What Rita Meant To Me ...
Rita Houston with Jill Sobule, Yola, and Citizen Cope (photos courtesy of WFUV)
The journey of grief is one of shifting tides, fluctuating between tears, gratitude, disbelief, loving recollections, and rumination. As we approached the first year anniversary of Rita Houston's passing on December 15, we reached out to three artists — Citizen Cope, Yola, and Jill Sobule — who shared a special connection with our beloved former program director and music director. We asked if they could write about the woman who not only championed their songs, but became a friend and confidante. We're thankful that they did — we're deeply moved by their memories:
A few years back, Rita and I were Indulging in a late-night sushi and fried chicken feast on the Lower East Side, following an FUV listeners' event. The sake was pouring and I asked her about her first concert: Not surprisingly, it was one that was a great spectacle. In her early teens, Rita earned her first live music stripes jamming from the cheap seats to none other than Queen at Madison Square Garden. They opened with “Bicycle Race,” as Freddie Mercury rode a bike on the stage. Marijuana clouds hovered and rose to the rafters where her seats were. Rita lived.
Rita was a broadcaster, a DJ, and a music lover, but one thing that I've come to realize is that she, in her way, was a protector and curator of lost souls. She had the wherewithal and unique ability to point those searching in the direction of their true homes. A home that we all know exists, but only through music can we get a clue of what we may not have yet identified within ourselves.
There are a lot of gatekeepers in the music industry. A lot of those gates are drawn from the roads that passed through a music director, Rita’s first position. She connected listeners and artists who wanted the same thing — they wanted something and someone genuine, whose life purpose, knowingly or unknowingly, was to heal themselves and others. And through music, they could all achieve personal growth.
Rita liked the "real" artists, those fighting-with-the-devil-for-your-soul tunes, and bloodied-and-beaten — but triumphant — music. There was something she could hear in certain artists, that others couldn’t. Most likely because she fought that fight too. But she highlighted these artists unapologetically and waited for the world to catch up. And a lot more times than not, she hit the bullseye with her early predictions and she was able to let her audience into a secret because she had the scoop before the news came out. She didn’t follow trends. She didn’t play records because she had to. Rita was the queen of finding that true grit thing.
At a Non-Comm conference that was held in Louisville, Kentucky in the early 2000s, Rita led a standing ovation in a packed ballroom full of radio people for an overlooked songwriter/producer from Washington D.C. That songwriter was me. The song that drew the ovation was “Salvation” which was never a radio single, but was an important thread to my debut album. Rita understood that record and played it. That album got taken off the shelves after selling only 15 thousand albums — but now that album is currently close to gold status and has a platinum single. Rita was right again. She supported that album from day one. And there are a lot of those stories.
It’s very rare In life when someone genuinelygets you. To get you personally — and as an artist — is a rarity. Rita had this effect on many artists. It’s like she knew your secrets and what you were going through. She knew what you went through to get where you got, without even hearing the story or reading the bio — she got it all in the songs.
The day she passed away, tears unexpectedly overcame me. I hadn’t really had that type of cry in a while.
But I hadn’t felt that sense of loss in a long time. Selfishly, Rita loved me. She got me . I know the meaning of love can be defined in many ways. But she loved me as a person and as an artist. I truly loved her. Her advocacy of true artistry was a way she spread a lot of love. How can you not love someone who broadcasts love, who emits love, and that you get to hang out all night with in New York eating, drinking, and storytelling?
And as shallow as it may seem, she made me feel good about myself which, if you know me, wasn’t an easy thing in the early 2000s. But Rita innately knew why.
Her passing came with a blessing. I look at Rita now as somewhat of an angel who was here to add to this beautiful universal ecosystem that weaves humanity and the supernatural. It wasn’t a loss, losing her — it was a gain having her. She never got to see me headline the Garden, but she saw Brandi Carlile, Norah Jones, and so many others go through the Rita Houston wheelhouse to play the venue where she first saw her first show. Her spirit and her legacy lives because her impact lives. And she’s up in the big afterparty in the sky right now, if you believe in that sort of thing. If not, we know that we sure did have a helluva afterparty on earth.
Long live the Queen.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Rita in person in March 2019 at SXSW, where I was promoting my first album, Walk Through Fire. To connect and talk with Rita was a different experience that had nothing to do with work or networking; she was the kind of person who wanted to connect on a human level and that was the most meaningful thing to me. I loved hearing about the artists that she had championed and how her sheer passion for music fuelled this mission to uplift artists.
Rita was self-aware enough to know how much she could help artists who maybe didn’t come from the usual trust fund background we’re used to nowadays, yet she never wielded that over anybody and never made it about being a saviour, which honestly is rare. Her love of music was genuine and pure and her desire to help in any way that she could was unrivaled. She embraced me and connected with everyone on my team. She embodied the type of person that you hoped to meet when you work in the music industry; truly knowledgeable, and passionate but equally not interested in any of the BS and sometimes mandatory metaphorical dances we are all expected to do to get along.
Rita made a point of getting to know all of us from the outset, these crazy Brits determined to crack the American audience. That’s what Rita did though; she took time. It is a rarity to find somebody who truly wants to get to know you, understand who you are, who you are as a team, and how she could help make your dreams a reality. And she really made dreams a reality too. She knew I was a huge fan of Mavis Staples and at 2019’s Holiday Cheer for FUV at the Beacon Theatre, Rita invited me to open the concert, with Mavis headlining. Rita stood with Charlie, my manager, side by side behind Mavis as she watched me from the wings, an artist from Bristol, England so deeply inspired by all that Mavis stood for in her long career. Charlie told me later that Rita nudged her and pointed at Mavis, who was tapping her feet and her hands, taking in the performance. I remember glancing over, totally in awe that my hero, Mavis, was watching my set.
