Posts Tagged ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’

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In 1972-73, Leon Russell released two albums about as far apart on the musical spectrum as they could be. “Carney” was an ambitious concept album with flashes of psychedelia. ‘Hank Wilson‘s Back!”, brought him back to his rockabilly/country roots. One is seriously ambitious. The other is just serious fun.

The dramatic shift between the two reflected Leon Russell’s multi-genre reach and aspirations as well as the changing musical times. But what drove both was his need to try on different personas, to figure out how to deal with the sudden glare of the spotlight fame brought him in the early 1970s. In a musical sense, Leon Russell was asking, “Who am I really?” And the answer to that question was anything but simple, In the Early Days Leon Russell had, he admitted freely, “huge stage fright.”

Sure, back in his early Tulsa days he started working in bars and clubs when he was severely underage… like fourteen. But when he graduated from high school, his band the Starlighters hit the road for two months to back Jerry Lee Lewis, one of rock and roll’s most aggressive onstage performers. That was the first time, but far from the last, that Russell would play straw boss for a scenery-chewing front man.

When the seventeen-year-old moved to L.A., his multi-instrumental talents—this child prodigy studied classical piano, could play tenor sax or xylophone, and took guitar lessons from the one and only James Burton made him a go-to session guy. He thrived in the studio. Everyone knows he did literally thousands of sessions for a phone book’s worth of artists. But he always kept his own level-headed perspective. “I was a jobber, like an air-conditioning installer,” he told one interviewer. “You need air-conditioning? Call this guy. People called me to do what I did.”

When Russell migrated to the house band for TV’s Shindig in 1964, he transferred his skills, once again helping to organize musical backing for a weekly cavalcade of pop stars. Revealingly, in 1967 he built his first home studio. Not long after, he started Shelter Records, his own label, with partner Denny Cordell. Over time, Shelter would release records by the likes Freddie King, J.J. Cale, the Gap Band, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

It’s as if Russell was building his own musical ecosystem where he could do what he loved most—write, record, and produce. Russell was a control freak in the studio and onstage. He was intuitively finicky about details others didn’t know they’d missed. It made him an excellent producer and bandleader. Shelter Records was barely open when Delaney Bramlett, an ex-Shindogs colleague, tapped Russell for the floating cast of characters that toured as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. Then he got a panicky call from Joe Cocker, whose ‘Joe Cocker!. album he’d co-produced.

Joe Cocker had parted ways with his Grease Band, partly because he didn’t want to tour. Whoops! His management informed him they’d set up three months on the road. Suddenly Cocker needed a new touring band… in a week. Russell pulled together pals from the Friends and added a horn section and background vocalists to create Mad Dogs & Englishmen. The number of folks onstage could hit fifteen or so, but Russell was always in control… and usually out of the spotlight.

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Leon Russell

His debut album, came out while he was ramrodding Cocker’s travelling circus. The album’s personnel bristled with A-listers: Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Steve Winwood, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, and so on. It had his take on “Delta Lady” which Cocker had a top 100 hit with. And “A Song for You” which became an instant classic; eventually somewhere between one and two hundred other artists would cover it.

When Cocker’s tour was done, the documentary Mad Dogs and Englishmen focused its spotlight on Russell and made him a star almost despite himself. Then he had to tour to support his own album for the first time. Along the way, he appeared at the Fillmore with admirer Elton John, who’d later play a crucial role in his last “comeback,” and made the rounds of TV shows to promote sales. Watch those appearances now, and you can see he’s trying out a public persona to deal with a sudden fame that kept growing after mega-events like the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh.

His sense of reserve wasn’t new or an afterthought. Leon Russell was a stage name; Claude Russell Bridges never legally changed his handle, because it offered him some mental insulation.

As he put it, “It’s handy. I can be a different person for a while.”

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‘Carney’

With ‘Carney’, his third album, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker’s Master of Space and Time and victim of acute stage fright, pulled the curtain back on his unexpected stardom.

