One Monday evening in September 1971 I’d arranged to meet a pal for a pint in London’s West End. With time to kill between the end of my working day and our alehouse rendezvous, I headed over to Leicester Square to see what film might occupy the time I had to use up. The only one not already in progress was playing at what was then the Warner Theatre. It was Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a record of the 1970 US tour of Sheffield’s Joe Cocker and a huge troupe of singers and musicians assembled and overseen by Leon Russell.
I didn’t know much about Leon then. Only later would I discover that as a member of Los Angeles’ famous Wrecking Crew he had played on approximately one in every ten records I owned at that time. But I knew and liked Cocker (and still do), although it wasn’t too cool for a soul and reggae fan to admit it.
The film was great and remains unlikely to be bettered – one of the finest documentations of life on the road. I was particularly taken with the bearded, be-hatted figure Leon cut as he pounded his piano and put the fantastic band through its paces. I quickly purchased all his solo albums, including the one I consider to be his best studio work, the wonderful “Asylum Choir II” collaboration with Marc Benno. My admiration soon became a minor obsession. Fortunately, I became more flexible about names by the time my daughter was born more than 30 years later, but in 1972 I honestly believed I would name my first-born Leon.
Leon Russell devotees will know that on his Shelter label, he released a triple live album in 1973 that pristinely preserved his 1972 show. Only the real hardcore will know, however, that Leon also released a single live album in Japan a year or so later, which captured the Budokan Hall show of his 1973 world tour. Like most Japanese vinyl it came and went in a heartbeat, and it’s never been reissued – until now, that is, when it forms 50% of this new Big Beat CD. Better news still is that it’s paired with an incredible April 1971 show from Houston, Texas – totally unissued before this release!
A lot of early 70s rock has long since passed its sell-by date, but not what you hear here. Hot off the Mad Dogs tour, and truly firing on all six, it documents a band that always knew it was good, but is beginning to find out just how good. Its members, Leon included, would soon go on to even greater things. Listen to this set, and you will quickly understand why.
Leon’s recent re-emergence, courtesy of friend and fan Elton John, has stirred up interest in his earlier work. Big Beat is delighted to add to his catalogue with this essential package of vintage rare live material from the man’s peak years.
By Tony Rounce