Here’s a quandary I’ve encountered lately: How did Leon Russell come to front Joe Cocker’s band?
What I can gather, the scenario plays like this: Leon Russell came to Los Angeles (from Oklahoma) in the early 60’s. I have evidence of him working with both Delaney Bramlett (I have a weird indie label 45 by Mr. Bramlett, with Leon Russell) and Gary Lewis & The Playboys. That’s right – Leon Russell was the producer of “This Diamond Ring”!
The first Joe Cocker LP was released in England in July, 1969, “With A Little Help From My Friends” – the band is a stellar cast of Jimmy Page, Steve Winwood, “The Grease Band” etc. Produced by Denny Cordell, I also see Los Angeles people: bassist carol Kaye, drummer Paul Humphries, pianist Artie Butler etc. Cocker only has 2 writing credits on this debut LP. Regal-Zonophone UK LP SLRZ 1006; this album seems to have no involvement at all from Leon Russell.
But, the 2nd Joe Cocker LP, “Joe Cocker” rolls down the pike in November, 1969 – presumably so fast, so as to cash-in on Joe’s “Woodstock” triumph – now he’s “Produced by Denny Cordell and Leon Russell” in Los Angeles, at A&M Studios and at Sunset Sound; “Grease Band” still present, but now present are more L.A. studio people – Milt Holland (Percussion), Clarence White (Guitar), Bonnie Bramlett & Rita Coolidge (Backing vocals) – Leon Russell is all over this album.
So, by the time of August, 1969 (approx. “Woodstock”), Joe Cocker was no longer a ‘secret’ in the U.S. I guess they were hanging out in L.A., basking in their “Woodstock’ glory – and through Denny Cordell having other dealings at A&M (notably Procol Harum), they just hooked up with Leon Russell? Lou Adler must’ve been involved. Or John Phillips. Apart from Blue Thumb Records (who were the first U.S. license for T. Rex), who else was Denny Cordell talking to in L.A.?
The part of this story that does not surprise me is that Leon Russell came to “save the day” when it became time for the “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour in March, 1970 – after Cocker “sacked” the “Grease Band”. With less than a week to go before the opening show of the tour, Russell assembled an astonishing hippie / session musician band with Bobby Keys, Jim Price, Jim Keltner, Chuck Blackwell, Jim Gordon (three drummers!), Grease band alumni Chris Stainton, Carl Radle, a 10-piece “choir” etc. – and, of course, himself on piano.
Then there’s the 1970 debut solo album from Leon Russell, with it’s tenuous connection to The Rolling Stones etc. How long had this album been “in the can” before Russell’s career was bolstered by Joe Cocker? How did Shelter Records get formed? How did A&M in the UK get Joe Cocker away from EMI? (I mean, it’s not like he wasn’t popular!). I’d just like a little clarification on the time-line of this tale. Anybody want to weigh in with anything I’ve “missed”?