Backstage with Joe Cocker

No Lies Radio Music – By Teri Perticone – Saturday March 14, 2020


Joe Cocker – With A Little Help From My Friends

John Robert Cocker OBE (20 May 1944 – 22 December 2014), better known as Joe Cocker, was an English singer. He was known for his gritty voice, spasmodic body movement in performance, and distinctive versions of popular songs of varying genres.[1]

Cocker’s recording of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” reached number one in the UK in 1968. He performed the song live at Woodstock in 1969 and performed the same year at the Isle of Wight Festival, and at the Party at the Palace concert in 2002 for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. His version also became the theme song for the TV series The Wonder Years. His 1974 cover of “You Are So Beautiful” reached number five in the US. Cocker was the recipient of several awards, including a 1983 Grammy Award for his US number one “Up Where We Belong”, a duet with Jennifer Warnes.

In 1993, Cocker was nominated for the Brit Award for Best British Male, in 2007 was awarded a bronze Sheffield Legends plaque in his hometown and in 2008 he received an OBE at Buckingham Palace for services to music.[2][3] Cocker was ranked number 97 on Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest singers list.[4]

Early life (1944–1960)

Cocker was born on 20 May 1944 at 38 Tasker Road, Crookes, Sheffield. He was the youngest son of a civil servant, Harold Cocker, and Madge Cocker, née Lee.[5] According to differing family stories, Cocker received his nickname of Joe either from playing a childhood game called “Cowboy Joe”, or from a local window cleaner named Joe.

Cocker’s main musical influences growing up were Ray Charles and Lonnie Donegan. Cocker’s first experience singing in public was at age 12 when his elder brother Victor invited him on stage to sing during a gig of his skiffle group. In 1960, along with three friends, Cocker formed his first group, the Cavaliers. For the group’s first performance at a youth club, they were required to pay the price of admission before entering. The Cavaliers eventually broke up after a year and Cocker left school to become an apprentice gasfitter working for the East Midlands Gas Board, later British Gas, while simultaneously pursuing a career in music.[6]

Early career (1961–1966)

In 1961, under the stage name Vance Arnold, Cocker continued his career with a new group, Vance Arnold and the Avengers.[10] The name was a combination of Vince Everett, Elvis Presley’s character in Jailhouse Rock (which Cocker misheard as Vance), and country singer Eddy Arnold.[11] The group mostly played in the pubs of Sheffield,[10] performing covers of Chuck Berry and Ray Charles songs. Cocker developed an interest in blues music and sought out recordings by John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf.[12] In 1963, they booked their first significant gig when they supported the Rolling Stones at Sheffield City Hall.[13]

In 1964, Cocker signed a recording contract as a solo act with Decca and released his first single, a cover of the Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead” (with Big Jim Sullivan and Jimmy Page playing guitars). Despite extensive promotion from Decca lauding his youth and working-class roots, the record was a flop and his recording contract with Decca lapsed at the end of 1964.[14] After Cocker recorded the single, he dropped his stage name and formed a new group, Joe Cocker’s Blues Band. There is only one known recording of Joe Cocker’s Blues Band on an EP given out by The Sheffield College during Rag Week and called Rag Goes Mad at the Mojo.[15]

The Grease Band (1966–1969)

n 1966, after a year-long hiatus from music, Cocker teamed up with Chris Stainton, whom he had met several years before, to form the Grease Band.[10] The Grease Band was named after Cocker read an interview with jazz keyboardist Jimmy Smith, where Smith positively described another musician as “having a lot of grease.” Like the Avengers, Cocker’s group mostly played in pubs in and around Sheffield. The Grease Band came to the attention of Denny Cordell, the producer of Procol Harum, the Moody Blues and Georgie Fame. Cocker recorded the single “Marjorine” without the Grease Band for Cordell in a London studio. He then moved to London with Chris Stainton, and the Grease Band was dissolved. Cordell set Cocker up with a residency at the Marquee Club in London, and a “new” Grease Band was formed with Stainton and keyboardist Tommy Eyre.[16]

After minor success in the United States with the single “Marjorine”, Cocker found commercial success with a rearrangement of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” another Beatles cover, which, many years later, was used as the opening theme for The Wonder Years.

