Editor’s note: This story originally published Dec. 22, 2014. It is resurfacing following the anniversary of Joe Cocker’s death.
Even by the wild and woolly standards of rock music in the late 1960s, there was nothing right about Joe Cocker’s career-making performance at the Woodstock summer music festival in upstate New York.
He wasn’t handsome by any conventional measure, his voice sounded as though he’d just swallowed a length of rusty barbed wire and his body contorted to such extremes that anybody watching wondered if he was in the grip of an epileptic seizure.
Yet in writhing his way through the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which sounded light-years away from the Fab Four’s bouncy pop version, the British blues-rock-R&B vocalist turned in what became one of the most indelible performances of that gathering of many of the greatest rock musicians of the era, and introduced a singer who became one of the most creative and soulful interpreters of other people’s songs.
For Cocker — who died Monday at his Colorado home at 70 after battling small-cell lung cancer in recent years — his instantly identifiable, highly idiosyncratic performance style, which became fodder for parody years later on “Saturday Night Live,” was simply the way he felt music.
“When I look at the old footage, I can’t quite deal with it,” he told an interviewer in 2008, saying his contortions were how he thought he’d move if he could play an instrument, a talent that escaped him “because I have these fat thumbs.”
His ragged, tortured vocals became an ideal outlet for blues-rooted music that emulated and then transcended his lifelong admiration of soul singer Ray Charles.
“He was a blues singer without necessarily singing the blues,” Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, said Monday. “He was the male equivalent of Janis Joplin, not only in the way he let the emotion of the song take over his entire being — his voice, his body, his soul — he also lived hard and his voice was not something he treasured in the way a lot of great singers do. He abused it, which gave it that vitality. But over time, that becomes a detriment.”
Indeed, Cocker’s life often played out the way his anguished hit interpretations sounded when he reinvented the Boxtops’ “The Letter,” the Beatles’ “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” Leon Russell’s “Delta Lady,” Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright,” Arthur Hamilton’s 1950s torch song “Cry Me a River” and Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful.”
He embodied, yet survived, the hedonistic excesses of the 1960s and ‘70s rock world, indulging in alcohol, heroin, PCP and, as he once put it, “just about every drug imaginable.”
Unlike Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and others whose battles with their demons led to early deaths, Cocker kept singing and recording — perhaps in part because of his hearty constitution from a hardscrabble early life in the steel town of Sheffield in northern England.
He faced serious financial troubles in the 1970s, ‘80s and beyond, but Cocker periodically resurfaced with hits that brought his voice before new generations of listeners.
In 1975, he recorded “You Are So Beautiful,” a song written by Preston originally as a gospel song about Jesus and then retooled as an expression of romantic love.
Cocker once said it “is probably the … strongest tune I ever did in just the simplicity in it.... There’s a little thing at the end that goes '… to me.’ You know the note?
“When I sang it in the studio,” he told NPR in 2012, “I remember everyone pricking up their ears — the whole studio, the staff, the engineers. And you know, it kind of woke up something in me, that softer side that I have going for me. It comes into my mind a lot, that tune. It’s just such a lovely melody.”
The soft side of the hard-living Englishman came to the fore again seven years later when he was invited to record a duet with singer-songwriter Jennifer Warnes for the film “An Officer and a Gentleman.” The pair won the Grammy Award for pop performance by a duo or group for “Up Where We Belong,” written by Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings.
It was a far cry from the jagged material he first became known for.
“A lot of people wondered what had happened to the old gravel belter when they heard it and thought I’d softened up and gone all pop,” he said. “I like a ballad, but doing lighter stuff like that doesn’t really suit me, because I’ve always been a rocker at heart, and I’ll always return to my soul roots.”
He typically did so through a series of about 30 albums released throughout his recording career, which began inauspiciously in 1963 with a round of sessions featuring his band Vance Arnold & the Avengers.
John Robert Cocker was born May 20, 1944, the youngest son of Harold Cocker, a civil servant, and his wife, Madge. Early on he was attracted to the dark, pain-fueled singing of American singer Ray Charles, and to the scrappy music of English skiffle star Lonnie Donegan. At 12, Cocker joined his older brother Victor’s skiffle band and made his first venture singing in public, then took the name Vance Arnold when he put together his own group.
They played clubs in Sheffield then got a slot opening for the Rolling Stones in 1963 for a show at Sheffield City Hall. He landed a solo contract with Decca in 1964 and put out a rendition of the Beatles then-current song “I’ll Cry Instead,” to little notice. But it telegraphed his ability to put his own stamp on material by some of the most highly regarded songwriters of the era.
Joe Cocker’s Big Blues Band followed soon, and again generated little real traction. He formed the Grease Band — the group that would support him at Woodstock just a few years later — in 1966 with keyboardist-songwriter Chris Stainton, the co-writer of “Marjorine,” which gave Cocker his first U.K. hit in 1968.
That’s the year Cocker chose to take another whack at a Beatles song, and he radically reimagined “With a Little Help From My Friends” as a slow, screaming blues workout — future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page was among the players backing him — in which Cocker engaged in an increasingly fervent call and response with the backup singers in the song’s question-answer lyric.
Cocker’s agonized cries took the song to a realm the Beatles hadn’t imagined, and Paul McCartney on Monday said in a statement, “It was just mind-blowing, [he] totally turned the song into a soul anthem, and I was forever grateful for him for having done that.”
It was a major career boost when Cocker was booked to perform at Woodstock in 1969 along with more established rock heroes, including Hendrix, Joplin, the Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane.
After Woodstock, he mounted the fabled Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, a juggernaut with more than three dozen musicians, from which he made little money because of the massive overhead and indulgences that helped create the blueprint for what came to be known as the era of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Rock critic and author Anthony DeCurtis said at that time that “what Mad Dogs & Englishmen represented was ... the high-water mark of a certain kind of utopian impulse in popular music.”
The tour made a bona fide rock star out of American musician Leon Russell, the tour’s bandleader, pianist, singer and arranger, but left Cocker’s career on the ropes, setting a pattern of fits and starts because of his addictions that played out for almost three decades.
The successes of “You Are So Beautiful” and “Up Where We Belong” rejuvenated his career and finances for a time, income from the latter hit allowing him to buy a sizable ranch in Santa Barbara.
He attempted to lead a healthier lifestyle at several junctures, but it took him decades to quit drugs and alcohol entirely.
“It’s not any fun having people tell you about things that you can’t remember yourself,” he said in 1995, about six years before he got sober. “It’s like your life never happened, like you went out on the road, did a whole tour and got back and can’t remember any of it.”
He and his wife, Pam, married in 1987 and a few years later bought a 240-acre ranch in the mountains of Crawford, Colo., about 250 miles southwest of Denver, where the singer devoted much of his time to growing tomatoes, walking his dogs, fly fishing, riding horses and playing billiards.
For all the pleasure he got from the more rural lifestyle, he periodically wondered whether he’d lose connection with his musical muse.
“I’m afraid if I quit for a while,” he told the Denver Post in 2008, “I may not be able to get it back.”
Although he periodically recorded gospel songs, much like his hero Charles, Cocker kept his spiritual beliefs largely private.
But he was never shy about touting the place music held in his life.
“When I think of some of the stuff I’ve been through,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1986, “people ask me if I’ll ever retire. But as long as my voice is in pretty good shape, why should I? ... I really do live for music. Without it, there isn’t much left of me. I’d just be a lost soul.”
In addition to his wife and brother Victor, Cocker is survived by a stepdaughter, Zoey Schroeder, and two grandchildren, Eva and Simon Schroeder.
Times staff writer Christine Mai-Duc contributed to this report.