Joe Cocker was the real deal. First time I became aware of him was in 1970 when I saw him in the Woodstock movie. That was several months after those three days of peace, love, and music took place, and I had heard all about it, including stories of Joe and some of the other artists who appeared there, but there was no way I could have appreciated Cocker’s performance without seeing it for myself. When I saw this strange-looking dude come on stage, wearing a tie-dye shirt and looking all disheveled and downright demented, I sat up straight and paid close attention. When the music started to play, ol’ Joe really swung into action… and I do mean swung. His arms flailed, and he had these unusual hand gestures. His movements seemed spastic and uncoordinated, but he played a mean air guitar! I first thought, “What is wrong with this guy?” And then, Joe started to sing. In that gruff, gravelly, heavy and bluesy voice, and I immediately understood. This was a man who, in spite of his unorthodox appearance, felt the music so far down deep in his soul, he just had to move around like that. He may have looked weird, and who knows what substances might have been at work with him when he stepped up to the mic, but he really delivered, and made a lifelong fan out of me.
That, of course, is Joe’s take on a Beatles’ tune, but it sounded so much different from the original. He was accompanied by The Grease Band in those days, and at Woodstock, a large, mixed assemblage of musicians, and some others who just wanted to be there and hang out. I don’t think anyone could deny that Joe Cocker’s style was rooted deeply in soul and the blues. Wherever he performed, people had the same reaction. A little skeptical at first, but convinced once he opened his mouth and that unique sound came out. That particular song is so well known, partially because it became the theme song for the long-running tv show, “The Wonder Years.”
Joe Cocker was an Englishman who grew up in Sheffield. He listened to a lot of Ray Charles music when he could get his hands on it. He also loved American bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. John Lee Hooker. And throw Elvis Presley in there, too. Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” album came out later in 1970 (his single studio version of the title song had already been a big hit in the U.K. back in ’68.) Joe’s career really took off! At the end of the spring semester in ’70, Joe and the band appeared here in Chapel Hill at Jubilee, along with others such as favorite son, James Taylor, plus Grand Funk Railroad, B.B. King, and others. Listen to Joe’s version of this Dave Mason tune:
Cocker later got together with the incredibly talented Leon Russell, who became the Music Director for the “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour. I remember going out and buying that live album and it rocked!
Joe quickly became known as a guy who made every song his own. He even put his touch on some old standards. This one, for example, that goes all the way back to the 1920’s:
He continued doing more contemporary songs through the years, by current artists that everyone knew. Joe did a killer version of another Beatles’ tune, “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and so many others. Here’s one of my old favorites:
I’ve read reports of Joe’s arrest in Australia, with most of his band for possession of marijuana (not that unusual for rock and rollers in those days) and Joe was addicted to heroin for a while, although he managed to kick it. He struggled with alcohol, though, and as far as I know, that habit remained.
Joe Cocker started doing some mellow tunes in the 70’s, including “You Are So Beautiful” in ’74. Surprisingly, to me, at least, it became a big hit:
In 1978, Joe made the permanent move to the United States, first living on a ranch owned by Jane Fonda in California, and then later, he and his wife bought a place in Colorado. By all accounts, he lived a quiet, peaceful life. He was never all that crazy about the spotlight, anyway. As he got older, he started doing some mellow tunes, with good success. For example, he teamed up with Jennifer Warnes on a duet called “Up Where We Belong.” The song is best known for its appearance at the end of the 1982 Richard Gere movie, “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
In the middle ’80s Joe hit big with “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” The song was written by the prolific Randy Newman. It got a big boost in popularity from its appearance during a striptease scene in the motion picture, “9 & ½ Weeks.”
There have been so many compilations and greatest hits collections for Joe Cocker’s music over the years, and his popularity spans decades and decades. When the movie, “Across The Universe” came out in 2007, featuring all Beatles songs, of course, they recruited Cocker to do one of the songs, “Come Together.” He appears as a bum on the bus, and even as a pimp in a convertible, and still, there’s that unmistakable one-of-a-kind voice.
I don’t think Joe’s voice ever changed… at least not on record. He passed away at the age of 70, just before Christmas of 2014, a victim of lung cancer. I heard that he had smoked 40 cigarettes a day until he put them away back in 1991, but I guess the damage was done.
Joe Cocker’s not in the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, but I think he should be. It’s probably because he mostly performed other people’s songs. There’s no denying that any time he decided to record a song it immediately became his own. Nobody sounded like Joe Cocker. He was the real deal, and I think he belongs!
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