The new touring line-up of Cocker’s Grease Band featured Henry McCullough on lead guitar, who would go on to briefly play with McCartney’s Wings. After touring the UK with the Who in autumn 1968[20] and Gene Pitney and Marmalade in early winter 1969, the Grease Band embarked on their first tour of the United States in spring 1969. Cocker’s album With a Little Help from My Friends was released soon after their arrival and made number 35 on the American charts, eventually going gold.[21]

During his United States tour, Cocker played at several large festivals, including the Newport Rock Festival and the Denver Pop Festival. In August, Denny Cordell heard about the planned concert in Woodstock, New York and convinced organiser Artie Kornfeld to book Cocker and the Grease Band for the Woodstock Festival. The group had to be flown into the festival by helicopter due to the large crowds. They performed several songs, including “Feelin’ Alright?,” “Something’s Comin’ On,” “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” “I Shall Be Released” and “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Cocker would later say that the experience was “like an eclipse … it was a very special day.”[22]


Joe Cocker – Bye Bye Blackbird

Directly after Woodstock, Cocker released his second album, Joe Cocker! Impressed by his cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” Paul McCartney and George Harrison allowed Cocker to use their songs “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” and “Something” for the album.[23] Recorded during a break in touring in the spring and summer, the album reached number 11 on the US charts and garnered a second UK hit with the Leon Russell song, “Delta Lady”.

In August 1969, Cocker performed at the Isle of Wight Festival at Wootton Bridge, Isle of Wight, England.[24] Throughout 1969 he was featured on variety TV shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and This Is Tom Jones. Onstage, he exhibited an idiosyncratic physical intensity, flailing his arms and playing air guitar. At the end of the year Cocker was unwilling to embark on another US tour, so he dissolved the Grease Band.

Mad Dogs & Englishmen (1970–1971)

Despite Cocker’s reluctance to venture out on the road again, an American tour had already been booked so he had to quickly form a new band in order to fulfill his contractual obligations. It proved to be a large group of more than 20 musicians, including pianist and bandleader Leon Russell, three drummers – Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, and Chuck Blackwell, and backing vocalists Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear. Denny Cordell christened the new band “Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” after the Noël Coward song of the same name (with its refrain, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”). Cocker’s music evolved into a more bluesy type of rock, comparable to that of the Rolling Stones.[25]

During the ensuing Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour (later described by drummer Jim Keltner as “a big, wild party”),[26] Cocker toured 48 cities, recorded a live album, and received very positive reviews from Time and Life for his performances. However, the pace of the tour was exhausting. Russell and Cocker had personal problems; Cocker became depressed and began drinking excessively as the tour wound down in May 1970. Meanwhile, he enjoyed several chart entries in the United States with cover versions of “Feelin’ Alright” (originally done by Traffic) and “Cry Me a River.”


Mad Dogs & Englishmen – Cry Me A River

His cover of the Box Tops’ hit “The Letter”, which appeared on the live album and film, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, became his first US Top Ten hit. After spending several months in Los Angeles, Cocker returned home to Sheffield where his family became increasingly concerned with his deteriorating physical and mental health. During this time, in periods between work, Cocker wrote the overture played by the UK Prime Minister Edward Heath on the occasion the Prime Minister famously conducted a live orchestra while in office.[27] In the summer of 1971, A&M Records released the single “High Time We Went.” This became a hit, reaching number 22 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, but was not issued on an album until November 1972 on the Joe Cocker album.


Joe Cocker – High Time We Went

when Cocker toured Australia, he and six members of his entourage were arrested in Adelaide for possession of marijuana.[29] The next day, in Melbourne, assault charges were laid after a brawl at the Commodore Chateau Hotel,[30] and the Australian Federal Police gave Cocker 48 hours to leave the country. This caused huge public outcry in Australia, as Cocker was a high-profile overseas artist and had a strong support base, especially amongst the baby boomers who were coming of age and able to vote for the first time. It sparked hefty debate about the use and legalisation of marijuana in Australia, and gained Cocker the nickname “the Mad Dog”.[31]

Shortly after the Australian tour, Stainton retired from his music career to establish his own recording studio. After his friend’s departure and his estrangement from his longtime producer Denny Cordell, Cocker sank into depression and began using heroin. In June 1973, he kicked the habit but continued to drink heavily.[32]

At the end of 1973, Cocker returned to the studio to record a new album, I Can Stand a Little Rain. The album, released in August 1974, was number 11 on the US charts and one single, a cover of Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful,” which reached the number 5 slot.[33] Despite positive reviews for the album, Cocker struggled with live performances, largely due to his problems with alcohol. One such instance was reported in a 1974 issue of Rolling Stone, which said that during two West Coast performances in October of that year he threw up onstage.[34]


Joe Cocker~You Are So Beautiful (Live at Montreux 1987)

In January 1975, he released a second album that had been recorded at the same time as I Can Stand a Little Rain, Jamaica Say You Will. To promote his new album, Cocker embarked on another tour of Australia, made possible by the country’s new Labor government. In late 1975, he contributed vocals on a number of the tracks on Bo Diddley’s The 20th Anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll all-star album. He also recorded a new album in a Kingston, Jamaica studio, Stingray. However, record sales were disappointing; the album reached only number 70 on the US charts.[35]

