Delta Lady: Leon Russell; Joe Cocker; Bobbie Gentry

Hello there! Our song this week is Delta Lady. This is a great country-blues song. We will review the version by Leon Russell, who wrote the song. We will also discuss versions by Joe Cocker and by Bobbie Gentry.

Leon Russell, Delta Lady:

Leon Russell was a musician and producer from the Southwest. Born in 1942, he attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, OK, where fellow students at that time included Anita Bryant, David Gates and Elvin Bishop.

Russell was somewhat of a child prodigy. Even at the age of 14 he was playing in nightclubs in Tulsa. After leaving high school at 16, he made his way to Los Angeles where he studied guitar with the legendary James Burton.

Below is a photo of Leon Russell performing on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in May, 1970.

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In L.A., Leon Russell quickly established himself as a fantastic session musician. He performed mainly on keyboards but was also skilled on guitar and other instruments. Leon’s incredible versatility made him a valuable asset, as he could play anything from bluegrass to folk-rock to pop to heavy metal.

Over the years Leon Russell worked with an astonishing range of rock and country musicians, including Jan and Dean, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Glen Campbell, the Beach Boys, the Carpenters, and Willie Nelson.

Leon Russell’s first big commercial success occurred in 1969, when Joe Cocker included Russell’s song Delta Lady in Cocker’s self-titled album. By the way, Russell also produced that album; and he organized the musicians who played in Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. In the following segment of this blog post, we will show Joe Cocker singing Delta Lady, from his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.

Also in 1969, Russell and Denny Cordell created the company Shelter Records. The following year, Leon Russell released his self-titled album on Shelter Records. It contained what has become his signature tune, A Song for You.

Delta Lady is a sensuous and erotic tune that describes the singer’s fondness for his adorable Southern belle.

Woman of the country
Now, I found you
Longing in your soft
And fertile delta

And I whisper sighs
To satisfy your longing
For the warm and tender
Shelter of my body

[CHORUS] Oh, you’re mine delta lady
You’re mine, be all mine
Delta lady

Please don’t ask
How many times I found you
Standing wet
And naked in the garden

And I think of the days
And the different ways I held you
I held you closely to me
Yes, our heart was beating

Here is Leon Russell in a 1970 live performance of Delta Lady. This was filmed for an episode of Soundstage, a PBS TV series that showcased artists working in the studio.

Wow, what a delightful performance! After a false start, Leon and friends re-group and cook up a great bluesy treatment of this song. In fact, the sound here is a great example of what is called the “Tulsa Sound,” a country-rock fusion that Russell helped to develop back in his early days in Oklahoma.

The song features Leon on honky-tonk piano, a nice chorus of backup singers, and a hard-rocking combo. What a great funky voice Leon has, and he’s also terrific on keyboards!

I should mention that Delta Lady was written by Leon Russell for Rita Coolidge. According to Coolidge, Russell also wrote A Song For You and Hummingbird with Coolidge in mind. Golly – what a muse! We will spend a few moments to review Rita Coolidge’s career and personal life.

Rita Coolidge was from Florida and claims part Cherokee heritage. She was discovered by Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, and then joined their band and moved to the West Coast. There, she was in great demand as a session musician. She worked as a backup singer with artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Rita Coolidge was one of the touring backup singers for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. My guess is that it was exciting for Coolidge to sing Delta Lady, a tune written about her.

Rita Coolidge must have been quite the beauty. It is alleged that she caused Crosby, Stills and Nash to break up in 1970 when she left Stills for Graham Nash. Then in 1973, Rita Coolidge met Kris Kristofferson at LA Airport when they were both catching a flight to Tennessee. Coolidge got off in Memphis and though Kristofferson was scheduled to continue on to Nashville, he also deplaned with Rita in Memphis.  Kristofferson and Coolidge subsequently married, and the couple recorded a number of extremely successful duet albums.

Now, back to Leon Russell. In the early 70s, he continued his successful career as a singer, songwriter, and producer. He collaborated with artists like Bob Dylan, gave a memorable performance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, and had several songs  nominated for Grammy Awards.

Although it’s hard to believe, Russell simultaneously managed to start up a parallel career as a country singer. Under the pseudonym ‘Hank Wilson,’ Russell released four albums containing country and bluegrass music, beginning in 1973 and ending in 2001.

In 1976, Leon Russell began a fruitful collaboration with Willie Nelson. Their 1979 cover of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel reached #1 on the Billboard country music charts.

From 1980 onward, Leon Russell continued to issue albums at regular intervals, but they didn’t crack the top 200 on the charts. However, in 2010 Russell collaborated with Elton John and Bernie Taupin on an album The Union.

That double album, an amalgam of rock, country and blues, was produced by T-Bone Burnett and reached #3 on the Billboard album charts. This was the highest-charting album for Elton since 1976, and was Russell’s biggest commercial success since 1972.

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In 2011, Leon Russell received two major honors. In March of that year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then in June he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The photo above shows Russell at his Rock Hall of Fame induction ceremony, with presenter Elton John.

These were truly well-deserved accolades for an artist who has been nicknamed “the Master of Space and Time.”

Alas, in November 2016 Leon Russell died in his sleep. He had been recovering from heart surgery. What a great musician, an incredibly versatile and creative guy. We want to dedicate this blog post to the memory of Leon Russell.

Joe Cocker, Delta Lady:

Joe Cocker was a British blues musician. He is one of my favorite artists, despite the fact that he released relatively few original songs. Most of his best-known songs are covers of other tunes. However, he was a terrific bluesman whose best efforts are entirely new takes on classic songs.

Joe Cocker was born in Sheffield, England in 1944. In the late 1950s, Cocker was attracted to music by following the career of British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan, the same artist who inspired the early Beatles.

