Joe Cocker was born 79 years ago today
Joe Cocker, 2013
Photo by Christoph Köstlin
Joe Cocker was born 79 years ago today.
An English rock and blues singer, Cocker came to popularity in the 1960s, and was known for his gritty voice and idiosyncratic arm movements while performing.
Born at 38 Tasker Road, Crookes, Sheffield, West Riding of Yorkshire, Cocker was the youngest son of a civil servant, Harold Cocker, and his mother, Madge. 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. His 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 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. After Cocker recorded the single, he formed a new group, Joe Cocker's Big Blues.
There is only one known recording of Joe Cocker's and Big Blues on an EP given out by Sheffield College during Rag Week and called Rag Goes Mad at the Mojo. It contained a cover of Curtis Mayfield's "I've Been Trying" and a track of "Saved."
In 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. The band was named after Cocker read an interview with jazz musician Jimmy Smith, where Smith 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.
After minor success in the U.S. with the single, "Marjorine," Cocker entered the big time with a groundbreaking rearrangement of "With A Little Help From My Friends," a Beatles cover, which, many years later, was used as the opening theme for The Wonder Years. The recording features lead guitar from Jimmy Page, drumming by BJ Wilson, backing vocals from Sue and Sunny and Tommy Eyre on organ.
The single made the Top Ten on the British charts, remaining there for 13 weeks and eventually reaching #1 on November 9, 1968. It also reached #68 on the U.S. charts. 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 and Gene Pitney and Marmalade in early winter 1969, the Grease Band embarked on their first tour of the U.S. in spring 1969. Cocker's album, With A Little Help From My Friends, was released soon after their arrival and made #35 on the American charts, eventually going gold.
During his U.S. tour, Cocker played at several large festivals, including the Newport Rock Festival and the Denver Pop Festival. In August, 1969, Denny Cordell heard about the planned concert in Woodstock, New York and convinced organizer 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 "Delta Lady," "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." 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. Recorded during a break in touring in the spring and summer, the album reached #11 on the U.S. charts and garnered a second UK hit with the Leon Russell song, "Delta Lady."
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, occasionally giving superfluous cues to his band. At the end of the year, Cocker was unwilling to embark on another U.S. tour, so he dissolved the Grease Band.
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 30 musicians, including pianist and bandleader, Leon Russell, three drummers and backing vocalists, Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear.
The new band was christened "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" by Denny Cordell after the Noël Coward song of the same name. His music at this time evolved into a more bluesy type of rock, often compared to that of the Rolling Stones.
During the ensuing Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour (later described by drummer Jim Keltner as "a big, wild party"), 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 and Cocker became depressed and began drinking excessively as the tour wound down in May, 1970.
Meanwhile, he enjoyed several chart entries in the U.S. with "Cry Me a River" and "Feelin' Alright" by Dave Mason. His cover of the Box Tops' hit, "The Letter," which appeared on the live album and film, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, became his first U.S. Top Ten hit.
While performing a concert at Madison Square Garden on September 17, 2014, fellow musician Billy Joel stated that Cocker was "not very well right now." Cocker died from lung cancer on December 22, 2014 in Crawford, Colorado.
The two living 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."
Here, Cocker performs “With A Little Help From My Friends” at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in June, 2002