It was 1972, the apex of the age of concept albums, too many of which were flatulent self-indulgence—which may be a big reason that ‘Carney’ these days is virtually forgotten, except for its hit “Tight Rope” Another is that the album is challenging. Until ‘Carney’, Russell’s primary musical calling card was his usually sunny roots-rock directness. Here his songs gather ingredients of classic rock to veer determinedly into a layered complexity and dark vision that can flummox those expectations.

Take “Acid Annapolis To most critics, this experimental psychedelic flight of wordless swoops and chittering sonics verged on seeming trite even at the time. But you can also hear it as an abstract comment on this concept album’s central themes: the gaps between perception and reality, between public and private faces—fundamental human traits that both unite and divide us.

That’s foundational for the album’s big hit—the biggest Russell ever had—“Tight Rope.” Its Fellini-esque picture rides rhythms alluding to a circus oompah beat. Russell’s nasal drawl and hiccup-like falsetto stabs mimic the fragile balance he’s maintaining as a performer. The B section’s musical jauntiness underpins some pretty sarcastic lines: “Like a rubberneck giraffe / You look into my past / But baby you’re just too blind to see.”

That last word, separated from the others, is almost a yelp. The next cut, “Out in the Woods” explores being lost and alone in a tumult of others’ expectations. “My love she is not waiting” is a deftly poignant line that underlines how completely cut off from human contact the singer feels. He begs her to come get him even though “your sweet understanding can’t fix this broken heart.”

In similar fashion, “Me and Baby Jane” looks back at his Okie childhood and the lost girlfriend who “offered me balance for a while” now has “vacant eyes and a needle in her vein,” as old friends “stand beside me too late to try and find excuses in the face of being blind.” But dark as it is, can you doubt, listening to it, that Russell fan Elton John drew inspiration from this song? Or that Mark Knopfler at least glanced off the honky-tonk-meets-gospel “Roller Derby The Queen here, after all, is another performance artist, like the Carney: she’s daunting as hell on the floor, but once she’s home “alone in love / she murmurs like a sweet mourning dove.”

Bird cheeps, rain, road sounds—the opening of “Manhattan Island Serenade” seems counter-intuitive. But that’s exactly how alone he is, in his imaginary landscape at the center of this country’s most populous city, where this song’s gospel feel adds complex tension to lines like, “With every step I’ll see your face / Like a mirror looking back at me.”
That conceit is the core of “Magic Mirror” the album’s final track dealing with the central theme of projection. What you see up on that tightrope is some version of what you’d like to be. It may have nothing at all to do with what’s actually going on. That’s OK: after all, it’s a show.

But then Russell retrains the lens on himself to ask, “Do I see myself in anyone I meet?… If only we could try to see ourselves as others would.” ‘Carney’ peaked at number two on the Billboard charts. It was Russell’s last hit record for decades.

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‘Hank Wilson’s Back!’

When Russell headed to Owen Bradley’s studio in February 1973, he wasn’t exactly what Nashville’s music establishment was looking for in their continuing quest to woo mainstream America to listen to their takes on country music. He looked like a hippie, but that Okie drawl proved his pedigree; he wasn’t just another one of those longhairs who’d created country-rock despite the Grand Ol’ Opry crowd’s sneering, dismissals, and resistance. Nor was he one of the emerging Outlaws they’d marginalized, who’d very soon draw crossover listeners with their fusions of rock and country.

Russell wanted to pay homage to their tradition’s classics, fit into it, maybe above all redefine himself as he nestled within it as a fictitious persona. Say hi to Hank Wilson—the name itself a homage to country-star Hanks like Williams, Snow, and Thompson. Tellingly, his album cover portrait is taken from behind.

Choosing Bradley Barn to make the album is a big clue to his motives. So is this veteran session man’s tapping an A-list of Nashville session stalwarts for his sidemen.

