Joe Cocker Dies at 70

Joe Cocker at Woodstock

Image courtesy of

Joe Cocker Dies at 70
| published December 23, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

His may have been the most famous rock and roll cover song ever recorded or performed, and arguably the most remarkable interpretation of a Beatles song ever attempted. And unquestionably, his were among the most quirky and emotional of all physical performances.

Mick Jagger had—and still has—some pretty good moves on stage; Jim Morrison was said to have gone into a trance-like state; and David Lee Roth would occasionally climb the walls. Oh, Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day, so it sometimes seems, can leap off tall buildings with impunity.

But Joe Cocker, who performed and recorded at the place where the shifting sands of rock and roll were awash with the tidal waters of soul, had some on-stage body language never seen before, and never replicated by a pop singer since. He was the greatest contortionist in popular music.

Cocker, who once said that the greatest musical instrument was the human voice, died this week at the age of 70, succumbing to lung cancer at his home in rural Colorado.

Cocker was a heavy smoker, but he also—like many of rock’s most familiar faces—drank heavily at times and used his share of drugs—and this led to sometimes difficult financial struggles. Cocker had been suffering with the final stages of cancer for some time, but his death still came as a shock to many of his fans and colleagues. The announcement of his passing came early Monday, via a media statement from Barrie Marshall, Cocker’s agent in London.

Among his great recordings were “You Are So Beautiful,” an award-winning smash hit in 1975 and “Up Where We Belong,” a duet performed with Jennifer Warnes for the popular movie Officer and a Gentleman. That film theme song earned him a Grammy in 1983.

Cocker’s cover of the Beatles “With a Little Help From My Friends” was the most radical interpretation of a John Lennon-Paul McCartney song ever recorded, and one which McCartney described this week as “mind-blowing.” The tune had been written by the Lennon-McCartney song-writing duo specifically for Ringo Starr, the Beatles’ drummer who only rarely sang lead vocals on the group’s albums. “With a Little Help From My Friends” was one of the lynchpin songs on the famous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, which became—according to many critics—the most famous studio album of all time (it produced many hits, including “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” "A Day in the Life," and “When I’m Sixty-Four.”)

It was Ringo’s shining moment, and arguably his best studio recording. But leave it to Joe Cocker to top a Beatle by taking that song to a higher level. Ignoring the tune’s ballad-like, playful, love song origins, Cocker retooled it as an intense, volcanic soul rendition. He performed it most famously on the third day at Woodstock, late in the afternoon of August 17, 1969. It was at the end of his long set which included other greats, like “Feelin’ Alright” and “Just Like a Woman.” Legend and spiritual mythology has it that his gospel-tinged rendition was so powerful that it triggered a heavy thunderstorm, which shut down the whole Woodstock festival for nearly three hours.

Cocker—who was born in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, in the U.K., had no formal musical training, and played no instruments. Despite not being able to read a single note of music, his affinity to singing came naturally. By the time he was 13 he was already singing jazz, blues, and pop with local bands in England. He always said that his greatest influence was Ray Charles, the R&B singer and performer whose physical style surely affected Cocker as much as his vocal range. Cocker sometimes explained to music journalists that his quirky, physical performance—which included hand and arm gestures, wild gyrations of his legs and hips, and facial contortions—was his way of playing every form of air instrument he could conjure—guitars, pianos, drums, saxophone and horns, all imaginary behind his mostly closed eyes.

His covers of other people’s songs often outshone the originals, as was the case with Bryan Adams’ “When the Night Comes,” and “Feelin’ Alright,” written originally by Dave Mason of Traffic, and notably “The Letter,” a Box Tops classic from earlier in the decade.

Cocker is also well-known for his famous “Mad Dogs & Englishman” tour—the name is drawn from a 1931 song by Noel Coward—which also produced a best-selling album. That tour and travelling show included Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Rita Coolidge, Jim Price, Chris Stainton, and two dozen others musicians and performers. Most of the album version was recorded live at the Fillmore East, in New York, during the last days of March 1970.

The gravelly, raspy-voiced Cocker was widely respected by his peers in both rock and soul music. Ray Charles said that Cocker was one of the three greatest blues singers in the world—after Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. In reference to “With a Little Help From My Friends,” Paul McCartney once told Cocker that he had recorded “the definitive version of the song.”

Cocker lived the last decades of his life in Colorado, where he owned a 200-plus acre ranch. His wife Pam owned and operated a restaurant-diner called The Mad Dog Café.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Best of Cellars: The Beatles & Brian Epstein; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; November 28, 2014.

Jethro Tull Bassist Glen Cornick Dies at 67; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 1, 2014.