Make no mistake — we all had that moment because of Rita. She knew that this was a dynamite pairing for her event, but she also realized that she had the opportunity to make my path cross with Mavis, and vice versa: One who had so heavily influenced her younger contemporary, and the other who was just starting to make headway in her burgeoning solo career. Rita gave us time — time to sit backstage at a theatre and connect, and time to watch each other perform.
My fondest memory of Rita takes us to early spring of 2020, and a beautifully bright Los Angeles day. I was at KCRW, invited to play a session by the equally legendary DJ, Anne Litt. Rita happened to be in town and was there to look around at KCRW’s smart new station studio, just completed. It was all complete happenstance that our paths had once again crossed. Rita sat up in the audience gallery, grinning and tapping her foot away as I played a short set. Afterwards we planned to get a bite with Anne before heading off and invited Rita. She looked us dead in the eyes and said (I paraphrase): “Well, I might not have time, but if I miss my flight, it will be worth it to have lunch with all of you” and so with that off we went.
It was early, a little after noon, and as we went around the table, we all politely ordered water and juices. When the waiter got to Rita, she said, “I don’t know about all of you, but it’s such a beautiful day I think I’ll get a glass of rosé!” Polite waters were quickly cancelled and a full bottle of wine ordered, and we toasted; to friendship, music, serendipity and the world bringing us together that morning. Most of all, we toasted giving each other time; knowing that missed flights might be a small price to pay to share a meal with people who ordinarily are 4000 miles away.
Women in music are so often encouraged to see each other as competition — there is only one seat at the table, so you’d better be the one to fight for it. But Rita didn’t have rivals or competitors; she had allies and contemporaries.
Little did we know that it would be the last time we would all share such a time with Rita; weeks later the pandemic hit, travel was locked down, and sessions were at home. We had all the time in the world, unable to spend it with each other, but Rita ran out of time on this earth.
It is impossible to overestimate her legacy, not just in the artists she championed and careers she influenced, but the people that she inevitably inspired in the business to mirror her way of being and uplift artists like me.
With love to Rita, her colleagues, and loved ones. Yola XO
They really did break the mold when they made Rita. She was a DJ and music programmer at one the most influential radio stations in the United States. And not just any music programmer, but a music programmer who actually, profoundly loved music. She also loved the artists that made the music, especially the promising underdogs. What’s more, lucky for me, she became a real pal. Forget the fact that she might play your latest release. She was a good time.
I met Rita when she interviewed me on the air when my self-titled record came out in 1995. That morning, before I got to WFUV, I had already done four others. I had to answer the same pedestrian questions over and over again. Right off the bat, our interview felt like an engaging conversation. I left wanting to know who the hell this remarkable woman was. I wanted to be her friend.
At that time, my single “I Kissed a Girl” ( the old-timey original one) was out. As opposed to my label and the morning zoo radio DJs ( the kind that wore nutty tropical shirts and said said stupid sexist shit), Rita saw the song for what it was - yes, a kind of goofy song, but with the gay agenda. She got it and she got me.
Sure, it was swell when Rita would play and pimp my record, but by far my favorite time in the studio with Rita was when I’d get to guest DJ with her. For Valentine’s Day, I was Honey Wagon. Honey Wagon lowered her voice to sound sexier- a little bit like Rita’s, but not as good. We would trade love songs. I chose, for example, Isaac Hayes’s “By The Time I Get to Phoenix." She would then play some obscure Barry White. She was smart, she was quick. And I can’t forget to mention what good taste she had. She simply had the best taste. I would always ask Rita what new artists or releases I should listen to.
One of our not-so-secret, all-time favorite records was Bette Midler’s The Divine Miss M. We talked for years about wanting to produce a tribute show. We imagined it at Radio City Music Hall or Carnegie Hall with all the biggest names. And of course Bette herself, would perform her rendition of John Prine’s “Hello in There." We then would all join her onstage for the encore to sing our favorite, “Friends." One of my biggest regrets in life is that we never actually did it. Life stuff got in the way. But, I did get to sing “Friends” with Rita and her equally fab wife, Laura, at Sid Gold’s Request Room on my birthday. It was definitely, by far, the highlight of the celebration.
I forget that she is gone. I still expect her list of new artists to check out. I still expect, when I turn on the radio, to hear that gorgeous voice. I still vividly see her smile, hear her laugh at one of my dumb jokes, and I still can hear us sing "Friends."
And I am all alone
There is no one here beside me
And my problems have all gone
There is no one to deride me
But yah got to have friends
The feeling's oh so strong
Yah got to have friends
To make that day last long
I had some friend's but they're gone
Somethin' came and took them away
And from the dusk 'til the dawn
Here is where I'll stay
Standing at the end of the road, boys
Waiting for my new friends to come
I don't care if I'm hungry or poor
I'm gonna get me some of them
'Cause you got to have friends
La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, friends
That's right you, oh you, yeah you
I said you gotta have some friends
I'm talkin' about friends, that's right, friends
Friends, friends, friends