But what Russell wanted, maybe above all, was a fresh start with a new persona that cut virtually all ties with his last decade. If ‘Carney’ was ambitious and probing, this disc seems like remarkably un-radical fun. Yet there are also sly, subtle touches of creative reinterpretation throughout. Recasting Lester Flatt’s “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” the disc’s opener, as classic rockabilly before putting the bluegrass hammer down announces Russell’s unconventional embrace of Nashville’s roots.

Hank Thompson’s “A Six Pack to Go” reiterates that move, when the bluesy acoustic intro that also punctuates the song yields to good old honky-tonkin’ in a modified Thompson vein.

This concept shapes the album’s best stuff: unconventional Leon wearing a Stetson instead of a top hat or greasepaint.
His aside, “Ah, Billy Byrd,” on “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone” is just one of his overt grins at playing this new role. Another is the party atmosphere made explicit at the end of Lead Belly’s “Good Night Irene” which he infuses with an infectious passion that peaks on his interpolated autobiographical lines about Tulsa and Nashville.

The album’s last cut is revealing: “In the Jailhouse Now” these days famous thanks to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? gets a tasty back-porch acoustic treatment that midway, mirroring the opening track, upshifts to modified rockabilly. You could argue that particular song underlines Russell’s aims with this album: to redefine his relationship with the prison fame can be. And there’s truth to that. But what’s palpable on almost every track, even Bradley-style string-laden stuff like Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Am I That Easy to Forget”
is how much fun he’s having as he throws himself wholeheartedly in his personal tour through the country classics of his youth.

No doubt that’s why he recorded more Hank Wilson albums even though fewer and fewer listeners cared. He’d made a pile, achieved more than he’d dreamed of, and could now cut back on touring and delve into… well, whatever he felt like. He’d come down from the tightrope and had no regrets. Decades later, during his Elton John-instigated comeback, he told an interviewer, “I was surprised by the success I had. I was not surprised when it went away.

Joe Cocker Goes Out To The Movies

Recorded during Joe Cocker’s two-night stand at the Fillmore East in 1970, ‘Mad Dogs & Englishmen’ is the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll road show. Band leader Leon Russell assembled a killer group to back the 25-year-old singer. It’s heavy on covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and the Rolling Stones, but Cocker pretty much makes them his own.

When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen concert movie premiered on 22nd January, 1971, cinema audiences were able to experience Joe Cocker at the peak of his powers.

The live album from the famed tour of the same name had been released in August 1970, reaching No. 2 in America and No. 16 in the UK. The subsequent film brought Cocker’s unique performance to the silver screen for the second time in a year. He had starred with his Grease Band in the film of the Woodstock Festival of summer 1969, which came out in 1970 and showed his celebrated electrifying  interpretation of Lennon-McCartney’s  ‘With A Little Help From My Friends.’

Mad Dogs

But while that was one song among an all-star event, Mad Dogs, The movie directed by Pierre Adidge, was a two-hour showcase for Joe Cocker as a frontman, and a chance to watch master musician and band leader Leon Russell in full flow as Joe’s musical director for the 48-city tour. There are also prominent roles for other members of the band that we already knew, or came to, in their other work. Saxophone maestro Bobby Keys, especially admired for his long relationship with the Rolling Stones, is featured along with another of their collaborators, Jim Price.

Cocker’s keyboard man Chris Stainton is on board, as are prolific sidemen such as Jim Keltner and Derek and The Dominoes  members Jim Gordon and Carl Radle. The tour, and the film, also did much to announce the vocal talents of Rita Coolidge, who featured on Russell and Bonnie Bramlett’s lovely tune ‘Superstar.’

Vincent Canby’s review of the film in the New York Times in March 1971 described it as a record of the tour featuring Cocker, the young extraordinarily talented, British blues singer, and the largely American entourage (band, choir, friends, wives, children, groupies and a single dog named Canina) that accompanied him. The entire group numbered almost 40 people, most of whom were on stage during most of the performances, making for what seems to have been extremely cheerful and friendly chaos.”

