IF HIS EARLY CAREER was defined by his incomparable cover of With A Little Help From My Friends in 1968, then it was his performance filmed at the Woodstock festival the following year that truly cemented Joe Cocker’s worldwide reputation. “This title puts it all into focus,” he said, emphasising his humility as he introduced the re-working of The Beatles classic he’d made his own. It was climax to a fine 85 minute, mid-afternoon Day Three set during which Cocker’s rich, soulful vocal delivery was augmented by the actions that defined his style: his eyes locked close, arms waving wide before lunging into bursts of manic air guitar fretting while letting that voice bellow forth. Antics that suggested he was truly a man lost in music.
Cocker’s set that afternoon also included Let’s Go Get Stoned and I Don’t Need No Doctor, two tracks that had originally been recorded by his great hero, Ray Charles, and which underlined his love of black music. Like many Sheffield musicians, Cocker found his love of blues, soul and R&B replenished by frequent visits to Peter Stringfellow’s King Mojo Club. There, on June 29 1967, he cut a track that appeared on the Rag Goes Mad At The Mojo 45 which was given away as part of the annual student fundraising week. Just over a year later, Cocker’s version of With A Little Help From My Friends topped the UK charts.
Despite a sense that Cocker’s star had risen at a remarkable speed, this was not the case. Since first stepping on to a stage in 1960, he had cut his teeth in a number of lesser-known local groups including The Cavaliers with whom he performed during his time working as a gas fitter for the East Midlands Gas Board.
Signing to Decca in 1964, he released a cover of The Beatles’s I’ll Cry Instead, but success proved elusive and, at one point, Cocker considered abandoning music. Eventually, he hooked up with fellow Sheffield music-head Chris Stainton with whom he formed The Grease Band in ‘66. Then came the patronage of Denny Cordell, the British record producer, who’d worked closely with Chris Blackwell at Island and who had then overseen the careers The Moody Blues, The Move and Procol Harum.
Cordell proved instrumental in securing a deal for Cocker, taking The Grease Band down to Olympic Studio B in West London to cut their first single, the whimsical Marjorine, engineered by Glyn Johns. Equally, it was Cordell’s double-whammy of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale and Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends that provided the producer and his artists with an instant entrée into America on the back of the Transatlantic success enjoyed with both records.
For Cocker, the US was the promised land and it was there that he forged a substantial reputation in a short space of time. Indeed, such was his standing that A&M bankrolled Cordell and multi-instrumentalist Leon Russell’s idea of a Cocker-fronted tour which yield both a film and a live album. Dubbed Mad Dogs And Englishmen, it almost ended in disaster for a number of reasons – the bonhomie and high jinx that surrounded the entire enterprise being just one of them.
If the resulting album was eventually salvaged by Glyn Johns, the wear-and-tear of the road impacted hugely on Cocker who returned to Sheffield to recuperate. Again, he considered whether his future lay in music but eventually returned to playing and finding he was still a superstar despite an extended lay-off.
His remarkable vocal style was again evident when he cut a version of Billy Preston’s You Are So Beautiful in 1973, which again made an impressive showing in the US chart. Cocker, however, struggled with assorted dependencies which blighted the ensuing years.
It was smooth soul producer Stewart Levine – known for transforming The Crusaders from a jazz fusion group into a commercial powerhouse, and later for his work with Simply Red, Lionel Richie and Dr John – who brought Cocker back to prominence in 1982 by suggesting he cut Up Where We Belong with Jennifer Warnes for the soundtrack to An Officer And A Gentleman. While Cocker’s performance was often satirized, it also proved that his voice remained gloriously intact.
“Joe was a lovely northern lad who I loved a lot and, like many people, I loved his singing.”
The Randy Newman-penned You Can Leave Your Hat On in 1986 provided Cocker with another movie-related hit when it was used on the soundtrack to 91/2 Weeks, propelling the accompanying studio album (simply entitled Cocker) up the charts. A chequered recording career followed, but Cocker continued to tour and make a number of guest appearances with musicians who were either his friends or who idolized him.
His twentieth studio offering, 2007’s Hymn For My Soul, provided a late period highlight. Produced by Glyn Johns’s son, Ethan, it featured guest appearances from Benmont Tench, Jim Keltner and guitarist Albert Lee. The material also included a number of soul covers (The Meters’ Love Is For Me; Percy Mayfield’s Rivers Invitation) as well as rock tunes by Bob Dylan (Ring Them Bells), John Fogerty (As Long As I Can See The Light) and The Beatles (Come Together).
Cocker’s death at the age of 70 following his battle with small cell lung cancer was confirmed by his family on December 22, 2014, with his official website paying tribute to a man whose later life in Colorado was characterized by “long walks in the mountains with his dogs, fly fishing in the Black Canyon, playing snooker with friends and growing tomatoes in his greenhouse year-round.”
The tributes that followed from the world of music, were led by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
"He was a lovely northern lad who I loved a lot and, like many people, I loved his singing," said McCartney. "I was especially pleased when he decided to cover With A Little Help From My Friends and I remember him and Denny Cordell coming round to the [Apple] studio in Savile Row and playing me what they'd recorded and it was just mind-blowing, totally turned the song into a soul anthem and I was forever grateful for him for doing that."
Ringo Starr added via Twitter: "Goodbye and God bless to Joe Cocker from one of his friends peace and love. R"
MOJO would like to extend our condolences to Joe’s wife Pam and to all of his friends and family.