Perhaps no one owes more to the recently departed soul singer Joe Cocker as does Rita Coolidge. A Fallbrook resident for 19 years, Coolidge has won two Grammys, released 17 solo albums (plus three with ex-husband Kris Kristofferson), and had a string of hits in the 1970s and ’80s, including “Higher and Higher,” “We’re All Alone,” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”
A Florida State graduate, Coolidge was singing in Memphis when Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett brought her to L.A. to join their loose-knit rock troupe. Most of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends (Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Carl Radle, Jim Price, Jim Gordon) were tapped to join Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, a 1970 entourage that led to a live double album and a rock documentary. Cocker gave her the opportunity to sing lead vocals on “Superstar” on that tour. Coolidge says the opportunity led to a solo career and an A&M Records contract.
Coolidge took the time to speak with the Reader about her career and relationship with Joe Cocker.
How was it that most of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends became part of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen entourage?
“It was an emergency. This tour was about to hit the road and Joe didn’t have a band. He told them he didn’t want to do the tour. They told him that was not an option and he had to get a band together and quick. Then Leon [Russell] and [producer] Denny Cordell pulled everyone in. We rehearsed nonstop for four or five days. The tour left with 45 men, women, and children and their pets. Everybody worked really hard to pull this together. This was like the first tour rock movie documentary, way before Spinal Tap.”
Delaney & Bonnie & Friends seemed like a carefree group of happy hippies.
“We were all friends. We would get together and sing before each show. We’d sing on the bus... But Mad Dogs and Englishmen had all these different groups who didn’t talk to each other. The bond wasn’t there. It was very chaotic.... Joe and I were the best of friends. I sat next to him on the plane. There were so many times when I said I just can’t do this [tour] anymore. I weighed less than 100 pounds. He said I couldn’t leave because he was the only friend he had on the tour. We were best friends. Joe was the kindest, gentlest, softest man — the opposite of how his raspy voice resonated.”
John Belushi’s flailing, over-the-top Cocker imitation was mentioned in Cocker’s obituaries. But Joe did not have cerebral palsy or onstage exorcisms, right?
“I compare what he did with guitar players who make faces when they play certain high notes. That was just his body moving with the music. It was like air guitar. It wasn’t anything pretentious. He also did that in studio. Like Ray Charles, God gave him his gift in a certain way.”
Is it true Cocker was bankrupt at the end of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour?
“At the end of the Mad Dogs tour he was literally sleeping on the floor at Denny Cordell’s house. He didn’t have money to buy a guitar. Joe was a very simple man from working-class Sheffield [in England]. In the mid ’70s, Graham Nash and I visited his parents. They were very working-class. His mother took me into Joe’s bedroom. Everything was the same.”
Some accounts say Cocker was too drunk to sing some nights.
“He was never too drunk to play [a Mad Dogs show]. We recorded every show we did, so that can be proved. He was very private, almost shy. I think the reason why he drank and did the other stuff was to bring himself out.”
Is it true “Delta Lady” was written about you? Did you get royalties?
“I am the Delta Lady. Leon [Russell] and I were just breaking up. He wrote it for Joe. No, I didn’t get any royalties.”
Have you met any of your current musician neighbors, such as James Hetfield or Jason Mraz?
“I haven’t met them. I am a fan of Jason’s and would love to meet him when the time is right. I’ve lived in Fallbrook, which is one of the greatest places to live, for almost 19 years. I feel like just another girl who lives in Fallbrook. I’m playing for a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club February 28.”