It is hard for me to think of a more classic rock performer from the early 1970s than Joe Cocker. While he performed right up until his death in 2014, he burst onto the scene in America during the same year as Woodstock, and his growling voice and shaking mannerisms in front of an audience captured the vibe of that era.
Fifty years ago, singer Joe Cocker was in the middle of a huge burst of creativity and popularity that would be the peak of his career.
Cocker’s career was a roller-coaster of success and hard times. This two-year period of his life was remarkable, but it also began to show the downside of fame and excess. Even though the single, “With a Little Help From My Friends” was released at the end of 1968, the rockstar craziness didn’t really explode until the next year. It is during this two-year period that most of the world was introduced to Joe Cocker and arguably, where he achieved his greatest success.
When he released his With a Little Help From My Friends album in 1969, Cocker had already been a working singer for a number of years in England. He had played in numerous bands and even released a single, but it failed to chart. He was a gas fitter by trade and it served as he fallback to his music career. Cocker was not quite an overnight success, but when he hit the big time, he was there to stay.
With a Little Help From My Friends
In October 1968, Cocker’s record company released the single “With a Little Help From My Friends.” This was the song that brought Cocker to the attention of the world and served as his signature song. The song, an easy-going mid-tempo rocker by the Beatles, was transformed into a gritty, soul anthem by Cocker and producer Denny Cordell. The Beatles may have written it, but Cocker truly made the song his own. The song did quite well in England, going to number one, as Cocker’s first album was getting ready for release. The Joe Cocker legend was underway.
With a Little Help From My Friends, Cocker received a lot of help from his friends. Jimmy Page played guitar on a number of tracks. Members of Procol Harum, Steve Winwood, Albert Lee, Henry McCullough and master bass player Carol Kaye, all contributed to the album. Another great addition were the voices of Merry Clayton (“Sympathy For the Devil”), Brenda Holloway and others who injected a dose of soul and gospel into these songs.
The album contained several Cocker/Chris Stainton originals, but mostly Cocker covered songs by other artists, though you were somewhat hard-pressed to recognize the originals. Rarely has an artist infused such originality and spirit into already well-known songs. Cocker was up against some classics and he stood up and made you take notice of his fresh versions.
“Feeling Alright” Dave Mason Which version do you remember? The versions by Dave Mason and Traffic are rock-solid, but it Cocker’s is phenomenal. He finds an extra gear for this song.
“Bye Bye Blackbird” Ray Henderson, Mort Dixon This American standard has been performed by many artists in different styles. Cocker gives it a very soulful arrangement with dripping organ and distorted guitar. Not the kind of song you would expect on rock and roll album, but with a saloon-type arrangement, that is what made Joe Cocker such a special interpreter of music.
“Change in Louise” Joe Cocker, Chris Stainton
“Marjorine” Cocker, Stainton This is an indication that Cocker and piano player Stainton could write decent songs when inspired. Something much less than a ballsy rocker, this is a quieter song that shows Cocker can do much more than shout to convey a sentiment.
“Just Like a Woman” Bob Dylan I didn’t even recognize this song the way Cocker and Matthew Fisher reworked this song. Fisher’s organ makes this a deeply moving gospel experience.
“Do I Still Figure in Your Life?” Pete Dello
“Sandpaper Cadillac” Cocker, Stainton
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” Gloria Caldwell, Sol Marcus, Bennie Benjamin Covered by many artists including the Animals. Cocker’s version stands on its own.
“With a Little Help from My Friends” John Lennon, Paul McCartney A classic, what more than you can say. A version more popular than the Beatles’ own version? With this gutsy, soul rendering version, Cocker became the Ray Charles of rock and roll. Reportedly, when Cocker played writer Paul McCartney his version, McCartney was astounded and endorsed it. High praise.
“I Shall Be Released” Dylan
Cocker and his band toured and were in America when his debut album was released in early 1969.
Still not a big name, but growing in reputation, Cocker’s management was able to secure an appearance at Woodstock.
Joe Cocker was no secret in America now. Can you think of a performer with greater stage presence and style than Cocker? His shaggy appearance and gravely voice would get your attention, but the way he threw himself into each song, moving his body, contorting his face, he was a singer possessed.
