different cast of characters -- The Beatles. More than a girlhood crush, Jones looked to the Fab Four for lessons in songwriting, and their music wove itself into her psyche: "I think a lot of the texture of my voice -- you know, maybe others wouldn't hear it -- but I know when I'm doing the Beatles."

In the 1970s -- at a time she says music suffered a "total breakdown" -- Jones clung to a handful of songwriters "like life rafts": Randy Newman, Tom Waits and especially Laura Nyro. Jones drew inspiration from Nyro's lyrics and their rich, cinematic details, which seemed to suggest a bigger story and deeper understanding of character.

"When I heard Laura Nyro, she had these tones and chords, and the idea of this New York -- this mystical urban place, where life is teeming and it's all fail or win, at any moment," Jones says. "She was so unlike anything that I had ever heard. And I think it really inspired me in a great way."

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