BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
People still talk about the tour.
Granted, in Tulsa — Leon Russell's recognized home turf — it's the stuff of legend, but across the country it's still one of the best stories in rock 'n' roll. The tale just keeps getting taller. A new band of transplanted locals in Nashville is reportedly even preparing an album tentatively titled "Mad Dogs and Okies."
Musicians still have it on their resumes. Sometimes an artist's bio will come into the Arts desk here, and it will tout — very near the top — that this musician performed on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour in 1970. We have to chuckle, because that's not saying much. Hundreds of people wound up on that stage.
Funny thing, though: when they mention the tour, it's always Leon Russell's Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour, never Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. Leon was the bandleader for Joe's show. Pretty unintentionally, though, Leon stole that show right out from under Joe.
That's pretty much why these two classic rock figures haven't shared another bill since.
Until next week.
For the first time since that infamous circus, Russell and Cocker will share the same stage on the same night. That is, they're each scheduled for individual sets as part of one show. Concert organizers don't know whether they'll actually perform together.
"I suspect that they will, but I don't know," said Mark Lee of 462 Concerts this week. "No one could imagine them not playing together, but they haven't in 30 years."
The Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour was a highlight of Cocker's career and the launch of Russell's.
Cocker had come up through the British pub circuit with the Grease Band. He landed a No. 1 hit in 1968 with a gritty, soulful cover of the Beatles' "A Little Help From My Friends." When he sang that song at Woodstock the following year, his superstardom was assured.
Russell had been struggling through the ranks in America as a session pianist. He was sought-after — working frequently with Phil Spector — but he was still a session player in the wings. His 1967 solo debut LP, "Look Inside the Asylum Choir," was respected by critics but didn't sell. In '69, he hit the road with Delaney and Bonnie.
It was then that the two crossed paths. Cocker, always looking for good material, picked up Russell's "Delta Lady" and recorded it for another hit. When Cocker decided to tour again, he asked Russell to put together a band for him.
That was either his first mistake or his stroke of genius, depending on who you talk to.
Russell didn't hold back in assembling a motley crew for what would become the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. One-time Russell girlfriend Rita Coolidge was on board. Delaney and Bonnie joined up. The Rolling Stones' future horn section was there, as well as Derek and the Dominos' future rhythm section. Some shows had up to 45 people on the stage, including a few actual dogs.
It only lasted a couple of months — 48 cities in 56 days — but the tour's effects lasted a lifetime. It was even filmed for a concert movie of the same name. It was the hottest post-Woodtsock ticket around the country, because not only was Cocker in his prime but there was this long-haired Okie up there stealing the show. Russell ran back and forth between piano and guitar, leading the band with his hair flying. Russell was so manic and so darned good that people wound up talking about him as much, if not more, than Cocker — and it was Cocker's headlining tour.
After the show inevitably fell apart, Russell's star rose. He showed up on albums by B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, and the next year was a highlight of George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. Then he toured with the Stones — all this while living in Tulsa. The record label he founded here, Shelter Records, nurtured the early careers of Tom Petty and Phoebe Snow, as well as locals Dwight Twilley and J.J. Cale.
Cocker didn't fare so well after the tour. His albums and performances suffered from problems with alcohol on and off the stage. He bounced back with another hit, a cover of "You Are So Beautiful," in '75, and then made that kind of romantic ballad the hallmark of the rest of his career. Later, his raspy crooning scored him soundtrack hits such as "Up Where We Belong" (a duet with Jennifer Warnes) from 1982's "An Officer and a Gentleman."
Russell continues churning out his traditional and sometimes country songcraft through his own label, Leon Russell Records. Cocker just released his latest collection, "Respect Yourself," on the Red Ink label.
Comments are closed.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.