Remembering Joe Cocker: Rock’s Soulful Interpreter

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May 20, 1944 – December 22, 2014

Joe Cocker at Woodstock

There’s a hilarious video, that takes Joe Cocker’s classic Woodstock performance of “With a Little Help From My Friends” and annotates the “misheard lyrics” with absurd-but-plausible closed captioning and chortle-inducing illustrations. It’s only after you watch it that you realize that, no matter how many times you may have seen the original clip, taken from the film of the iconic 1969 festival, you too have probably never understood half the things Cocker was actually singing during those four minutes. (Watch it below.)

You also realize that it never mattered. Cocker’s delivery of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s staple is so electrifying, so histrionic and imbued with raw soul power, that he could have been singing the words to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and it still would have left you breathless.

That was Cocker’s gift. Among the crop of white British R&B belters that emerged in the ’60s – and that includes Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon, Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood – Cocker, who died December 22, 2014 at age 70, may have been the most ballsy and uninhibited of all. But behind the seemingly unconstrained air-guitar gesticulations and fitful body movements, Cocker was a deadly serious, wholly original interpreter of songs who could take material not only from the Beatles and Dylan but Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, Allen Toussaint, his idol Ray Charles or, on one of his last albums, country singer Keith Urban, and totally transform it. No less than Paul McCartney himself called Cocker’s “With a Little Help…” the definitive version of the song that made the coarse-voiced Sheffield-born singer a global megastar.

Related: Cocker is among the most glaring omissions of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Throughout the post-Woodstock years, Cocker’s popularity and the quality of his output roller-coastered, arguably in relation to the abuse he heaped upon himself until he finally left it behind – it was lung cancer that ultimately did him in. By most measures he peaked early on his massive 30-plus-member Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour.

Related: Our Album Rewind of Mad Dogs & Englishmen

But he rebounded twice after many of his original fans had lost track of him, first with 1975’s Billy Preston-co-written ballad “You Are So Beautiful” and again in 1982, when he scored his only chart-topping single, “Up Where We Belong,” a duet with Jennifer Warnes that got its boost as the theme song for the Richard Gere vehicle An Officer And a Gentleman.

Both of those songs seemed a far cry in intensity and soul content from Cocker’s earlier output. But a close enough listen reveals that his commitment to putting across a lyric in the most substantial manner possible is still intact. And even as he aged, toning down the onstage antics and maintaining a more conservative demeanor, Joe Cocker never lost that fire.

Cocker, who lived out his later years in Colorado, kept himself busy on his days off fly fishing and tending to his greenhouse. As impossible as it might be to reconcile that image with the videos of the young Brit in full spasm, it’s a safe bet that he fished and gardened with all his heart and soul too.

Related: Our review of the documentary Mad Dog With Soul

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Jeff Tamarkin
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6 Comments so far

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  1. Guy Smiley
    #1 Guy Smiley 22 December, 2016, 19:53

    Outrageous that he neve got into the Rock Hall while he was alive, and even moreso since his death.

    Another big hit from later years, not mentioned here, was his late 80s/early 90s smash “When the Night Comes.” Great tune, and I think it helped kickstart something of a revival for Joe’s career. In the 90s and 2000s, he recorded a number of strong albums and notable tracks and continued to tour regularly. He is sorely missed.

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  2. spinyn
    #2 spinyn 21 May, 2018, 20:20

    My high school buddies did the light show at Fillmore West on the weekend we landed on the moon in July 1969, with Country Joe headlining over a then unknown Joe Cocker. They told me, “You gotta see this guy!” Joe was great with his sympatico Grease Band and we became instant fans. Seeing him belt out “With A Little Help From My Friends” standing on the light show platform with both posters from my friend’s bedroom and the TV from the moon landing splattered on the back wall of the Carousel, high on a horse tab of mescaline,
    was a defining moment in my life, I can tell you!

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    • Filterman
      Filterman 22 December, 2019, 12:01

      For the week after that Fillmore show, Joe and the Grease Band played at a small Manhattan club called The Scene, where my band was his opener. I got to hang out with a Joe and show him around New York. This was pre-Woodstock and fame hadn’t struck him yet. In fact I picked out the tie-died tee shirt he wore at Woodstock. He was a down to earth nice guy with a great soul.

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  3. J.C. FRIEND
    #3 J.C. FRIEND 23 December, 2019, 10:55


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  4. Bluzrider
    #4 Bluzrider 21 May, 2020, 07:57

    I saw Joe Cocker a couple of times, he was just a great entertainer, I once saw the sexist barmaid you ever saw, jump on the bar when His version of “You can leave your hat on” came on the juke box, It was the sexiest song that Rock and Roll ever saw, and Joe Cocker made it that way. He should be in the Rock and Roll hall of fame, for that tune alone.

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