There once was a glorious age of Music Journalism Past, an era when the magical could happen. A time when interviews with rock stars weren’t 15-minute phoners with a publicist listening in, or concert pictures limited to first-three-songs-only-no-flash.
For back then talent, luck, and moxie could combine to give a budding writer or photographer an Almost Famous-like experience on the road with a real live rock and roll band and all its attendant wonderful, inspiring, fun, and decadent circus trappings.
That’s what happened in 1970 for 19-year-old Linda Wolf. She had been working in the music industry in Los Angeles and cultivated personal relationships with a number of performers and producers.
When a musician friend asked for a ride to a studio to rehearse for a massive tour that was starting in just six days, Wolf went along, found tour producer Denny Cordell, and boldly asked to come along.
When Cordell asked what she could do, Wolf answered she could be the documentary photographer. Borrowing a camera, she quickly took some test shots, had them developed, and showed them to Cordell a few hours later. The verdict? “Yes, you can come.”
Over the next two months, Wolf was part of the free-form circus known as Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, which become one of rock’s most legendary jaunts. The ragtag troupe of up to 50 people included band members, managers, a film crew, wives/girlfriends/friends, three children, and a dog that no one knew was pregnant at the time. They played 54 shows in 48 cities, and it spawned a successful double album and documentary film.
All the while, Wolf was clicking away, taking more than 8,000 images onstage, backstage, on buses, and in hotel rooms and restaurants. Sometimes, she’d even get to dance while Cocker, bandleader/singer/keyboardist Leon Russell, and nearly two dozen other performers stood on the cramped proscenium. It was a long way from just a decade before when as a child, Wolf started experimenting with her father’s Kodak Brownie camera.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the tour, Wolf has collected hundreds of those images in the gorgeous coffee table book Tribute: Cocker Power (338 pp., $75, Insight Editions). “Cocker Power” was the name emblazoned on the side of the tour’s dedicated airplane. She’ll also host a special online livestream event on April 26 with veterans from that tour, as well as the 2015 tribute/reunion concert.
The project originally began as a souvenir photo booklet that Wolf gave away to those involved with the 2015 show. But with interest and financial backing through a patron, the scope grew. And thankfully, Wolf’s parents held on to much of her original work in the form of her original negatives.
“They threw away my Rolling Stones autographs, but they kept the negatives!” Wolf laughs. The rise of digital photography and restoration also were a huge benefit in sifting through the material and putting together the book. She even discovered images that she didn’t know existed, all shot with essentially unlimited access to the people and events.
Wolf feels that musicians, their audience, and journalists have lost a lot by not keeping some of those practices. “It’s so much about money and the star-making machinery, and that’s a wrong paradigm. This book [showcases] not just the musicians, but the audience, the truck drivers, the staff…this idea of putting stars on pedestals, it’s painful for me to see that and it’s harmful for art,” she offers. “And Joe didn’t like that whole part about rock and roll, the bullshit. He hated it.”
One of the interesting aspects about the tour is, while Joe Cocker was the headliner, it was Leon Russell who actually put things together and garnered his own share of the spotlight. Tired from his previous tour and in a general malaise about the business, Cocker was happy to turn that power over to Russell…at least at the beginning.
“Joe was told by his manager he had to go on the tour or he’d get kicked out [of the country]. According to Denny, he was in a real bind when he got to Leon’s house. And Leon, in his brilliance, just started putting it out there and people started arriving,” Wolf says. “It just grew and grew, but I think Joe began to feel diminished. Not on stage, but feeling overshadowed by Leon. But Leon had no choice but to be the conductor.”
As the tour went on, Wolf says that Cocker began to withdraw into his insecurities, was at the end of a romantic relationship, and indulged in drugs and alcohol, which adversely affected his life and career.
“Joe had these real human feelings as a man and not as an artist, and he had kind of lost himself by the end of the tour,” Wolf says.
And when Mad Dogs & Englishmen played their final note, Russell began a white-hot solo career and high-profile collaborations, while Cocker floundered for years until an eventual comeback.
Amazingly, Wolf had a second time around in the same assignment when she was asked to be the official photographer for the 2015 tribute to Mad Dogs & Englishmen at the 2015 Lockn’ Festival. Spearheaded by guitarist Derek Trucks and his wife, singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi (whose own Tedeschi Trucks Band today takes a lot of inspiration from the MD&E model), it was originally supposed to feature Cocker himself, until he passed away in 2014.
The couple then turned to Leon Russell to play and serve as a living link to the tour, and soon organizers were trying to locate every veteran of the 1970 tour alive and able to take part.
Eventually, vocalists including Rita Coolidge, Claudia Linnear, Pamela Polland, and Matthew Moore, and drummers Chuck Blackwell and Bobby Torres joined Dave Mason and disciples the Tedeschi Tucks Band, Warren Haynes, Doyle Bramhall II, and Chris Robinson for a special show. Tribute: Cocker Power features many photos from that show. Wolf also got to bring her daughters along.
“Derek and Susan are two of the kindest, most generous, sweet-hearted, non-egotistical that I’ve ever met. So down to earth, real, brilliant, and talented,” Wolf offers. “Susan just wrote me a text the other day about how important this book and art is in today’s era of confusion and grief and fear about not knowing the future. And how we need to bring art and compassion to each other.”
Outside of her rock photography, Wolf has a long-lasting and still-thriving career in photography, specializing in global portraiture of women and indigenous peoples. She is also the co-founder of the Daughters Sisters Project, and founder of the nonprofit advocacy and educational organization Teen Talking Circles.
Wolf is excited about the April 26 livestream of talk and music and a Q&A, but she circles back to the idea of art and music and what it means in the Age of Coronavirus and our isolation.
“It’s hard for so many people right now who have lost their family members, their jobs, they’ve been sick, they’re worried about the future. I have a daughter who’s a nurse and a mother who’s 93 and I worry. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says.
“And I wonder if this book is even that important right now. But I came to the conclusion that our souls and spirit need this. We need to put on music and dance, and rock and roll gets the spirit through the body. It helps us to know we can keep on keeping on. It gives us a real understanding of the human collective, and the values that made the 1960’s so extraordinary.”
For more on Tribute: Cocker Power, the April 26 livestream, and Linda Wolf, please visit CockerPowerBook.com
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.