When singer Rita Coolidge attended the premiere of Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the 1971 documentaru that chronicled the Joe Cocker–fronted tour of the same name, the experience was far from celebratory. “I started shaking and crying and it all came back to me,” she says. “I got up and left and got in my little VW and drove home. My friends were so worried about me that they followed me. I don’t know if I’m over it yet.” – Rolling Stone
I went to see a blues show the other night. (More on that in another post.) The artist kicked off the show with a rendition of “The Letter” and then segued into how Joe Cocker had performed it and then mentioned some choice tidbits about the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. I’d seen the documentary way back in the day but remembered little about. Here’s the story.
Wikipedia: “After his success at Woodstock and tour with his Grease Band, Joe Cocker did not want to tour so soon. Despite Cocker’s reluctance to venture out on the road again, an American tour had already been booked so he had to quickly form a new band in order to fulfill his contractual obligations.
The Mad Dogs tour was chaotic both on paper and in practice. Cocker, already coping with an overwhelming wave of post-Woodstock fame, was told by immigration authorities that he had to tour right away or lose his working papers. Coolidge says the actual reason was the dark underbelly of the sometimes mobbed-up music business.
“It wasn’t so much about not working in the States but, ‘If you don’t do this tour, you’ll get your legs broken,’ ” she says. “That was common knowledge in the group — that threats had been made that if Joe didn’t do the tour, he would be hurt.”” (The music industry is – or at least was – one of the most vile on earth – ME).
Cocker had known Leon Russell as he had co-produced his second album Joe Cocker! The span of time between Joe’s last show and this tour was about one month. So with little time to prepare, Russell was hired to pull together a 10-piece band — and a 10-person group of backup singers called the Space Choir — and rehearse for the eight-week run.* They had four days to rehearse,
Cocker, according to Russell, “was pretty wrecked when we started out. I said, ‘Does it sound good to you?’ and he said, ‘It never sounds right to me.’ I didn’t know how to take that. So I said, ‘Shit, I’ll just do whatever I want.’ ” The tour manager, Sherman “Smitty” Jones, was a former pimp, and Cocker was seen tossing down any and every pill given to him on the way to the stage. “It was party-party-party,” says Coolidge, who says she abstained from most of that. “They were having orgies every night. I would hear about them the next day.”
Russell says his inspiration for the mass casting was the hippie love-ins that featured scores of musicians and chanters who created a cacophony that somehow ended up sounding sweet. (It was effectivly stilll the Sixties, folks. People were talking weird shit like this all the time – ME.)
Since the band had to be put together quickly, they wound up plunderingt Delaney and Bonnie’s band which is where they got bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon.** Long-time Stones side (and wild) man sax player Bobby Keys was on the tour as well. Interestingly, a guy whom I know nothing about – Don Preston – was a guitarist on the tour.
As a matter of fact, the band turned out to consist of approximately 25 people including pianist and bandleader Leon Russell, three drummers (!)– Gordon, Jim Keltner, and Chuck Blackwell, and backing vocalists Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear. (Supposedly the inspiration for the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.”) Nickey Barclay of the all-female band Fanny sang on the tour as well.
Producer Denny Cordell christened the new band “Mad Dogs & Englishmen”, after the Noël Coward song of the same name (with its refrain, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”). When asked why they needed three drummers, Russell said “Which ones are you gonna fire?” somehow implying that the band had come toghether by itself and there was nothing he could do.
When Herb Alpert – who owned A&M records – showed up at rehearsal one day he said, “We gotta film this” which is how the documentary came into being. So now the size of the whole ensemble was 50 people becuase, well, film crew. Four days of rehearsal. Band was 25 people, film crew added 25 more. According to Coolidge, even more people showed up on the plane or bus (not quite sure how they traveled). Kind of an out-of-control Magical Mystery Tour.
All that aside, even Coolidge – from a perspective of 46 years later – admits there were some magic moments on-and-off-stage. Before every show they would gather together in a circle and just sing or pray or whatever one does in a pre-show circle.
And then there’s the music. “Delta Lady” was a song Leon Russell had written for fellow Southerner/girlfrend Coolidge. (He also wrote “A Song For You” in her honor.) It’s so identified with her she named her autobiography Delta Lady.
According to Coolidge, these were not large venues but college auditoriums and everything but town commons and high school gymnasiums. I think she’s trying get the idea across that in 1970 you weren’t playing outdoor football stadia and such. But I also think she misremebers a bit. They also played both Fillmores East and West, Winterland and Symphony Hall in Boston among others. These were absolutely the top venues of the day. (Symphony Hall has largely abandoned rock.)
And while Russell, was primarily a keyboardist, he could play a pretty mean guitar too as we hear on “Honky Tonk Women:”
When asked by an interviewer if she wanted to leave the show, Coolidge said that she did after two weeks. She stuck around because Cocker said “you’re my only friend on this tour.” As mentioned, the tour was as much sex and drugs as rock and roll.
And sometimes there were real bummers. One day, out of the blue, then-boyfriend Jim Gordon punched Coolidge so hard she slammed against the wall. (How weird was it, one wonders, to have a scene where there was a current and ex-boyfriend in the band? – ME.)
At the end of the tour, a broke, exhausted Cocker stayed at Denny Cordell’s house in LA and didn’t even have enough money to buy a guitar. (One wonders where all the money from this tour went – ME). “Mama” Coolidge basically nursed the poor guy back to health all but bringing him chicken soup. Cocker went home to Sheffield and spent two years away from the music biz.
