Today’s regularly scheduled feature has been preempted for a retrospective and celebration of the late Joe Cocker.
In the final analysis, Joe Cocker’s formidable talent and musical significance can be expressed in a single sentence: The man out-Beatled The Beatles. Cocker’s 1968 cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends” not only reached #1 on UK charts, he belted it out from the stage at Woodstock and it has very arguably eclipsed the Fab Four’s 1967 original as the definitive version of the song.
Cocker passed away Monday after a battle with lung cancer.
With a distinctive voice full of gravel and world-weary passion, Cocker sounded more like a master of Memphis Soul than a Yorkshireman. Born John Robert Cocker in 1944, he acquired both the nickname “Joe:” and a passion for music at a young age.
Growing up in the skiffle-mad music scene of 1950s Britain, Cocker’s first public performance was with his brother’s skiffle band. As British musical taste evolved away from skiffle and towards rock and roll with a heavy American roots influence, Cocker not only followed suit but found his true calling. He began performing professionally at the age of 16, first with a short-lived group called The Cavaliers and then, under the name Vance Arnold, as frontman for Vance Arnold and The Avengers (Perhaps it is only with the benefit of hindsight, but “Joe Cocker” seems like a better rock and roll moniker than “Vance Arnold” any day of the week).
Establishing a strong local following on the Sheffield pub scene, The Avengers began to build a national reputation after opening for the Rolling Stones at a 1963 show in Sheffield. Cocker signed with Decca Records in 1964, where his first release, intriguingly, was a cover of The Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead.” During his time with Decca, Cocker also developed a set of musical friendships which would serve him well throughout his career, including an up-and-coming guitarist named Jimmy Page.
In 1966, Cocker co-founded The Grease Band with influential session musician Chris Stainton. As with the Avengers, the Grease Band did well enough to allow its members to pursue music full-time, but fell well short of achieving escape velocity. The band remained primarily a Sheffield phenomenon and Cocker’s record sales were mediocre.
That changed in 1968, when Cocker took on another Beatles’ song which, of course, was “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Cocker took the Beatles’ version, a surprisingly pop-flavored number considering its inclusion on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, slowed it down and transmuted it into a soul-filled rock ballad. The rest, as they say, is history. Though, in his breakthrough moment, it deserves to be remembered that Cocker did, in fact, have more than a little help from his friends. The song’s strong if restrained guitar work was supplied by Jimmy Page, Grease Band colleague Stainton played bass and Procul Harum’s B.J. Wilson delivered percussion.
The success of his “With a Little Help From My Friends” earned a Cocker a place on the stage of festivals including Newport Folk, Isle of Wight and, of course, Woodstock. It also set him on the obligatory pilgrimage to “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
In 1969, Cocker formed a new band, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, which finally allowed him to express his distinctive musical vision. In contrast to rock’s typical emphasis on small combos (where anything beyond six or seven pieces becomes noteworthy), Mad Dogs & Englishmen typically numbered over two-dozen performers. Cocker also moved his sound in dramatically more roots-oriented direction, akin to the Rolling Stones but with a stronger emphasis on soul and R&B than blues. As with “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the success of Mad Dogs & Englishmen owed much to Cocker’s knack for picking the right collaborators, including celebrated American roots musician Leon Russell.
After the dissolution of Mad Dogs & Englishman, Cocker continued to record and tour as time and the strength of his music cemented his legacy as an icon of British Invasion roots rock. His next, and last, brush with the big time would be an unlikely duet with American vocalist Jennifer Warnes, 1982’s “Up Where We Belong.” The song hit number-one and netted the singers a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo. That having been said, the song does not hold up well: it is a rather trite 1980s pop-rock romantic ballad with little to recommend it to the ages beyond Cocker’s soulful vocals.
The first generation of British rockers universally paid lip-service to American roots music. In reality, the actual influence of roots music varied wildly from artist to artist. Few, however, were as sincere in their admiration or as deeply influenced as Cocker. From a young age, he was an avid collector of blues records by artists as diverse as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Roots covers featured frequently in his discography. And, in examining the actual impact on American roots on British Invasion artists, perhaps only the Rolling Stone’s bluesy instrumentation equals Cocker’s soul-laden vocals.
Musically, Cocker’s career was hit or miss. But the hits more than make up for the misses. ““With a Little Help From My Friends” and similar successes anchor an iconic career and enduring legacy. Joe Cocker will be missed.
Watch Archival Footage of Joe Cocker Performing “With a Little Help From My Friends”