What's Going On Here, Joe Cocker? - Rolling Stone
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What’s Going On Here, Joe Cocker?

Frontman of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, then the Concert, bombs Madison Square Garden

Joe CockerJoe Cocker

oe Cocker performs live on stage with a tambourine in London in 1972

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty

New York–”Isn’t it sort of reckless, sort of precipitous, to open at Madison Square Garden?” somebody asked Nigel Thomas, the British manager of Joe Cocker’s new band, The Concert.

Nigel took a sip from the bottle of Dom Perignon ’64 he was nursing and leaned back. “Well, yes, it’s precipitous,” said Nigel. “But it’s not fun unless it’s precipitous, is it? The band has been rather loose, and we hope that going in there will – ah – bring out the best in them. ‘Course, it could bring out the worst.”

On the eve of Joe Cocker’s return from 18 months of retirement, Nigel was reclining in a pew towards the front of the Westport Playhouse, in Westport, Connecticut. On stage the band was rehearsing listlessly. Joe sat hunched over the Steinway keyboard, wearing only a marijuana T-shirt to cover up his budding sumo belly. He was banging out infantile discords in time to the music.

The band broke off its jamming for a moment to acknowledge the presence of two new musicians – a saxman named Fred Scherbo and a trumpet man, Dick Alphonso, who played from a wheel chair. Conrad Isidore, the band’s West Indian drummer, had met them in a Westport bar a few nights before and invited them to sit in. Scherbo wheeled Alphonso onto the stage, and they tentatively began to fill in horn parts.

Nigel got up, went out the stage door, crossed a small snow-covered courtyard and sat down at a table in the Players Tavern, the adjacent Tiffany-lamped restaurant which had been opened in the off season solely to provision the band. A group of Englishmen were sitting around the table: Denny Cordell who had produced Joe’s records and organized his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour; a red-bearded comrade named Andrew, the A&R man for Motown’s “white” label, Rare Earth; and a reporter from the British trade paper, Melody Maker, who had flown over to chronicle the latest British conquest of America.

Before managing Juicy Lucy, the Grease Band, and the European tours of Leon Russell, Nigel had been a London nightclub “satirist.” The dry, facetious manner had never left him.

Nigel’s nonchalance was in pronounced contrast to the aggressiveness of Joe’s former manager, Dee Anthony. Joe had grown disenchanted with Anthony after the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour two years ago. Just a week before, he had finally bought his way out of a five-year contract with Anthony – for an alleged $250,000. Anthony was a swarthy, stocky, emotional show biz pro, a veteran of 17 years on the road with Tony Bennett. Anthony promoted and pep-talked his acts with the fervor of a Knute Rockne, and he had all but hounded more than one mediocre group to stardom. His clients have included Ten Years After, Traffic, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and the J. Geils Band.

“Nigel,” one of the musicians had told me, “is more like one of the lads than a manager.”

“Give me another Dom Perignon,” Nigel was shouting to the waiter. Nigel not only enjoyed Dom Perignon ’64, but had managed to communicate his taste to the entire troupe. In fact, Nigel had inserted a clause in the contract to the effect that every promoter must provide two cases of vintage champagne at each concert on the tour.

“We’re all out,” the bartender yelled at Nigel. “We’ve just got California.”

“Ugh,” said Nigel, making a face.

Chris Stainton, the willowy pianist, who is Joe’s oldest friend in the band, came in and stood across from Nigel like a schoolboy at the headmaster’s table. The horns are really good . . .” he said hopefully.

“Well, hire them,” said Nigel. “I’ll be there in a few seconds to work things out.”

No one seemed to find it remarkable that the conga player, Felix Flaco, had been added to the band only the day before, and that now a horn section was being tacked on less than 24 hours before the opening. Nigel had other worries.

“My God,” he said. “We’ve got to hide the wheel chair or do something with it. Maybe if we draped it with a leopard skin. . . . Or replaced the tires with white walls. I’m terrified that they’ll come out looking like some sort of Mad Dogs and Englishmen revival, and, of course, that’s not what we are, we’re a whole new and very different band.”