The 10 Best Leon Russell Songs

Right after Leon Russell graduated from Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1959, the young musician had to make a decision. Should the 17-year-old kid go to Tulsa University, as he had planned, or should he accept an offer to go on the road as Jerry Lee Lewis’s guitarist? Attend ROTC drills on the quad or play for screaming girls in high school auditoriums? , He hit the road.

Leon Russell, The Journeyman who died Sunday at age 74, kept making similar decisions all his life. He continually put himself in unlikely situations to test and extend himself as a musician. He was willing to play Texas honky-tonk with Willie Nelson, British pop-rock with Elton John, folk-rock with Bob Dylan, bluegrass with the New Grass Revival and gospel-soul with Aretha Franklin. He responded to every situation by mastering the new territory and then adding something that was indelibly his own: a bluesy, churchy shuffle that became known as the “Tulsa Sound.”

After a few months with Jerry Lee Lewis, Russell moved to Southern California, where he teamed up with Elvis Presley’s virtuoso guitarist James Burton and became a top L.A. session musician, playing on such landmark albums The Byrds Mr. Tambourine Man, The Beach Boys Pet Sounds, Flying Burrito Brothers  Burrito Deluxe and the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed.

This was mostly session work that went uncredited on record sleeves in those days. Russell returned to live playing when he joined Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, where he made good friends with then band members George Harrison and Eric Clapton. But the first time the wider public got to know him was in 1970 when he became the last-minute music director and band member for Joe Cocker’s second American tour. Leon Russell had contributed production, arranging and songwriting (“Delta Lady”) to the 1969 album Joe Cocker! and when the singer’s British band fell apart just days before the tour was supposed to begin, he called Russell .

The now famous tour was called Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Joe Cocker and organist Chris Stainton were the Brits, while Russell and his assemblage of Okies and Californians were the crazed canines in the massive, 22-person troupe. With his long brown hair spilling out of a top hat and over his shoulders and a pointy Van Dyke beard filling his sternum, Russell played conductor and kept shows balanced on the narrow fence between spontaneity and chaos. He was bolstered by the rhythm section of fellow Okies: drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Carl Radle. The feature film and two-LP album, both titled Mad Dogs & Englishmen, documented the tour as a heady mix of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism and showmanship.

A year later Russell was a key participant in the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden: playing piano behind his friend George Harrison, bass behind Bob Dylan and singing lead on a couple of songs himself, most notably the medley including “Youngblood”.

When he was doing session work in L.A. in the ‘60s, he brought out many of his teenage friends, such as Keltner, Radle, guitarist J.J. Cale, future Bread leader David Gates, organist Dick Sims, drummer Jamie Oldaker, drummer Chuck Blackwell, guitarist Jesse Ed Davis and the great, underrated singer Roger Tillison. For a while, they all hung out at Russell’s home/studio on Skyhill Road in the Hollywood Hills, writing songs and playing sessions.

They developed a slinky sound that Cale jokingly said was a result of trying to play the blues and getting it wrong. Leon Russell himself described it as playing country shuffles against a Jerry Lee Lewis boogie. A relaxed swing inhabited the music, perhaps a ghost echo of Bob Wills’ nights at Tulsa’s Cain Ballroom, lending a liquid lyricism to the hillbilly and blues influences these 1950s teenagers had swallowed. Every song boasted a deep groove, but these musicians were more likely to ease into it than to push into it.

British producer Denny Cordell met Russell during the Joe Cocker! sessions and partnered with Russell to co-found Shelter Records in 1969. But by 1972, Russell had tired of California and was itching to get back home. He now had some money on the basis of a No. 2 album (Carney), a No. 11 single (“Tight Rope”) and the royalties from other people’s versions of his songs such as “Delta Lady,” “Superstar,” “A Song for You,” “This Masquerade,” “Hummingbird” and “Roller Derby.” Shelter Records, based in both L.A. and Tulsa, remained a small label, but it made a huge impact on popular music by releasing the landmark debut albums by J.J. Cale, Tom Petty, Willis Alan Ramsey, Dwight Twilley and Phoebe Snow. Cale’s record, 1974’s Naturally, provided the template for the subsequent careers of Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler.

