Inside Tedeschi Trucks Band's All-Star Joe Cocker Tribute Concert

"This show is going to be messy, but in the most beautiful way," says Derek Trucks

Joe Cocker performs on the 'Mad Dogs & Englishmen' tour in 1970. This fall, Tedeschi Trucks Band will lead an all-star tribute to Cocker and the historical tour and album. Credit: Linda Wolf

When Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi were forming what became the multi-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band five years ago, they happened to watch Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the vintage rock doc about the riotous 1970 tour featuring Joe Cocker, Leon Russell and a cast-of-thousands crew of musicians and singers as they took their rock-soul hybrid on tour around the States. "We said, 'That looks like fun!'" Trucks recalls with a chuckle. "Our band was loosely based on that concert footage."

This fall, Trucks and Tedeschi will do more than continue that tradition of fronting a large rock & roll band featuring horns, backup singers and a mélange of American roots music. At Virginia's Lockn' Festival on September 11th, the Tedeschi Trucks Band will recreate a good chunk of the landmark Mad Dogs & Englishmen album with the help of some of the original crew, including bandleader and keyboardist Russell, keyboardist Chris Stainton and singers Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear. Also pitching in will be former Traffic guitarist and solo act Dave Mason (whose "Feelin' Alright" was part of the Mad Dogs set), guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and one-time Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, who grew up with the double album. "It was everything I'd been searching for in rock & roll – the place where rock, soul, folk, country and R&B all came into one big ball," Robinson says. "That album is in my DNA."

According to Trucks, the idea for the concert started a few years ago, when he reached out to Cocker to see if the twitchy, soulful Brit rocker would join the Tedeschi Trucks Band for a special set at Lockn' featuring songs from Cocker's entire career. Cocker, Trucks says, had "a little bit of healthy skepticism" about remaking the Mad Dogs material, but "we were starting to get past that." A tentative plan for Cocker to join the band was set for last year, but for then-mysterious reasons, Cocker bowed out. Later, Trucks – and so many others – learned Cocker was battling cancer; he succumbed to the disease last December.

Taking in 48 shows in 48 cities in the spring of 1970, the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour was rock & roll chaos from the start. Already fried from touring after his breakthrough set at Woodstock the previous summer, Cocker was forced to postpone a much-needed vacation when his manager at the time, Dee Anthony, told Cocker he'd lose his American working papers if he didn't hit the road. With the first shows barely a week away, Cocker turned to Russell. "Joe and [producer] Denny Cordell, who was later my partner in Shelter Records, showed up one day and said Joe needs to do these shows," Russell recalls. "Joe had fired his band and if he didn't do these shows, the Musicians Union wouldn't allow him to work in the United States again. I said, 'Well, I know a few guys.'"

In no time, Russell assembled an 11-piece band with some of the sharpest musicians of the period, including Derek and the Dominos bassist Carl Radle and recurring Rolling Stones sax man Bobby Keys (both of whom have since died). "It was miraculous," says Coolidge, who'd just broken up with Russell but was still asked to put together a backup choir. "Leon put out the phone calls and he knew the people to call who would be the perfect band, and he did it in maybe five or six days. He was the ringmaster in the circus."

The tour was a circus in more than musical ways: Reflecting the excesses of the time, the shows were an ongoing party onstage and off. One morning, Coolidge went down to the lobby of their hotel only to find a huge number of band and crew assembled there. "I said, 'Did I miss the call for the bus?'" she says. "But no – they were all going to a hospital to get shots for VD. There was a lot of craziness." More than 300 hours of footage was shot for the feature film, and Russell chuckles when he recalls what was omitted, including many hours of "naked swimming parties."

