Joe Cocker, the British blue-eyed soul singer who helped lead the second British music invasion – along with Cream, The Who, Small Faces, Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin, and Jeff Beck – died of lung cancer last month at the age of 70.
Cocker will be remembered for his unique blues-soaked interpretations of songs like “With a Little Help from my Friends,” “The Letter,” and the Billy Preston, Dennis Wilson, and Bruce Fisher song “You Are So Beautiful.” But, Cocker was more than the hit songs and classic albums he scored over a period of four decades. He was an original vocal stylist, second to none. Although he drew from Ray Charles and America’s Blue-Eyed Soul music of his era, as he formed the Grease Band in the mid-’60s, he broke the style mold with vocals that were powerful, soulful, and vulnerable. He could belt out blues with the best of them, then turn around and break your heart with the simple sincerity of “You Are So Beautiful” and his classic Oscar- and Grammy-winning duo with Jennifer Warnes, “Up Where We Belong.”
He will always be known, in a comical sense, as the ragged-haired singer playing air guitar on stage, going into what seemed like manic convulsions, at 1969’s Woodstock Festival, in a psychedelic stupor. When the documentary film, Woodstock immortalized his style of performing in the hit movie, it took a few years for television to catch up with him on Saturday Night Live, where comedian John Belushi nailed his moves and vocals on Dave Mason’s “Feeling Alright.” It was a joke Cocker himself was happy to participate in, as he appeared on national television performing with Belushi.
Cocker’s time at Woodstock helped to solidify his iconic stature in more than just humorous ways. He was among the first to take a Beatles classic, “With a Little Help from my Friends,” and reinvent it into a soul-blues opus as though it were a new song completely obliterating the pop friendly fringes of the song. Cocker’s version so impressed McCartney, and Harrison, they gave him “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Something” for his second album, Joe Cocker! The album was released concurrently with the classic Beatles album Abbey Road. Both songs were included on the Beatles album as well – a move that suggests both confidence in his ability and the esteem the band felt for Cocker’s work. His first two albums covered similar recreations like the now-classic Dave Mason song, “Feeling Alright,” Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” Cocker became the first rock artist to cover Leonard Cohen. His early recordings, which also included songs like “Bye Bye Blackbird,” alongside Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and subsequent recordings like Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” demonstrates he not only participated in the American Songbook, but, in his own unassuming way, also helped establish it over the last 40 years.
Another high point of Cocker’s career – and a major contribution to rock and Americana music – followed the Woodstock tour in late 1969 through 1970, when Cocker, exhausted from the road, was booked for a 48-city tour of America. He partnered with legendary session keyboard shaman, Leon Russell, and hired 30 musicians, including Rita Coolidge, Claudia Lennear, Bobby Keys, Jim Keltner and Carl Radle from Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. The result was documented in the tour, live album and popular film, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which used the same three-screen technique featured the film Woodstock. The tour drew from soul, country, rock, blues, and gospel, and saw Cocker covering songs by Sam and Dave, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding, as well as Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. His version of the Boxtop’s hit, “The Letter,” would later eclipse the original version of the song and land Cocker for the first time on Top 40 American charts. As front man, Joe Cocker was the symbol of all that we have come to know as Americana – an approach to music that is without borders or boundaries instinctively, which joins it all together. It was a grand party and aptly named Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
The years that followed found Cocker between problems with alcohol abuse and depression, which kept him out of the spotlight for long periods of time. But, his voice was so memorable, the calls would still come for sessions work and for new albums. Most notably, he recorded “Up Where We Belong” with Jennifer Warnes in 1992 for the film An Officer and a Gentleman, and the song won the singers a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo in 1983.
In 1994, he returned to the 25th Anniversary of Woodstock, triumphantly opening the festival. He continued to release critically successful albums and was always in demand on concert stages throughout the world.
In his final years, Cocker settled on a ranch in Colorado and released two albums during this decade: 2010’s Hard Knocks and 2012’s Fire It Up. Both sold well throughout Europe and were well-received by critics and fans. In 2008, he was awarded the OBE for his services to music by Buckingham Palace.
Despite his contributions to rock music, his many charted hits, and his influence on so many rock and soul vocalists, Joe Cocker has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – a fact that only lessens the stature of the Hall itself, rather than diminish Cocker’s impact on rock ‘n’ roll culture. There was a bittersweet irony when, at a recent concert in New York City, Billy Joel asked that Joe Cocker be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, stating, “he’s not very well right now.”
Joe Cocker will be remembered as a vocal innovator in rock music. His voice could thunder and soothe in the course of one song. Like many authentic and original artists, he was plagued with troubles that may have prevented him from reaching higher ground. But, to be known for a voice that could bring out the best in any song is a great accomplishment in itself. To be among the few pioneers who joined together the many rivers of great American music makes him among the greatest of rock legends of the last 50 years.
Reprinted from No Depression with permission by the author.