Back in the theater, the band had finished rehearsing and Joe was huddled in the pews with a bunch of local freaks who were out to gain status by sharing their grass with the stars. While they rolled joint after joint, they extolled their grass in superlatives. It was indeed a potent exotic breed but it was the kind of pot that gives you a sore throat if it leaves you any throat at all. Joe’s girlfriend, Eileen, sat down next to me and said, “You know, on the road you need the booze and the drugs and what not just to cope with all the creeps that push themselves at you.”

Joe was drawing long deep tokes on his joint. Just one of those tokes would have sent any opera singer reeling, terrified, for the throat spray. But Joe kept on inhaling and holding his breath, and he showed no sign of remembering that his vocal chords were the band’s single most valuable asset. After the Madison Square Garden opening, Joe would say, “I was very hoarse at the Garden. We’d been rehearsing right up to the day, which I’d forgotten about.” On the eve of the opening night, he seemed to be trying very hard to forget.

When Joe and the band had smoked a few joints, the freaks inquired whether Joe had much grass of his own. Finding that he didn’t, they saw another chance to insinuate themselves: “Think we could get you a pound . . . got a friend . . . think I still got his phone number . . . how long ya gonna be around?” All the while Joe was nodding, opening his eyes wide at an occasional suggestion, smiling, grunting, “Yes . . . I guess so, yes yes.”

This friendly but non-committal mime show is the way Joe communicates with all strangers and many friends. Joe had no intention of buying a pound of grass, but he will go through incredible contortions to avoid saying “no” to anyone. Over the past two years, Joe’s passivity had taken a terrible toll on him. The success of the Mad Dogs tour had made him a priceless object that managers, producers, promoters, hangers on, and groupies wanted to own. They had fought over him like . . . mad dogs. Joe found it agonizing to say no to any of them, to turn down any of their impossible demands. So he retired.

Joe doesn’t like to talk about that period. “What did you do for that year and a half, Joe?” I asked.

Joe was sitting in a loge seat in the empty Garden looking frighteningly pale, sweating a morbid sweat, and jiggling his right foot, which rested on his left knee. The concert was only five hours away.

“Well,” said Joe, “when we finished the tour I hung around L.A. for about three months. I just laid oop at Denny’s place. Occasionally I do fall out with the music scene. It gets sorta stagnant . . . I don’t know. There’s been a lotta bitchiness going around, but it seems to be getting better now.

“Then I went home. I drove around a bit. Up to Scotland, down South. Just fast driving and seeing how she was holding.”

“What?” I said.

“Just seeing how the country was holding.”

I asked how the country seemed to be holding.

“Well, you know, it’s the same as here,” said Joe. “The decline level is the same, but there’s the growth level on the other side, it’s like a scale. I don’t understand it yet, not fully. There are just a lot of changes. Like, I mean, there have been all these power coots that really do everyone in.”

“Power cults?” I asked. Beneath his muddy Sheffield accent, Joe was mumbling and swallowing words.

“Power coots! Strikes, electricity strikes!” said Joe. “Just going off when they want it, and everybody starts living like moles and they don’t come out.”

Had Joe lived like a mole, as people said, in a rest home? “No,” Joe mumbled. “Never been near one.”

Was he shooting smack, as people said?

“Charming!” said Joe. “No, no, that’s not true. Maybe I should. Is that what they mean?” There was a long pause. “Well, ya know, I get by,” Joe said. “I mean, smack, that’s certainly not to walk into a good thing, is it?”

Other questions drew other fragmentary answers. Why had Joe seen Leon Russell, the musical director of the Mad Dogs tour, only once in the last year and a half? “We’ve just been on a different thing,” said Joe. How had he composed the new songs with his new band? “Just a thing of what’s in the air to me,” said Joe. How had he decided to take on Nigel as his new manager? “Just decided to take a plunge, ya know. Study in character.” How had he decided to come out of retirement? “Chris said, how would I fancy coming out and singing with the band. And I was, ya know, real pleased to just step into another road show.”

