For those of us who came of age in the late sixties – early seventies and for whom the music of those years made an indelible imprint on our souls, this has been a tough month. In the past several weeks we have lost Bobby Keys, the legendary saxophonist, Ian McLagen (keyboard player for the Faces) and now vocalist extraordinaire Joe Cocker.
My early music tastes benefited greatly from having an older brother who would get cool albums that I listened to and among those I was lucky to be exposed to was Joe Cocker’s first two studio albums. I had read in Rolling Stone magazine glowing reviews of the Mad Dog & Englishmen live shows and was excited when they reported that they were being recorded for a live album. When the double record set came out, I was not disappointed. I consider it one of the best live rock albums ever (my list of greatest live rock albums is a topic for a future post).
Joe Cocker had just finished a long grueling tour in March 1970 when he found out that his management had booked him for an additional seven week tour that was to start in a week. With members of his previous back up band (known as the Grease Band) having gone their separate ways, Joe was between a rock and a hard place. In comes friend and music legend Leon Russell who helps Joe put together a mammoth big band with multiple guitarists, keyboard players, drummers, a horn section and a choir of background singers. Many of the musicians Russel recruited were from Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. Among them were drummer Jim Gordon, bassist Carl Radle, trumpter Jim Price and the previously mentioned Bobby Keys. Along with Leon Russell, this group of musicians went on to play with the likes of Eric Clapton, George Harrison, John Lennon, Dave Mason and the Rolling Stones. The music was a compelling hybrid of rock, pop, southern soul music and gospel which proved flexible enough to be able to handle a diverse range of source material. The Beatles, Stones, Ray Charles, Stax, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan were among the artists whose songs were transformed by this band, all fronted by the amazingly soulful vocals of Cocker.
Below are videos from that tour of two of my favorite songs. First is Joe’s cover of the Box Tops’ “The Letter”. Check out Bobby Key’s “other” classic sax solo (besides his solo on “Brown Sugar”). Also of note is Russel’s superlative piano playing.
Joe Cocker “The Letter” in live 1970 (MAD DOGS & ENGLISHMEN)
Below is another classic performance, this time of “Space Captain” which was the B-side of “The Letter”. Love the piano breaks and the background vocals (“ooh….aah”) but I can’t help but be emotionally gut punched when I hear Joe Cocker pleading “Learing to live together.. til we die”.
Joe Cocker – Mad Dogs & Englishmen – Space Captain