With that cash he bought seven acres on the bank of the Grand Lake of the Cherokees outside Tulsa and build a sprawling home/studio/guesthouse compound. Shelter Records hired legendary documentarian Les Blank to make a film about the tribal family that Russell gathered around himself and the music that they made. The resulting impressionistic movie, A Poem Is a Naked Person, captured the bizarre bohemia of those days. Underground comic artist Jim Franklin paints a giant octopus on the bottom of a swimming pool; Russell delivers over-the-top rock ‘n’ roll sermons from the piano, and country legends such as Willie Nelson, Eric Anderson and George Jones drop by.

“Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” 
Leon Russell’s country phase found him adopting the guise of Hank Wilson , a sturdy country crooner that served as a front for four albums of mostly traditional tunes. This track, a sentimental standard extracted from the first album in that somewhat strange series, put him on the charts and gave him credibility as a legitimate country crooner. But Russell was so unhappy with the film that he kept it from theatrical distribution until 2015. Perhaps he had tired of the psychedelic circus he was leading. He dropped the rock ‘n’ roll gypsy persona and made a credible album of honky-tonk standards called Hank Wilson’s Back, featuring Russell in a rhinestone cowboy suit. He resurrected that hillbilly persona for four albums in all, the last being 2001’s Rhythm & Bluegrass, his second collaboration with the New Grass Revival.

Russell should be remembered not only for the records that bore his name but also for those he ushered into being—whether they were those Shelter debuts or the guilty-pleasure bubblegum-rock of Gary Lewis & the Playboys, the obscure Dylan single “Watching the River Flow” or the astonishing North Texas songwriting of Willis Alan Ramsey. And Russell should get the credit for spreading the gospel of the Tulsa Sound, whose influence rippled out in concentric circles beyond that small Oklahoma city.

Joe-Cocker-608x609

Joe Cocker, the English blues-rock singer with the intense howl and the distinctive stage presence, died of lung disease today while at home in Colorado. Cocker was 70.

Joe Cocker was born in the British city of Sheffield — also the home of another famous Cocker, Pulp frontman Jarvis. (They’re not related, but Jarvis’ father Mac used to lie and say that he was Joe’s brother when he was an Australian radio DJ.) Born John Robert Cocker, Joe got his start as a 16-year-old leader of a band called the Cavaliers. He’d spend his teens and early twenties performing under various names (he was Vance Arnold for a while) and leading various groups: Vance Arnold And The Avengers, Joe Cocker’s Big Blues, the Grease Band. Despite a short-lived Decca Records deal in 1964, Cocker wouldn’t break through until 1968, when his Grease Band covered the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” as a wild, sincere, throaty blues-rocker.

Cocker’s version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” would be his signature song for his entire career. He famously performed it at Woodstock and got a highlight spot in the Woodstock documentary, and years later, it would serve as the theme song for “The Wonder Years”. In the years that followed, Cocker would score more hits with more covers: Leon Russell’s “Delta Lady,” Julie London’s “Cry Me A River,” the Box-Tops’ “The Letter.”

His version of Billy Preston and Dennis Wilson’s “You Are So Beautiful” was a massive international hit in 1974, but he didn’t score his greatest chart success until he topped American charts in 1982, when his Jennifer Warnes duet “Up Where We Belong” served as the main theme for the movie An Officer And A Gentleman.

Joe Cocker remained a goofily genial pop-culture presence throughout his life, never taking himself too seriously. He performed on Saturday Night Live while John Belushi stood right next to him, imitating his spasmodic stage presence. He recorded an early-’80s reggae-pop album at Compass Point studios with Sly & Robbie backing him up. He performed at Woodstock ’94. He kept steadily performing until very recently, and Fire It Up, his final album, came out in 2012.