The band, which was testing the PA system, was growing annoyingly strident. It was hard to hear Joe. I asked Joe if he were nervous. He said he wasn’t. He sneezed. I asked if he felt all right.

“I got no sleep these last two nights, that’s why I feel so weird,” he said. “This morning my nose started running. I might catch a cold. I gotta be very careful not to catch one.”

* * *

Joe Cocker and the Concert bombed at the Garden. Twenty-odd thousand kids (less than a full house) had come out with Mad Dogs still echoing in their ears, hoping to hear more of the same. What they got was a raggedy and badly uncoordinated band that was struggling to keep together, and a performance by Joe that had all of his usual gravel and very little of his subtle and beautiful phrasing. Joe finally brought the audience to life with “High Time We Went,” his last hit single, but they had already sat through an hour and a half of interminable blues, with long sloppy breaks by the band, and they kept screaming for “Space Captain” and “Came In Through the Bathroom Window.”

The band had the freakish, motley look of Mad Dogs. There were the Dips, a trio of black soul singers from Dallas; a young slide guitar player named Glenn Cambell from California and a lead guitarist named Neil Hubbard; there were Conrad Isidore, Felix Flaco, Alphonso and Scherbo, and Greasebanders Allen Spenner and Chris Stainton. There was a complement of groupies and wives dancing around the amps in the background. But whereas Mad Dogs, after a week of rehearsal, had become a powerhouse of a band, the Concert, after a full seven weeks, had failed even to jell.

Two weeks later, I asked Allen Spenner what had gone wrong. “You mean Madison Square Nightmare?” he chuckled. “We all felt utter terror. We were all just very nervous.”

Had their nerves started acting up the night before?

“No,” he said. “That’s the funny thing about it, ’cause everyone was very calm, cool, having a good time and all. And we walked on stage to do the gig – everybody’s feeling good. We did the first number and that was good; did the second number OK.

“And then,” he giggled, “then the rot set in. The numbers broke down, people broke down. I just stood there and heard myself playing like shit. We all staggered off and said, ‘My God, what happened?’ I’m afraid there’s no logical explanation for it.”

Was it a matter of signals being missed? More than once Joe had reached up as if to grab a lever above his head, and pulled his fist down. It was obviously a cut-off signal, but the band just kept playing.

“Some missed signals,” said Allen, “but mostly just people fluffin up notes. It only takes two or three people in the band to sort of fluff up at the same time and the whole thing goes –” he imitated a dive bomber with his hand.

* * *

Nobody could accuse Joe of consciously slacking on this tour. Nevertheless, one suspected that Joe sensed the tour’s flaws from the beginning, sensed on some subconscious level that it would provide a way out of a career that had gone crazy, and jumped on it as a quick ride into oblivion. A band that sets out to tour with no album on the market, no hit on the radio, and a sink-or-swim opening at the Garden is in some trouble from the start, but Joe managed to diminish its chances even more by refusing to sing his oldies, by springing half-rehearsed numbers on the band, and by neglecting his health.

Stardom has placed nearly unbearable strains on Joe. Five years ago, he was making 18 shillings a week as a pipefitter’s apprentice. Then Dee Anthony brought him to America, got him on the Sullivan show, and convinced Frank Barsalona, the most powerful booking agent in America, to map out a five-month tour for him. Two tours followed, and a quantum leap with Woodstock; Joe went from $500 a night to $6,500; he fired his loyal but erratic Grease Band and was just settling back to take stock of his career when the Musicians’ Union and immigration authorities announced that he had to tour immediately or lose his working papers: hence the Mad Dogs tour.

“It was terrible what was happening to Joe on that tour,” says a man who saw Joe frequently at the time. “There was a lot of infighting when Joe made it, not only for position monetarily, but also for position as Joe’s manager, and the clout that it gives you – to be the one who really had Joe’s mind, who could really get Joe to do what he should do. If you’re sophisticated, you learn to use these people. But being simple, Joe didn’t know how to cope with it, and it became very scary, everyone looked as if they were out to take a piece of him. It’s very simple, really. Happens all the time.

