Joe Cocker (1944-2014): An Appreciation

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A friend of mine tells the story about seeing the Woodstock movie with a group of acquaintances. During the car ride home, the film’s performances were discussed in detail. At one point, a young woman earnestly, if politically incorrectly, remarked: “And wasn’t it nice that they let that ‘retarded’ man sing a song.”

The “‘retarded’ man” was, of course, Joe Cocker. With a stage presence like no one before or since, Cocker was distinctive in many ways. From his odd, off-balanced stance to the occasional air guitar to the arguably spastic movements, Cocker was visually arresting. Or unsettling, depending on your view. But unusual stage presence aside — that voice! Somebody once called Joe Cocker the only true disciple of Ray Charles’ singing style. High praise, and perhaps true; I can think of no other.

Woodstock made Cocker a star, but he had been working hard for quite a while before his single–gig breakthrough at Woodstock. A well-received debut album was released in April 1969, featuring heavyweights Stevie Winwood and Jimmy Page. The album showed Cocker as a great interpreter of song, bringing new and interesting readings to both Bob Dylan and the Beatles. A string of impressive summer dates in the U.S. to promote the album landed Cocker on the cover of Rolling Stone in September. Even so, except for those who saw him in concert, he was still largely unknown. This would change the day the Woodstock documentary was released, in March of 1970.

Like other performers who gained fame through their Woodstock involvement, Cocker was initially pigeonholed into what the public allowed him to play. Fellow festival performer Alvin Lee and his band Ten Years After could never escape their new audience’s single-minded memory of the movie’s scorching footage of “I’m Going Home,” even though the band considered itself more blues than rock. Santana flourished because “Soul Sacrifice” was indicative of the complex rhythms that the band would play throughout an entire concert.

Joe Cocker was able to eclipse his Woodstock reputation, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. The Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of 1970 was a triumph of impromptu organization and uninhibited performing, thanks largely to musical director Leon Russell. The subsequent live album was a huge success and seemed to be a vindication that the Woodstock Nation had not disbanded. However, Cocker would soon balance these remarkable performances and their deserved accolades with unsteady concerts. He also accrued a scrapbook worth of bad press for his off-stage activities.

After a poorly received 1972 U.S tour, most fans lost interest. Substance abuse hounded Cocker, and various unsuccessful comeback attempts became too uncomfortable for fans to watch. After a while, John Belushi’s spot-on imitation of Cocker’s performance eccentricities no longer seemed all that funny.

Through it all, Cocker’s studio work showed that he remained a superb interpreter of songs. What other rocker has the guts to sing “Bye Bye Blackbird” on a debut album, turning it into a deep soul number? Songs by Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, Harry Nilsson, Alan Toussaint … even Prince. He could sing them all and sing them well, making each into a distinct Joe Cocker performance. And this was true even if you already knew the song, as with “A Little Help From My Friends.”

There were islands of optimism and renewal for Cocker. In 1974, Cocker released the album I Can Stand a Little Rain, which featured some remarkable ballads. It included Cocker’s biggest hit to that time, the fragile “You Are So Beautiful.” Almost eight years later, “Up Where We Belong” would be his last Top 10 hit. The song was a duet with Jennifer Warnes and seemed a perfect showcase for Cocker, vocally and stylistically. In the 32 years since this No. 1 hit, Cocker again retreated to the shadows, occasionally releasing a fine collection of his unmistakable interpretations, as with the Night Calls CD from 1992. Even so, Cocker’s story is weighed down with a sadness that comes from wondering what could have been.

After a career of stellar peaks and dark valleys, Joe Cocker returned an optimist. As he left the stage after his Woodstock 25 performance in 1994, Cocker yelled to the crowd “See you at the 50th!” He can’t make that gig, but he won’t be forgotten.

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