Cocker then became interested in rock and blues. He had the good sense to pattern his vocal stylings after rockers like Chuck Berry and soul singers like Ray Charles. You can definitely detect the influence of Ray Charles in Cocker’s vocals.

Cocker next worked his way through the British club circuit. Initially, he made little headway until he hooked up with Denny Cordell, the producer for British progressive-rock groups such as Procol Harum and the Moody Blues. With Cordell’s backing, Cocker was able to book larger venues and to work with more talented studio musicians.

After a couple of modest successes in the UK, Joe Cocker hit the big time with his cover of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends. Cocker’s cover was interesting because it is totally different from the Beatles’ original.

Like many other young artists, Cocker’s appearance at Woodstock, and in particular his version of this song, made him an overnight sensation. His career took off like a rocket. The photo below shows Cocker in a tie-dyed shirt. It was taken in 1969, a couple of months following the Woodstock Festival.

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Here is Joe Cocker in a live performance of Delta Lady.

The video is a bit rough, but I really enjoy it as it gives a sense of the commotion and excitement of a live Joe Cocker tour in the late 60s or early 70s.  Joe Cocker’s voice is in great form here. His dramatic blues growls and moans are just perfect for Leon Russell’s Delta Lady.

The video is shown in split screen, with one camera focusing on Joe’s face and the other panning the other musicians and the crowd. I believe this was from Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.

At this point, Cocker had disbanded his Grease Band, as apparently they were unwilling to go on long tours. With the assistance of Leon Russell, he assembled a dynamite group of session musicians.

Leon Russell himself played keyboard on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, although I was unable to pick Leon out on the video. The saxophone player looks a lot like the late, great Bobby Keys; he was the musician who played that explosive saxophone solo on the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar.

Once Joe Cocker gained fame as one of the stars of the Woodstock concert movie, he continued to carve out an incredibly successful career as a blues vocalist. Nearly all of his hits were covers of other songs. However, his versions always featured Cocker’s inimitable blues style.

I particularly recommend Cocker’s versions of The Letter by the Box Tops, and Billy Preston’s You Are So Beautiful (yes, this song is a cover, but Cocker’s version is so famous that it has completely overshadowed the original).

Joe Cocker died from lung cancer in Dec. 2014. What a great loss; he is deeply missed.

Bobbie Gentry, Delta Man:

Bobbie Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter in 1944. She grew up in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, and moved to California when she was 13.

She began performing at local clubs in California, where she was noticed by Bob Hope. Hope helped her get hired at a Las Vegas nightclub, where she took the stage name Bobbie Gentry. She then enrolled at UCLA as a philosophy major.

Below is a photo of Bobbie Gentry appearing on the BBC Show ‘Young Generation’ in May 1970.

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As a student, Gentry continued to perform, and also took modeling jobs in order to pay her bills. In 1967, she issued a record whose A side was titled Mississippi Delta.

However, attention was rapidly drawn to the record’s B side, written by Ms. Gentry, called Ode to Billie Joe. The song described a series of strange incidents in the deep South. It raised several mysterious questions, such as:
what did Billie Joe and his girlfriend throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide?

Gentry herself remained silent on these issues, which simply increased the controversy about the song.

Ode to Billie Joe became a surprise blockbuster, and in August 1967 it hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts. More than that, Gentry’s album Ode to Billie Joe also went to #1, where it displaced the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album!

Gentry’s song inspired a 1976 movie called Ode to Billy Joe. The movie fleshes out the events described in the tune, and provides its own explanations for the song’s mysterious incidents.

So here is a video clip from 1978 of Bobbie Gentry singing Ode to Billie Joe.

Ms. Gentry received many accolades for this song. She won three Grammy awards in 1967, including Best New Artist. She also was named Most Promising Female Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music.

Unfortunately, Bobbie Gentry never was able to match this initial success. She never again managed to chart a single in the top 20 of the Billboard pop charts, although she had significantly more success in the U.K.

In 1968-69, Bobbie Gentry had her own show on the BBC. The video clip above was from that series. Later, she was signed to a big contract to do a series of shows in Vegas.

Bobbie Gentry did a cover of Leon Russell’s Delta Lady. She changed the gender to make it “Delta Man.” The tune appeared on her 1970 album Fancy. Here is the audio from that song.

What do you think? I consider this simply an adequate version of this song. Nothing memorable or particularly creative about either Ms. Gentry’s vocals or the instrumental arrangement.

This is too bad, as apparently Bobbie Gentry was a pioneer as a female country performer. For the most part, she wrote her own songs and also produced them. Furthermore, she was an outspoken feminist and advocate of women’s rights.

All of these qualities were quite rare in the country music scene of the late 60s. Those were the days when “Stand By Your Man” was the code of conduct for female country artists.

So it’s too bad that Bobbie Gentry turned out to be kind of a “one-hit wonder.” In 1978, when her latest single failed to chart, Bobbie Gentry decided to retire from the music business.

Apparently, today Bobbie Gentry lives not far from the site of the Tallahatchie Bridge that was immortalized in her one big hit, Ode to Billie Joe. By the way, in 1972 the Tallahatchie Bridge was set on fire by vandals, and collapsed. The original wooden bridge has since been replaced.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Leon Russell
Wikipedia, Rita Coolidge
Steve Kraske, radio interview with Rita Coolidge, Feb. 20, 2015
Wikipedia, Joe Cocker
Wikipedia, Bobbie Gentry

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Country music, Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Delta Lady: Leon Russell; Joe Cocker; Bobbie Gentry

  1. Pingback: The Letter: The Box Tops; Joe Cocker; Bachman-Turner Overdrive | Tim's Cover Story

  2. Pingback: Honky Tonk Women: The Rolling Stones; Ike & Tina Turner; Joe Cocker. | Tim's Cover Story

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