For The Byrds, Rita Coolidge and sound reinforcement pioneer Dinky Dawson, May 9, 1971 will never be forgotten. Five days prior, they had just begun a European tour featuring The Byrds headlining and Coolidge opening, which led off with The Byrds appearing on the popular British television show Top Of The Pops on May 5th. Over the next several days, the tour would hit Croydon, Newcastle, Liverpool and on May 9th, Sheffield, the Yorshire city near Dawson's hometown of Greasborough. Following their early arrival in Sheffield, The Byrds, Dawson and crew would hop back on the bus and head to Greasborough for a home prepared meal provided by Dawson's mother, who would return with them to the Sheffield gig that night.
Unbeknownst to everyone on the tour, a major surprise was in store during Rita Coolidge's opening set that night. Born in Nashville, the daughter of a Baptist minister, Coolidge initially established herself as a backup singer. With a smoky sweet voice, intelligence and a funky Dusty Springfield-like (circa "Dusty In Memphis") soulfulness, Coolidge was recruited for many a studio session, contributing to early 1970's recordings by Delaney & Bonnie, Leon Russell and Stephen Stills to name but a few. Her first significant public exposure occurred in 1970, when she was invited to join Joe Cocker's legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, where she became the vocal anchor of Cocker's space choir. These performances brought her to the attention of the A&M label, which immediately signed her to a recording contract. Her self-titled debut was released in February of 1971, just three months prior to this Sheffield concert. Despite critical acclaim, it experienced modest commercial success, but the follow-up album, "Nice Feeling," issued toward the end of the year, would prove an even stronger effort, due in large part to The Dixie Flyers, an extraordinarily talented studio ensemble that backed Coolidge on the album and on the tour heard here.
The Dixie Flyers featured keyboard player Mike Utley, as well as seasoned studio vets, guitarist Charlie Freeman, bassist Tommy McClure and drummer Sammy Creason. As the house band at Atlantic Records' Criteria Recording Studio in Miami, Florida, these musicians had an impressive pedigree and had contributed to many notable recording sessions, including those for Aretha Franklin's recently issued "Spirit In The Dark" album. This same unit would accompany Coolidge on this tour, greatly enhancing her live performances. These high profile concerts with The Byrds played a large role in exposing Coolidge to European audiences, who clearly appreciated what she and her band had to offer.
Coolidge began her Sheffield set as usual but midway through her performance, Joe Cocker, who was then recuperating at his Sheffield home, wandered out on stage, much to the surprise and delight of everyone, including Coolidge! It would be Cocker's only live performance that year and until now, one that nobody outside those in attendance has ever had the opportunity to hear. Following his riveting appearance at Woodstock in 1969 and the subsequent theatrical release, Cocker had become a genuine superstar. Following that breakthrough tour of 1969, Cocker was looking forward to some rest, but another tour had already been booked. The subsequent Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, which had Cocker and a new 30+ member band touring 48 cities, recording a live album and a feature length movie, would raise Cocker's profile to stratospheric levels, making him one of the most in demand performers on the planet. His American label, A&M, was now enjoying several chart entries with "Cry Me a River" and "Feelin' Alright," as well as a Top Ten hit with Cocker's cover of the Box Tops' "The Letter," which appeared on the live album and in the film. Despite such great success, Cocker was physically and mentally exhausted and following the premature end of the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, it would be nearly two years before he toured again. By the summer of 1970, Cocker had returned home to Sheffield, England and essentially went into hiding, much to the dismay of his label, management and the rapidly growing legion of fans.
When The Byrds/Coolidge tour landed in Sheffield, a full year had passed since the grueling Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour ended and Cocker had not appeared on stage since. It would be nearly a year before he would return to any stage again, but eager to visit friends, Cocker turned up unexpectedly on the Sheffield City Hall stage. Thankfully, front of house soundman Dawson, who had a tape deck prepared for recording The Byrds set, hit the record button just as Cocker hit the stage midway through one of Coolidge's numbers. Dawson managed to not only capture the entire time Cocker joined Coolidge and her band on stage, but in retrospect captured an important performance that bucks all the myths about Cocker's condition at the time. Not only is he in powerful vocal form, but he displays an extraordinary flair for improvisation, much to the delight of everyone in attendance. This is particularly true of Coolidge, who encourages Cocker to take over for a good ten minutes before they team up for one truly incendiary set closer that rivals anything by either artist.
The recording begins just as Cocker hits the stage during a mid-song instrumental break that finds Charlie Freeman and Mike Utley cooking up a storm on a driving up-tempo blues. Cocker joins right in, passionately improvising lyrics that culminate in "The Devastating Things Love Can Do To You." The press often painted Cocker as physically and mentally exhausted during his reclusive year plus in Sheffield, but this recording conveys the opposite - that he remained the most commanding and passionate white soul singer of this era. Audibly surprised, Coolidge encourages Cocker to continue while he enthusiastically remarks about her band to the Sheffield audience. Clearly unprepared, there is some brief discussion about what to do next, before the band eases into a nice slow blues that burns for a solid eight minutes. Improvising lyrics that cover a litany of common blues topics, including loneliness, evil, lack of sleep and rebounds in love, this smoldering improvisation, tentatively titled "Horizontal Blues," captures Cocker and this band, especially guitarist Charlie Freeman, in superb form.
However, the most scintillating performance of this set is yet to come as Coolidge and Cocker team up on "When The Battle Is Over," to close the set. Written by Dr. John for Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett's second album (on which Coolidge sang backup), this is likely where both singers first heard the song. Having played on Aretha Franklin's version during the "Spirit In The Dark" album sessions, The Dixie Flyers were equally familiar with it. With lyrics that intentionally address Delaney and Bonnie's turbulent relationship, this is a perfect vehicle for both voices. With its swampy groove provided by such superb musicians and Coolidge and Cocker provoking each other, this has a vibrancy that cannot be denied. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a more soulful or passionate performance by either singer than is heard right here. This spontaneous performance even rivals Delaney & Bonnie's original and the Franklin version. After trading vocals on the verses, this develops into a sizzling jam featuring some ferocious rhythm guitar work and additional improvised vocals from Cocker that eventually builds toward an ecstatic conclusion to the set.
This is a remarkable band with an incredible pedigree, providing the perfect grooves to bring out the best in both Cocker and Coolidge. Listening to these powerful performances, one can only wonder why journalists depict Cocker as too ill to perform during this time and why it took another six years for Coolidge to achieve wider recognition. Perhaps Cocker had enough of his insanely grueling schedule and simply got off the roller coaster for a while. This performance is midway through his "disappearance" and he is quite obviously in excellent form. Cocker would return to the road in 1972 and Coolidge would eventually attain bigger acclaim in 1977, when her "Anytime-Anywhere" album would spawn three Top 20 hits. But as this performance clearly conveys, all the elements were firmly in place back in 1971. Coolidge would never achieve superstardom, but as Joe Cocker knew well, this Delta Lady is one of the great female vocalists of the era and thanks to Dawson, this incredible performance was captured for posterity.