Jones was born on November 8, 1954, in Chicago, but the volatile relationship between her mother and father resulted in an upbringing that led her everywhere from Phoenix, AZ, to Olympia, WA, where an expulsion ended her school career. As a teen, Jones began drinking heavily, and eventually she left home and began drifting up and down the West Coast before settling in Los Angeles in the mid-'70s. There she worked a series of waitressing jobs while occasionally performing in area clubs, where she sang and honed her unique, Beat-influenced spoken word monologues. She also began a relationship with fellow boho Tom Waits.
Her first measure of success was as a songwriter; after her friend Ivan Ulz sang Jones' composition "Easy Money" over the phone to Lowell George; the ex-Little Feat frontman included it on his album Thanks I'll Eat It Here. Then, in 1978 Jones' four-song demo came to the attention of Warner Brothers' executive Lenny Waronker, who enlisted Russ Titleman to co-produce her self-titled 1979 debut LP. Spurred by the success of the jazz-flavored hit single "Chuck E's in Love," Rickie Lee Jones became a smash both commercially and critically, earning praise for Jones' elastic vocals, vivid wordplay and unique fusion of folk, jazz and R&B.