The Mad Dogs tour left Joe on the brink of enormous success, too shaken to take the next step. As perhaps the most popular male vocalist in America, he could have commanded up to $50,000 a night. “If he’d come back and played the big houses, he’d be a multi-millionaire,” says his agent, Frank Barsalona. Instead, Joe vanished from the scene. Nevertheless, the bickering that began with Mad Dogs continued to fester and haunt Joe. Charges and counter-charges proliferated until Joe finally decided to ignore his contract with Dee Anthony and sign with Nigel Thomas. At that point, Anthony, convinced that there was “a conspiracy to move out management, move out agency, and devaluate an act I had helped to develop,” got a court injunction to stop Joe’s present tour. Nigel Thomas countered by accusing Anthony of having mismanaged the Mad Dogs tour. In an out-of-court settlement, Joe finally bought his freedom from Anthony for a large sum of money.

The main adversaries in the two-year-long battle appear to have been Denny Cordell and Dee Anthony. Denny Cordell, who runs Shelter Records, is one of the best record producers in the business. He has worked with Procul Harum, Leon Russell and the Grease Band, as well as with Joe.

Dee Anthony insists that Denny Cordell “put Nigel Thomas up to front for him because he was afraid of getting sued for inducing to breach of contract.” Here are Dee’s and Denny’s conflicting versions of the last two years, excerpted and condensed from separate telephone interviews:

Cordell: In March, 1970, after Joe and Chris Stainton had decided to get rid of the Grease Band in England, and after Joe had vacationed in Jamaica, Joe flew to Los Angeles to begin searching for a new band. “The same day that Joe arrived in Los Angeles, so did Dee Anthony and Frank Barsalona, saying, ‘Look here, son, you’ve got to play this tour; otherwise you’ll never be allowed into America again.’ I think that the first time Joe mistrusted Anthony and Barsalona was when they forced him to do the Mad Dogs.” With the first date only a week away, Cordell called on Leon Russell, who had just become his partner in the Shelter Records Company, to muster a back-up group. By the next day, Russell had called most of his session musician friends and formed the Mad Dogs band.

Anthony: “You don’t put a band like that together overnight. They’d been rehearsing and we knew it. They used Joe’s tour to launch Shelter Records. Look at the promotion they did on Leon Russell. But they wanted to take their time. Because we expedited the tour and made sure it took place when it was supposed to, they had to take their finger outta their ass and get everything together. There was no reason for Joe not to go out, he had contracts and he had to fulfill them.”

Cordell: “See, Dee wasn’t paying Joe. And he kept saying, ‘Cordell and Leon are ordering vintage wine every night so there’s no money left to pay Joe.’ But when the accounts came to light, Dee owed Joe $32,000. Just after the tour, we went through the records with Dee Anthony and his accountant and saw all the things that were wrong and said, ‘We’ll have to look back and adjust this,’ and they never did.”

Anthony: “Once again he’s a liar. In fact, Joe said it was the most meticulous accounting he ever saw. He said it in front of four witnesses. They didn’t object to one thing. Every penny spent on that tour, every receipt was signed by Denny Cordell and Joe Cocker. Jesus Christ, this was in the court case, and I won the injunction because I had documents.” Joe had little money left over because he was constantly drawing on his earnings during and after the tour. The tour also brought him fringe benefits. “Joe had a gold album from the tour, his price tripled and there was a movie. Joe can’t kid no one. He took out close to half a million dollars in A&M records royalties.

“They also played Tulsa, did Cordell tell ya about that? Leon’s home town! And Cocker lost $12,000 ’cause we had to fly the planes from Seattle back to Tulsa for a picnic, and then back to San Francisco. At Joe’s expense. We sent Joe a letter, before it happened, telling him it was a bad move. And we were threatened – Frank was threatened and I was threatened by them – that if we didn’t play Tulsa, Leon would quit the tour.”

