The Letter – Joe Cocker – 1970

Joe Cocker - The Letter Single coverJoe Cocker’s 1971 movie, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, is the first concert movie I saw – awesome!

the wonder of being downtown

August 1970, just days before my 13th birthday.  Queens Street is different than it is today.  There’s a majestic and mysterious feel about this place.  A place you only get to visit on the most special occasions.  It’s bustling with people – people who have dressed up to come to “town” because that’s what you do when you come here.

It’s before the day of suburban shopping malls and the place is alive.  There are several grand department stores where you can buy anything and everything.  And, there are at least a dozen, probably more, movie theatres up and down the shopping strip.  One of them is showing a movie by the rather manic UK singer, Joe Cocker.  I’m gonna lie about my age to get in.


Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen - album coverMad Dog’s and Englishmen is an R-13 (though there is nothing in it that seems to warrant that restriction – these were different times!).  The girl at the door asks my age.  I’m petrified.  I’m not sure why.  Even the commonsense of a 12 year old should tell him that attending a movie underage is not a jail-able offence.  The worse they could do to me is to tell me to push off.  But when you’re 12, authority – even a 15 year old girl with a flashlight – is a fearsome thing.

I answer, “Thirteen” and she just stares.  Maybe I look shady or perhaps my hands are shaking or my voice wavered when I said it… she clearly doesn’t believe me and stands glaring, waiting for me to crack.  I pull my ticket out of her grasp and keep walking, half expecting a hand to land on my shoulder.  I hear her mutter a few rude words about me to her colleague but nothing worse happens, and I’m in!

poor joe – exhausted

The 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour came at the end of a much longer tour.  Joe had just released With A Little Help From My Friends and Joe Cocker!,  this had been the albums’ promotional tour.

At the conclusion of the tour, Joe arrived in Los Angeles to rest, only to be told by his manager that in eight days time he was to embark on another seven week, 52 concerts(!), trek.  Joe was exhausted but pressured into doing it.

up steps ‘friend’ leon

Leon RussellAt this time Leon Russell  was a pretty well known producer and song writer.  He wanted to do more in terms of making live music himself and so stepped up to ‘help’ his mate Joe.  Leon assembled a group or about twenty musicians.   They rehearsed endlessly – up to ten hours at a time – and then took to the road for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.

[BTW – Leon Russell is an interesting character.  First, he’s not English as many people imagine.  He’s American.  He began playing piano at age four and, by the time he was 14, was playing in nightclubs.  He had a band named The Starlighters which included iconic guitarist JJ Cale.  Leon wrote some wonderful songs including, Delta Lady (Joe Cocker), Superstar (The Carpenters), This Masquerade (George Benson – see two blogs ago), and A Song for You (Donnie Hathaway, Natalie Cole, Willie Nelson, Simply Red and over 40 other recording artists).]

The movie Mad Dogs and Englishmen was filmed during the tour’s four show stop at The Fillmore East just eight days into the tour.  Well… the liner notes and history says it was recorded at The Fillmore (in New York) but, at the end of the song The Letter, Joe seems to say, “Thank you Alabama,” – go figure!?

Although 61 separate songs were performed over those four shows, only 14 appear on the album with many songs considered Joe’s finest, including With A Little Help From My Friends, left off.

what was included

What was included is the fabulous song, The Letter.  I just love this song.  Partly because of Leon Russell’s jazzy piano intro.  (I’m not sure who looks more stoned in the video, Joe or Leon!?).

Mostly, I love it because it’s Joe Cocker at his absolute finest.  His voice is as gravelly as it ever was, there’s true energy in every part of the music, and there are horns – loud horns.

the letter fax;

  • The Letter was written by Wayne Carson Thompson, a country musician who wrote several hit records including Willie Nelson’s You Were Always On My Mind.
  • The original of The Letter was by the American band, The Box Tops.  They spent four weeks at Billboard’s #1 spot in 1967 – the length of their version was a mere 1:58.
  • The Letter has charted on one or other of the American music charts at least five times by different artists.  It’s been recorded as a soul song, a country song, a blues song, an easy listening song, and even a disco song.
  • The Letter is ranked by Rolling Stone Magazine at #363 on the magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,
  • The Letter has been recorded by over 200 recording artists.  Among the artists who have recorded the song are Bachman–Turner Overdrive, the Beach Boys, Eva Cassidy, Shaun Cassidy, Bobby Darin, Al Green, Peter Tosh, Lou Rawls, Johnny Rivers and Dionne Warwick.
  • The Letter lyrics.

can anyone remember…

…the first music movie you saw… leave a comment and tell us about it.


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