With the Russell-assembled wall of sound behind him, Cocker turned in some of his most intense performances, especially on covers of the Box Tops' "The Letter," Robbie Robertson's "The Weight" and Arthur Hamilton's "Cry Me a River." But according to Russell, Cocker was in wobbly shape before he sang his first note, forcing Russell to take charge. "He was pretty wrecked when we started out," says Russell, who recalls an early rehearsal when he asked Cocker if he was happy with one particular arrangement. "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. I wanted to do it the way he wanted it. So I said, 'Shit, I'll just do whatever I want.'" To her distress, Coolidge would watch as Cocker tossed down whatever pills anyone was handing him as he walked to the stage. "He would just put them in his mouth and swallow and I would say, 'How can you do that?'" she says. "He would say, 'It's for the pain in me neck.' But those were the choices he made."

By the end of the two-month tour, Cocker was strung out. Michael Lang, the Woodstock organizer who later managed Cocker, saw the Mad Dogs show at New York's Fillmore East. "Joe was fantastic, and it pushed both Joe and Leon up the ladder," Lang says. But as he learned, "Joe really immersed himself in drugs and alcohol and got wiped out physically. That tour, the size and nature of it, left him broken and disillusioned in terms of the music business experience." (According to legend, Cocker returned home with only $862 in his pocket.) At the premiere of the Mad Dogs & Englishmen movie in London, Cocker was a no-show – he chose to start driving aimlessly around the country.

According to former A&M head Jerry Moss, no one was initially sure the tapes of the shows would make a standout record. "Denny and Leon didn't think the recordings were that good, but then Glyn Johns remixed them," says Jerry Moss. "I went away with my family and I got a cable saying, 'You can relax and have a good summer – we have a double album.'" (The choir, which included wives and girlfriends who couldn't necessarily sing as well as the pros, was re-recorded in the studio, according to Coolidge.) Mad Dogs & Englishmen went on to hit Number Two – Cocker's highest-charting album – and both "The Letter" and "Cry Me a River" were Top 20 hits.

After Cocker passed away, Trucks and Tedeschi decided to turn their initial idea for a Cocker tribute into a Mad Dogs recreation in his honor. (Drummer Jim Gordon, currently serving a life sentence for the 1983 murder of his mother, was not contacted, says Trucks: "It was talked about and part of me wanted to, but then we came to our senses.") The show, still in the planning stages, won't be a song-for-song recreation of the double album, but fans will likely hear most of its signature songs. Tedeschi says she hopes Russell will sing "Delta Lady" and that Lennear will tackle "Cry Me a River." The Tedeschi Trucks Band have already been playing "The Letter" on tour this summer, joined by opening act Sharon Jones. Cocker's lead vocals will most likely be split among Russell, Robinson, Tedeschi and Lennear. "No one could fill Joe's shoes," Robinson says. "I wouldn't even try." As Trucks says, "This show is going to be messy, but in the most beautiful way."

Coolidge will surely recreate her solo spot on the original tour – "Superstar," the ballad of a forlorn groupie that was a later pop hit for the Carpenters. Although credited to Russell and Bonnie Bramlett, Coolidge (who was and remains close friends with Bramlett) says the song was inspired by the time she watched Eric Clapton playing with Delaney and Bonnie a year before the Mad Dogs tour. "I would see all these girls, young girls looking up at Eric and thinking, 'He's going to pick me,'" she says. "It was me observing. So the idea for that song was mine."

For his part, the still enigmatic Russell says he's game for whatever happens on that stage. "I've been approached by people in the past who said, 'Let's do Mad Dogs & Englishmen again, and we'll get these guys and that guys,'" he says. "But you have to remember that all the people in the [original] band were unknown at the time. It didn't have stars. So I didn't think it could be recreated that way. But I quite like this band, and it'll be interesting."

Trucks admits that the excesses of the time remain one of the legacies of the Mad Dogs & Englishmen traveling extravaganza. (Trucks' uncle, Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks, surely passed on many stories himself.) "That tour was healthy and unhealthy all at once," Trucks says. "A lot of that lifestyle of the late Sixties and early Seventies came to a head then. You can't outrun it. With our band we try to take it to the edge but not blow past it. We try to take the good things from Mad Dogs. We want to make a healthier version of that."