In 1976, Cocker performed “Feelin’ Alright” on Saturday Night Live. John Belushi joined him onstage doing his famous impersonation of Cocker’s stage movements. At the time, Cocker was $800,000 in debt to A&M Records and struggling with alcoholism. Several months later, he met producer Michael Lang, who agreed to manage him on the condition that he stay sober. With a new band, Cocker embarked on a tour of New Zealand, Australia and South America. He then recorded a new album with session work by Steve Gadd and Chuck Rainey, and a new, young bassist from Scotland, Rob Hartley. Hartley also toured briefly with Cocker’s friends in 1977. In the autumn of 1978, Cocker toured North America promoting his album, Luxury You Can Afford. Despite this effort, it received mixed reviews and only sold around 300,000 copies.[36]


Joe Cocker – Feelin’ Alright (Live-HQ)

In 1979, Cocker joined the “Woodstock in Europe” tour, which featured musicians like Arlo Guthrie and Richie Havens who had played at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. He also performed in New York’s Central Park to an audience of 20,000 people. The concert was recorded and released as the live album, Live in New York.[37] Cocker also toured Europe and appeared on the German television recording amphitheatre, Rockpalast, the first of many performances on the show. In 1982, Cocker recorded two songs with the jazz group the Crusaders on their album Standing Tall. One song, “I’m So Glad I’m Standing Here Today,” was nominated for a Grammy Award and Cocker performed it with the Crusaders at the awards ceremony. The Crusaders wrote this song with Cocker in mind to sing it. Cocker then released a new reggae-influenced album, Sheffield Steel, recorded with the Compass Point All Stars, produced by Chris Blackwell and Alex Sadkin.


Joe Cocker – I’m So Glad I’m Standing Here Today(The Crusaders)

Later career (1982–2014)

In 1982 Cocker recorded the duet “Up Where We Belong” with Jennifer Warnes for the soundtrack of the film An Officer and a Gentleman. The song was an international hit, reaching number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and winning a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo. The duet also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and Cocker and Warnes performed the song at the awards ceremony.


Up Where We Belong + Joe Cocker/Jennifer Warnes + Lyrics/HQ

Shortly after the incident, he released his ninth studio album, Civilized Man. His next album Cocker was dedicated to his mother, Madge, who died when he was recording in the studio with producer Terry Manning. A track from the album, “You Can Leave Your Hat On” was featured in the 1986 film 9½ Weeks. The album eventually went Platinum on the European charts.[40] His song “Love Lives On” was featured in the 1987 film Harry and the Hendersons.[41][circular reference]His 1987 album Unchain My Heart was nominated for a Grammy Award, although it did not win. One Night of Sin was also a commercial success, surpassing Unchain My Heart in sales and yielding his final Top 20 hit in the United States, “When The Night Comes”, written by Bryan Adams, Jim Vallance and Diane Warren; it would peak at number 11 in January 1990.


Joe Cocker – You Can Leave Your Hat On (LIVE in Dortmund) HD

Throughout the 1980s, Cocker continued to tour around the world, playing to large audiences in Europe, Australia and the United States.

In 1978, Cocker moved onto a ranch owned by Jane Fonda in Santa Barbara, California. Pam Baker, a local summer camp director and fan of Cocker’s music, persuaded the actress to lend the house to Cocker. Baker began dating Cocker, and they married on 11 October 1987.[59] The couple resided on the Mad Dog Ranch in Crawford, Colorado.

Cocker kept recording and touring through his later years. 2012’s Fire it up, which would turn out to be Cocker’s last studio album, was followed by an extensive tour, consisting of a US leg in 2012 and a European leg in 2013. He played 25 shows in Germany alone on the European leg of the tour, which reflects the popularity Cocker enjoyed there.[50] The full show of 22 April at Cologne’s Lanxess Arena was recorded and released on CD and DVD under the title Fire it up Live later in 2013. The last concert on the tour, which was to be Cocker’s final live performance, was at the Loreley Open Air Theatre in Sankt Goarshausen on 7 September 2013.

While performing a concert at Madison Square Garden on 17 September 2014, fellow musician Billy Joel stated that Cocker was “not very well right now” and endorsed Cocker for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before his tribute performance of “With a Little Help From My Friends”.[51]


Joe Cocker Many Rivers to Cross

Death

Cocker died from lung cancer on 22 December 2014 in Crawford, Colorado, at the age of 70.[52][53][1] He had smoked 40 cigarettes a day until he quit in 1991.[54] The two remaining living ex-Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, were among those who paid tribute to the singer, while Cocker’s agent, Barrie Marshall, said that Cocker was “without doubt the greatest rock/soul singer ever to come out of Britain”.[19]

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