Arguably one of the most dynamic singers of the late 1960s and beyond, English singer Joe Cocker's raw, soul-drenched vocals and near spastic stage persona elevated him to worldwide fame in the 1970s before he transitioned successfully into a mainstream rock/pop artist with the Oscar-winning "Up Where We Belong" (1982) and other songs throughout the 1990s and beyond. After toiling in obscurity throughout the 1960s, Cocker landed his first No 1 U.K. single with a passionate cover of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends," which minted him as a world-class interpreter of other rock acts' material. Subsequent hits with Leon Russell's "Delta Lady," The Box Tops' "The Letter" and Billy Preston's "You are so Beautiful" kept Cocker in the spotlight until the mid-1970s, when depression and substance abuse derailed his career. Fortunately, a new generation enjoyed his work when his duet with Jennifer Warnes, "Up Where We Belong," returned him to the top of the charts. Cocker continued to mine chart hits throughout the 1990s and beyond, his voice still imbuing its blend of bluesy grit and jazz-like inflection on original material and choice covers alike. A bona fide survivor of the turbulent 1960s and 1970s music scene, Joe Cocker remained one of rock-n-roll's most extraordinary vocal talents. His death on December 22, 2014 was mourned by generations of fans as well as his friends, family and peers.
John Robert Cocker was born on May 20, 1944 in Crookes, a suburb of the city of Sheffield, in West Riding of Yorkshire, England. The youngest son of civil servant Harold Cocker and his wife, Madge, Cocker began singing publicly at the age of 12, when his brother Victor invited him onstage to perform with his skiffle group. Within a few years, he was fronting his own band, The Cavaliers, which proved short-lived, prompting Cocker to seek work as a gasfitter while attempting to re-launch his music career. In 1961, Cocked adopted the stage name "Vance Arnold" - a moniker derived from Vince Everett, Elvis Presley's character in "Jailhouse Rock" (1957) and country singer Eddy Arnold - to sing with the Avengers, a proto-pub rock group which allowed him to exercise his devotion to soul legend Ray Charles through frequent covers. The band enjoyed minor popularity in Sheffield, eventually working their way up to opening for the Rolling Stones before folding in 1963. The following year, Cocker signed a recording contract as a solo act with Decca, which resulted in a cover of the Beatles' "I'll Cry Tomorrow" which featured Jimmy Page on guitar. However, the single went nowhere, and the label dropped Cocker in 1964. After dropping his stage name to front Joe Cocker's Big Blues, the singer took a year-long hiatus from the music business.
In 1966, he launched the Grease Band with fellow Sheffield native Chris Stainton. The group would go through several iterations, moving away from its jazz roots to a more R&B driven sound, while Cocker made his first steps into the spotlight with a solo recording of "Marjorine," which reached No. 48 on the U.K. singles chart in the late spring of 1968. But within a few months, Cocker would top the U.K. charts with a ferocious cover of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends." The single, which again featured Jimmy Page on guitar, reached the top of the U.K. singles chart in November while also rising to No. 68 in America. A new touring version of the Grease Band with future Wings guitarist Henry McCullough played England with the Who and Gene Pitney before making its stateside debut in the spring of 1969 to coincide with the release of Cocker's debut album, also titled With a Little Help from My Friends (1969). The album, which reached No. 35 on the Billboard 200, received immeasurable help from live appearances at some of the most significant concerts of the decade, including the Woodstock Festival, where Cocker's exuberant, flailing stage presence was preserved for a wide audience in the 1969 documentary "Woodstock," as well as countless television variety performances.
The groundswell of critical and listener attention afforded to Cocker's first album carried over to its follow-up, Joe Cocker! (1969). The LP, which reached No. 11 on the American albums chart, yielded a Top 10 U.K. single with a cover of Leon Russell's "Delta Lady," as well as Beatles-sanctioned covers of "Something" and "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," the latter of which breached the Top 30 on the U.S. singles chart. But the relentless pace of promoting both records left Cocker exhausted and unwilling to embark on another U.S. tour at the end of 1969. He dissolved the Grease Band, only to discover that dates had already been booked for a 48-city tour in 1970. Cocker then tapped Leon Russell to serve as musical director for a massive group of over 30 musicians, including Stainton on keyboards and such veteran sidemen as saxophonist Bobby Keys, drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Carl Radle. Dubbed "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" by Cocker's longtime producer, Denny Cordell, the band roared through the United States for the better part of 1970, recording an eponymous live album that same year which generated two Top 20 U.S. singles with covers of the Box Tops' "The Letter" and the jazz staple "Cry Me a River," as well as the concert film "Mad Dogs & Englishmen." A third hit single, "High Time We Went," reached No. 22 in the summer of 1971. Though he emerged from the tour as a bona fide rock superstar, Cocker's health had taken a downward turn during the year, due in part to a bout of depression that he countered with excessive drinking.
