February 24, 2015 Reflecting on Joe Cocker – The voice of a lifetime
Considered one of the UK’s greatest voices, John Robert Cocker, known as “Joe” to his friends and family, passed away on December 22nd, 2014, leaving behind a huge legacy mostly unknown to many. Known for his cover of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” Leon Russell’s “Delta Lady,” and Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful,” Cocker had a unique way of singing and performing that had never been seen on stage, making him a stand out artist almost immediately. Cocker became one of music history’s most prolific artists, releasing forty albums in his five decade long career.
Born in May of 1944, the gravel-voiced Cocker began his musical pilgrimage as a teenager in his hometown of Sheffield, West Riding of Yorkshire, England, claiming the nickname “Joe”, which at an early age was given to him because of his love for the schoolyard game Cowboy Joe. His brother, who was in a washboard Skiffle band, invited Cocker up on stage during a gig, and this is where his love of music and performing was born. Taking the stage name Vance Arnold, Cocker started his first band, Vance Arnold and the Avengers, but recorded his first of many Beatle’s covers, “I’ll Cry Instead,” as a solo artist. Both the band and the single were a flop, and after a year long hiatus, Cocker joined up with session musician Chris Stainton to form Joe Cocker and the Grease Band. Like many British musicians of his age, many of Joe’s earliest performances consisted of singing covers of American Blues and Soul songs. An early career highlight was getting to open up for The Who in 1968. From the get-go, it was clear that he had a unique voice and approach to the songs he tackled. Combined with his eclectic stage behavior, often flailing about and playing air guitar, Joe Cocker stood out among his contemporaries.
In 1968, Cocker was skyrocketed into the public eye with his recording of “With a Little Help From My Friends” with B.J. Wilson on drums and Jimmy Page on lead guitar. It was the biggest hit of his career, reaching number one on the British charts and thirty five on the American charts, eventually going gold. His version of the tune was used as the theme song for the long-running television show, The Wonder Years. In 1969, Joe and his Grease Band performed at the legendary Woodstock festival. Their performance that day has become iconic and made Joe Cocker a household name. He returned to the scene twenty-five years later to open up Saturday’s events at Woodstock ’94. In 1976, Cocker performed on Saturday Night Live, with the hilarious John Belushi famously doing his impeccable Cocker impersonation by his side.
Due to an extensive and rigorous touring schedule in the late ’60s and early-to-mid ’70s, Cocker succumbed to exhaustion and encountered problems with addiction. While drug abuse was a battle he waged, his biggest demon was alcohol. This lead to various encounters with the law, most notably in Australia, where he was asked to leave the country after charges were filed against him twice in two days. Over time, Cocker conquered those demons and was eventually forgiven by the Australian government, even being asked to return for more performances. After a long run of touring and talk show stops in 1969, Cocker was unwilling to tour anymore, and dissolved Joe Cocker and the Grease Band. He had contractual obligations to fulfill for an already booked American tour, though, so the idiosyncratic vocalist gathered over thirty other musicians to form Mad Dog & the Englishman. His cover of The Box Tops’ hit “The Letter,” which appeared on their self-titled live album, became his first US Top Ten hit.
While best known for his voice and outstanding covers, Joe Cocker was also an accomplished musician, capable of creating magnificent original works. He wrote the overture for a performance famously orchestrated by British Prime Minister Edward Heath. In 1982, Cocker teamed up with Jennifer Warnes to record the duet “Up Where We Belong” for the soundtrack to An Officer and a Gentleman, earning him his first Grammy and an Academy Award for Best Original Song. He continued his soundtrack contribution ten years later with “Trust In Me” with Sass Jordan for 1992’s The Bodyguard.
Through many health and addiction-related battles, Joe Cocker managed to continue recording music and performing live up until his death of lung cancer while living in Crawford, Colorado, with his wife, Pam, by his side. Upon the news of his death, surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were among the first to pay tribute, with Paul calling Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” “mind-blowing.” There will never be another performer like Joe Cocker. He left a tide of awe-inspiring covers and original works in his wake, changing the expectation the world had held for musical performers forever.
Joe Cocker’s influence on music reaches a variety of generations. Below are list of thoughts on Joe Cocker from musicians and producers:
“We lost one of the most soulful singers in Rock. He will forever teach us to put the passion in the music.”
– Chris Wyse, The Cult bassist
“His voice was unique, his performance was unforgettable, and his mark on Rock and Blues will go down as legendary. Even in the afterlife, you’re style will live on through all the artists you’ve inspired, including myself. Rest in peace, Mr. Cocker.”
– Adam Ryan, Before The Mourning vocalist
“Joe Cocker could sing the phone book and make you feel it.”
– The Rev. Peyton, The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band vocalist/guitarist
“I was honored to have met Joe, toured with him, and got to know his gentle soul. I have nothing but respect for how he overcame his challenges in life and continued to do what he loved to do – sing his heart out – right up to the end. Joe, your inimitable legacy will live on. Blessings to you on your ongoing journey.”
– Roger Hodgson, singer-songwriter formerly of Supertramp
“Cocker! Good lord I had never heard someone really wail like that, not never.. I mean ever! I was all of 14 years old and listening at full bore to Woodstock and his early Joe Cocker. I stacked speakers 8 inches apart… lay my head down in between, closed my eyes and let it play… over and over and took in every nuance of his voice. It was full spectrum, bone-crushing sorrow and joyful singing that transcended me into another dimension. Thank god Joe was there… Cause I needed him bad!”
– Janiva Magness, Blues singer-songwriter
“I love the gut-wrenching emotion that Joe conveyed with every syllable he sang. You felt what he sang as undeniably and completely genuine. A truly classic voice that will never be duplicated! .”
John Allen, singer of Charm City Devils
“Joe asked many questions about the techniques and equipment we used at Power Station. He was especially interested in the recording and engineering work I did at Motown with Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and the Temptations.”
– Tony Bongiovi, record producer