At the end of 1969, Cocker released his second album, simply titled Joe Cocker! Recorded in Los Angeles during his tour. and with a smaller group of performers, This album featured his touring musicians, mostly the core from his first album and who he had been playing with in England. The album was produced by Cordell and Leon Russell. Russell was the wunderkind of L.A. rock in those days, a writer/producer/musician of up and coming rock stars. Russell was signed to Cordell’s record label and would be fixture with Cocker for the next couple of years.
The second album followed a similar formula as the debut album, a few originals and covers of various styles including Beatles and Dylan songs.
“Dear Landlord” Bob Dylan
“Bird on the Wire” Leonard Cohen
“Lawdy Miss Clawdy” Lloyd Price
“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” John Lennon, Paul McCartney Picking the Beatles was a familiar and successful source. Abbey Road had barely been released when Cocker’s version hit the radio. For the Beatles, this song was just a section of a song suite on side two. Cocker lifted it to make it a complete song, letting it breathe in a way that gave Cocker plenty of ground to cover.
“Hitchcock Railway” Don Dunn, Tony McCashen
“That’s Your Business Now” Joe Cocker, Chris Stainton
“Something” George Harrison Cocker maintains the gentleness of the song but gives it a bit a funkier vibe. His husky voice adds a warm texture to the song.
“Delta Lady” Leon Russell A very good recording of Russell’s song about Rita Coolidge. It is a soulful song that is one of the best on the album.
“Hello, Little Friend” Russell
“Darling Be Home Soon” John Sebastian A cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s hit, Cocker finds the sweet spot in the song.
Mad Dogs & Englishmen
Cocker was enjoying America. He fell into the rockstar life with exuberance. After parting with his band and canceling an American tour, he was warned about his future ability to work in this country by the artists union and government. Quickly, he gathered a new 21-piece band and performed 48 concerts in 52 days. Some of the band members came from the Delaney & Bonnie band (future members of Derek & the Dominoes) and the horn players would become touring members of the Rolling Stones. The Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour lived up to its name. A live album was recorded at the Fillmore East in New York City. The album, released in 1970, was a huge hit, reaching number two on the chart in the U.S. This two-disc collection did not include a lot of his songs from his first two albums, going for a mixture of musical styles. The tour was filmed and released to acclaim. Mad Dogs & Englishmen showed Joe Cocker in his element. Not quite a circus, not quite a rock and roll medicine show, it was certainly what fans probably thought being a rockstar was about. This menagerie of rock and roll gypsies were not the first big rock and roll show to coast to coast, maybe the first “hippie” show to do so. Cocker and his group weren’t laying waste to hotel chains like the Who and Kinks, but it was a party from city to city. That vibe is present on the album, it is a loose and raw sound.
“Honky Tonk Women” Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
“Sticks and Stones” Titus Turner, Henry Glover
“Cry Me a River” Arthur Hamilton
“Bird on the Wire” Leonard Cohen
“Feelin’ Alright” Dave Mason
“Superstar” (lead vocal by Rita Coolidge) Leon Russell, Bonnie Bramlett
“Let’s Go Get Stoned” Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson, Josephine Armstead
-“I’ll Drown in My Own Tears” Glover
-“When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” Isaac Hayes, David Porter
-“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” Otis Redding, Jerry Butler
“Girl from the North Country” (lead vocals by Cocker and Russell) Bob Dylan
“Give Peace a Chance” Bramlett, Russell
“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” John Lennon, Paul McCartney
“Space Captain” Matthew Moore
“The Letter” Wayne Carson Thompson
“Delta Lady” Russell
Two studio and one live album in less than two years, and on the road otherwise. From playing small clubs to a stage at Woodstock, Cocker’s life underwent great change. He certainly did not have to consider gas fitting again.
Joe Cocker had a number of hit records throughout the next four decades of his career. He toured continuously, and received many awards and recognition along the way.
It was after this 1969-1970 period that Cocker began to experience the career and personal problems of many performers. Management, record company, artistic, financial and substance abuse issues dogged him for years. His career had ups and downs, but he was never out. Joe Cocker persevered and always fought back. He had a style and vocal ability that fused with good songs to create something unique. In the almost 50 years that we knew him, he always delivered.