Mad Dogs and Englishmen
Another "Only in the Early '70s" Artifact
Joe Cocker has said that when this project began in 1970, he didn't know most of the musicians assembled by songwriter/arranger Leon Russell for what turned out to be his most important U.S. tour. It's easy to believe that, because there were some thirty-six people involved on stage—horn players, strings, backing singers, and an extra-large rhythm section with multiple drummers and keyboard players. Their nightly exploits were documented by a film crew that traveled coast-to-coast, and recorded by Cocker's label, A&M Records, at several stops. (This double album was recorded at New York's Fillmore East.)
If such an endeavor around a not-yet-huge artist seems wildly extravagant, chalk it up to the times: This was how they rolled in the early '70s. And Cocker, another of the artists whose profile jumped after appearing at Woodstock in August 1969, looked like a safe bet. Russell, then a Svengali to several artists, believed that the grind-it-out British belter with the Ray Charles obsession could be huge if presented in the right context. So he wrote screaming arrangements of songs Cocker had been singing for years, and positioned the singer at the center of a constantly moving (and frequently gaudy) revue.
Bigger isn't usually better in rock. But Mad Dogs works, in part because the ensemble pushes Cocker in ways few rock singers are ever pushed. He sings Traffic's "Feelin' Alright" as a series of boxing maneuvers, slipping his ad-libs into the (few) open spaces. He feeds off the campy vaudeville backing for the Beatles' "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window." And though he enjoys the power of Russell's ensemble on the full-throttle rock numbers, Cocker is most persuasive when the heat isn't full force: This steady-rolling version of "Cry Me a River" deserves a spot in the hall of fame, as does the sultry version of Russell's "Delta Lady" that closes the program.
Released: 1971, A&M
Key Tracks: "Cry Me a River," "Delta Lady," "Blue Medley," "Feelin' Alright."
Catalog Choice: Joe Cocker
Next Stop: Ray Charles: Genius + Soul = Jazz
After That: Blood, Sweat & Tears: Blood, Sweat & Tears
Book Page: 178