Cordell (After the Mad Dogs tour, Joe lived at Cordell’s Los Angeles home): “My main concern was to get Joe working and there was obviously some personality something-or-other that made it hard for Joe and Leon to form a band together. Joe was despondent and didn’t want to do much but I persuaded him to play a pop festival in Japan. I thought he’d got over Mad Dogs, and we could form a band with Jim Keltner on drums and Chris Stainton, Allen Spenner and some guitarist, and just take it from there. But Dee thought I was trying to make some managerial power play, I think, and he just put the blocks on it.

“Anyway, the irony was that the pop festival never materialized. But if Anthony had said, ‘Great, go ahead,’ we’d have been in rehearsal for two weeks, we’d have had the basic unit, and we could have done something else. Joe knew then that Dee didn’t have his best interests at heart.”

Anthony: “I just didn’t think the festival would come off. So I wasn’t wrong, was I? It didn’t come off!”

Cordell: Joe just hung around the house and did nothing. Joe had become good friends with my children, but they left, and from then on the house was completely empty in the daytime. Chris Stainton was going back to England and Joe decided to go too.” Just before Joe went to England, in August 1970, Cordell got him to go to Muscle Shoals and cut a single, “High Time We Went,” that became a Top-Ten hit.

“Then he went back to England and just slumped out. I went over there on two separate occasions to record with him, and when we got to the studio he just sat there and didn’t really get into it. We had a good band – Ringo, Chris, Spenner, and Alvin Lee on guitar. Joe would say, ‘No, no, let them jam, I’m not hearing it right yet.’ So I had to say, ‘OK, fellows, let’s go home.’ “

In the year and a half that followed Mad Dogs, Dee kept trying to get Joe to work. “Joe just didn’t want anything to do with Dee,” and told Dee so “I don’t know how many times.”

“Dee’s reply was to send Joe a letter showing that Joe was signed up to him for another four years, and Joe didn’t know anything about that. I’ll never forget the look on Joe’s face when he came in and he threw the papers on the bed and said, ‘Look at what I got in the post, I never signed these.’ ” Cordell and Joe suspected that the signature was a forgery and showed it to a handwriting expert, but to no avail.

Anthony: “That’s ridiculous. Joe knew damn well that he was signed. If that were their basis for a defense, then they should have taken it. I went to the Coast three times, went over to England three times, made various attempts to see Joe. He was supposed to meet me one afternoon. He never showed up. I waited nine hours. Let Cordell produce one letter of dissatisfaction from Joe Cocker, let him show one time that Joe Cocker sat with me and told me he wanted out. They sent a lot of flakes in, trying to make deals all the time for their own benefit, but never Joe. The last thing Joe said to my brother Bill, who put him on the plane back in England in 1970, was ‘Tell Dee I’ll be seein’ him soon and we’ll be rocking and rolling.’ I spoke to Joe on the phone: ‘Ya happy, anything wrong?’ He said, ‘No man, I just want to get my head together.’ The first time Joe said he wanted out was when I had an injunction against him and he was sitting around the settlement table. And they had to force him to say it.”

(Frank Barsalona arranged the settlement meeting between the warring factions on the neutral ground of a New York hotel suite. “It took ten minutes for Joe to tell Dee, ‘I don’t want you as my manager,'” says Barsalona. “Everyone was saying, ‘Say it, Joe!’ Even Dee was saying, ‘Say it, Joe!’ And he finally spit it out.”)

Last August, Cordell went to see Dee and told him that he was holding up Joe’s return: “He said, ‘Well if that’s the case, I’ll get out of the picture and you won’t have to pay me any money, and I’ll take five percent and you manage him.’ I said, ‘Fine,’ and I went to England specially to set this whole thing up with Joe, and the day I arrived there I got a letter from Dee Anthony saying, ‘On reflection, I think you’re cheating me and I renege on my deal.’ And I was left in a high state of embarrassment.”