An album and a film were released. Supposedly Glyn Johns helped mix the album and they had to dub in some background singers. This is because in addition to the trained singers, apparently whoever wandered up to a mic sang. Oddly, I saw the film, never picked up the album. (Although that said, maybe it’s in that pile somewhere). There is also, of course, a Deluxe album. And so our story ends….
If you’ve ever wondered where the Tedeschi/Trucks band got their inspriration for their own large band, look no further. While nobody from the Allmans was directly involved in this fun/nightmarish tour, consider that Duane Allman was an on-again, off-again part of Delaney and Bonnie’s band and also appeared on Layla. So, a couple of degrees of separation and Derek believed it came full circle.
It’s not entirely clear to me exactly how Trucks and Tedeschi got the idea to actually have a reunion. But they contacted both Cocker and Russell who were up for it. Alas, Cocker died before it could happen and Russell just about had enough energy to do it.
And so in 2015, at Virginia’s Lock’n Festival, the Mad Dogs and Englishmen reunion was held. Tedeschi and Trucks were by now the main attraction. But Rusell, Coolidge and Linnear returned, the scars of that long ago 1970 tour apparently having healed over.
Wikipedia: “The nearly four-hour Lockn’ show went off with few hitches; Warren Haynes, the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, and Widespread Panic’s John Bell filled in for Cocker at various points (Dave Mason also sang lead on his “Feelin’ Alright”).
At the last minute, Russell agreed to reprise “The Ballad of Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” the solo Russell studio recording heard in the original doc. Despite his health issues, which led to his death in 2016 after a heart attack, Russell held up for the entire show and, despite his surface crustiness, marveled at the stability of the Tedeschi Trucks lineup compared to the original Mad Dogs crew.”
Here’s “With a Little Help From My Friends” from the Lock’n Festival. Chris Robinson does his best Cocker:
Here’s the website for the reunion. Good luck finding the movie anywhere at all. It was released at festivals and then apparently disappeared from sight.
*Supposedly there were 48 shows booked. I can find evidence of only 42. The dates were March 20, 1970 = May 17 1970.
**Three months after this tour, Gordon and Radle would be recording the Layla album. In 1983, Gordon murdered his mother. He was an undiagnosed schizophrenic.
Sources: Rita Coolidge interview, Wikipedia, RollingStone
12 thoughts on “Mad Dogs and Englishmen – The Joe Cocker/Leon Russell 1970 American Tour”
Wow, based on the clips you featured, Cocker and his backing band sounded pretty amazing, which is remarkable, given the chaotic circumstances leading up to the tour and the “intense” conditions on the road. Kind of amazing nothing really bad happened!
While I knew of Tedeschi-Trucks Band’s commemorative gig of “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” at Lockin’ in 2019 because of the resulting live album “Layla Revisited”, I didn’t realize they also recreated Cocker’s show.
TDB are one mighty army of musicians I’ve yet to see! Chris Robinson did pretty well on “With a Little Help From My Friends”, considering it’s probably impossible to sound like Cocker!
I’ve certainly known OF the Mad Dogs tour for a long time, but I was unaware of what a shitshow it was behind the scenes. My guess is that nothing worse happened because it was only two months. Had it been say, six months, God knows what would have happened.
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Holy Cow, poor Rita. Amazing she survived.
I heard either that he slammed her against the wall or that he beat the crap out of her. She’s not surprised he killed someone. But effectively, great drummer no, Jim Gordon was nuts. But then, most drummers are. 🤣
Listened to this record a lot when I was a kid (brothers pile). Caught the movie back when. Still like the music they made not interested in the shit show. On the Tedeschi/Trucks thing, Ive been listening to Widespread Panic for the last 3 days (right now also) cant get it off. Hitting the spot.
Oh, the shitshow makes it all the more interesting for me. It’s not so much the conflict I get a kick out of it’s the cast of characters, all the interplay between bands and the crazy “anything goes” nature of that time period that fascinates me. I haven’t heard Widespread Panic in a while but I recall I used to listen to their ‘Ain’t Life Grand’ album a lot.
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Panic does a cover of Morrisons ‘And It Stoned Me’, man do they have The Band vibe on this one. Heard the song a million times but it never made that connection before. Could easily came from the Canadian boys. Has a Weight’ feel. Fantastic.
Listening to it now. It’s that Garth-y organ that sounds Band-like to me, at least in the beginning. Now if the Band did this you’d have two or three singers. Funny, but i always forget about Widespread Panic. It was a long time ago. Can’t believe they’re still around. Jam bands have legs.
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Yup the boys would take turns on the vocals. The song would have been perfect for them. The lyrics fit that Americana that i love that Bruce, Fogerty etc know how to capture.
We go from Mad Dogs, to Allmans, Tedeschi/Trucks, Panic, The Band, Van. Love it.
Don’t forget Delaney and Bonnie. And their band members are part of both Harrisons and Claptons bands. And both Allman and Clapton play with D&B. And Rita Coolidge writes the tune thar Jim Gordon “borrows” and which becomes the piano coda to Layla. And I discovered that Rita’s sister was once married to Booker T. Now how about that?
Yes D&B. All sorts of obvious connections, Traffic with Dave Mason, Preston/Gordon with Zappa and Bruce. We could probably come up with a lot more if we dug a little deeper
Mason and Winwood on Electric Ladyland with Hendrix. Winwood and Clapton in Blind Faith, Clapton’s reaction to The Band. Clapton and Allman play Little Wing on Layla album.
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