After a two-year hiatus from recording and performing, Cocker returned with a new group led by Stainton. The band opened at Madison Square Garden in 1972 before criss-crossing the United States and Europe for the better part of a year while previewing a number of new songs that would eventually form the core of his third studio album, simply titled Joe Cocker (1973). However, its singles - a cover of Greg Allman's "Midnight Rider" and the Cocker-Stainton original "Woman to Woman" - failed to reproduce the success of his previous releases by reaching only the lower depths of the Top 50. Cocker's personal life also continued to unravel amidst highly publicized arrests for marijuana possession and brawling in Australia, which resulted in his expulsion from the country. Stainton and Cordell soon withdrew from the turmoil that whirled around Cocker, which sent him into a deeper depression and heroin usage. Though he overcame his drug habit, Cocker continued to be plagued by alcoholism, which had a deleterious effect on his powerful voice and live performances. A 1974 cover of Billy Preston's "You are so Beautiful," featured on his fourth studio LP, I Can Stand a Little Rain (1974), reached No. 5 on the U.S. singles chart but alarmed listeners with the ragged quality of his vocals. Cocker continued to flounder in the mid-1970s, releasing two albums, Jamaica Say You Will (1975) and Stingray (1976) that failed to win back his fanbase from the early '70s. By 1976, he was deeply in debt to his label, A&M Records, and reduced to serving as a punch line for John Belushi's manic if all-too-accurate imitation on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ).
Producer Michael Lang rose to his defense, agreeing to work with Cocker on the condition that he gain sobriety. For the remainder of the 1970s and early '80s, Cocker slowly rebuilt his career, eventually making his way back to prominence with a 1981 performance at New York's Central Park before 20,000 people and a 1982 Grammy nomination with the jazz act the Crusaders for their album Standing Tall. That same year, he recorded the single "Up Where We Belong" with Jennifer Warnes, which served as the end title theme for the film "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982). The song proved to be one of the biggest hits of Cocker's career, reaching not only the top spot on the Billboard 100 but also netting a Grammy and Oscar for Best Original Song that year. With his career fully restarted, Cocker worked tirelessly for the better part of the 1980s, releasing a series of critically acclaimed if frequently low-charting albums that generated a handful of hits on the adult contemporary and mainstream rock charts, including a Top 40 cover of Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On" in 1986 and a Top 20 take on Ray Charles' "Unchain My Heart," from the Grammy-nominated 1987 album of the same name.
In 1989, Cocker reached No. 52 on the U.S. albums chart with One Night of Sin, buoyed largely by the single "When the Night Comes," a Bryan Adams-Diane Warren collaboration that delivered his first U.S. Top 20 single since "Up Where We Belong." Subsequent releases returned him to prominence in the U.K., with 1994's Have a Little Faith providing him with his first ever Top 10 album in his native country. A cover of U2's "One," from his album Heart and Soul (2005), reached No. 31 on the U.S. adult contemporary charts, proving that Cocker was still a viable commercial artist in the 21st century. Two years later, his long and storied career was honored with his appointment as an Officer of the British Empire as part of Queen Elizabeth II's birthday honors. The following year, Cocker ranked 97th on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. He then continued to ward off perceptions as an "oldies" artist by teaming with producer Matt Serletic, best known for his work with Matchbox Twenty, for Hard Knocks (2010), which reached No. 2 on Billboard's European Albums chart. A follow-up collaboration with Serletic, Fire It Up, was released in 2012. Following an extended battle with lung cancer, Joe Cocker died on December 22, 2014 at his rural estate Mad Dog Ranch near Crawford, Colorado.
By Paul Gaita