Anthony: “Cordell came in and he wanted to work a deal with me. He wanted a piece of the action. He’s a money grabber, and he knows it and everybody else in the business knows it, and if he doesn’t watch out, I’ll really go after his ass, ’cause I’m tired of his nonsense. I sat there and just listened to him. Then I spoke to my attorneys and they just had me send him a letter.”

Cordell: “This winter, Chris had kinda got a bit pissed off with Joe. ‘Cause Chris had been rehearsing the band over there [in England] and Joe had been to see it, but he wouldn’t get up and sing with it. So Chris said, ‘Fuck it, let’s go to America and rehearse there and we’ll find a singer over there.’ So they tried the singers out and they weren’t any good and so Chris phoned Joe up and said, ‘Look, we need a fucking singer, would you come over?’ and Joe said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ And that’s just the way the man moves…. Then Nigel phoned me up and said, ‘The problem seems to be Dee Anthony and Joe doesn’t want to work until Dee’s out of the picture, so let’s get Dee out of the picture.’ I said, ‘It sounds like what should have been done months ago and it’s a good idea.’ “

Anthony: “Why didn’t Cordell say all this before the case was settled? Ya know why? ‘Cause I would have pinned his ears back. I would have sued him for inducing to breach of contract. He got in trouble once before for poking his nose in other acts, he got run out of other acts for getting involved in management, only this time he had a guy who he could get into his head a little more. They could have taken any action they wanted to, but now the case is over and they start talking like big brave chiefs. It’s funny, the minute an act is an important entity, all the lecherous parasites are there to see how they can fleece the whole thing and get into an artist’s head, and how they can brainwash him. And if Joe is happy with that situation, God bless him. All I wanted was what was coming to me one way or the other. And I’m very satisfied. And I hope that at the end of this whole thing he don’t get taken, really taken.”

* * *

After the Madison Square Garden opening, nearly everybody in Joe’s entourage predicted that the band would be playing brilliantly within a week. Two weeks later, in Boston, the band gave a performance almost identical to the Garden debacle. The audience, which had been rocking in the aisles for Edgar Winter, sat on its hands for Joe. Only when he launched into some of his old songs did the crowd jump to its feet again.

Early reports of Joe’s demise, however, were greatly exaggerated; ensuing weeks brought happier news. With the addition of three new singers, a new saxman, and Jim Keltner as a second drummer, the band has grown increasingly powerful and tight. Joe now sings six or seven of his standards, and has dispersed them throughout the set in such a way that the show now builds with a fine momentum. Except in Miami, Chicago and Spokane, the tour has done excellent business. Cordell taped a concert in Tuscaloosa for a live recording and has booked time in a studio to cut several singles. In Los Angeles the band played to two wildly enthusiastic capacity houses at the Forum.

I saw Joe for a few minutes before his Boston concert. He was sitting on a bed in his motel room, having his hair combed by one of the Dips and watching TV. A war movie called Three Came Home was being shown. Joe looked healthier and more relaxed; there was color in his cheeks. Something in him seemed to have changed. Perhaps the Garden, which gave him his first real glimpse of failure, of a happy crowd sinking into sullen disbelief, had snapped him around. As never before, he was taking his career into his own hands, scheduling rehearsals with his road manager and planning to add new songs. What songs? I asked. “I don’t know!” said Joe, with a hint of stellar arrogance. “The teenage eardrums have just got to wait!”

I asked Joe whether Conrad, the drummer, had ignored his cutoff signals on opening night in New York. “Oh, Conrad’s a great one for that,” Joe laughed. “Whenever I do that he just ignores me completely. Artistic temperament. That’s why we’re gonna have him dropped in the Nagasaki River!”

How did Joe plan to keep the madness of the Mad Dogs tour from happening again, I asked. “Oh,” Joe chuckled. “Everybody likes a bit of madness, you know.”

The road manager got up and announced that it was time to leave. Joe put down his joint, poured out a neat pile of coke from a plastic pill bottle on the bed table, and took a deep snort. “Oh my it’s fine!” he crowed. “Wakes ya right up!”

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