British vocalist Joe Cocker, whose blues-drenched, unfettered performances made him one of the most distinctive rock singers of the late ’60s and early ’70s, died Dec. 22 in Colorado. He was 70 and had been battling lung cancer.
The Sheffield-born performer blasted onto the international music scene in 1968 with a storming interpretation of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” His spasmodic, high-voltage stage style – memorably caricatured by John Belushi on “Saturday Night Live” – instantly turned him into a top concert attraction.
At the peak of his stardom in 1969, Cocker assembled an enormous performing band, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, with musical direction by keyboardist Leon Russell. The group’s shambolic tour resulted in a two-LP live set that reached No. 2 in the U.S.; the trek was immortalized in Pierre Adidge’s 1971 film.
Cocker, whose party-hearty lifestyle became the stuff of legend in rock circles, tempered his behavior as his career progressed, and he scored a pair of notable ballad hits. “You Are So Beautiful,” rose to No. 5 in 1975. His biggest hit was his No. 1 duet with Jennifer Warnes, “Up Where We Belong,” featured in the 1982 pic “An Officer and a Gentleman”; the song won the Oscar in 1983 for best original song, and reaped a Grammy for best pop duo vocal.
Born John Robert Cocker and nicknamed Joe as a boy, Cocker broke in as a pub performer under the handle Vance Arnold. His greatest vocal influence was American R&B luminary Ray Charles, and he admired such bluesmen as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. He recorded as a soloist for Decca, prophetically covering the Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead” in 1964.
In 1966, Cocker began a long on-again-off-again partnership with keyboardist Chris Stainton, whose Grease Band would back Cocker on a number of the singer’s best-known works. However, Cocker’s first recordings for producer Denny Cordell were studio affairs: He debuted with the single “Marjorine,” and then launched into the big time with “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
That single, powered by scorching guitar work from Jimmy Page, vaulted to No. 1 in the U.K. It served as a launching pad for his American career. Cocker’s emotion-wracked performance of the song (backed by the Grease Band, with guitarist Henry McCullough, later of Paul McCartney’s Wings) was a star-making highlight of the 1969 Woodstock festival and Michael Wadleigh’s attendant film. It was later used as the theme song for the 1980s ABC comedy “The Wonder Years.”
Cocker’s first two albums for A&M Records, “With a Little Help From My Friends” (No. 35, 1969) and “Joe Cocker!” (No. 11, 1969), launched his career; a single drawn from the latter release was “Delta Lady,” penned by Oklahoman Russell. Cocker turned to the pianist to hastily assemble a band for a series of scheduled U.S. tour dates.
The big ensemble, which included vocalist Rita Coolidge, bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon (soon to be members of Eric Clapton’s Derek & the Dominoes), and saxophonist Bobby Keys (who died early this month), embarked on a legendarily dissolute series of dates. The group swiftly unraveled due to Cocker’s conflict with Russell and the singer’s escalating alcohol problems.
Cocker’s career threatened to run off the rails in the early ’70s, as he took up heroin (a habit he soon dropped); his drinking continued to escalate, and in one infamous incident he threw up on stage during a 1974 date at the Roxy in West Hollywood.
Nonetheless, his “You Are So Beautiful,” drawn from the No. 11 album “I Can Stand a Little Rain,” burnished his rep as a soulful hit-producing vocalist. He began to embrace sobriety during a 1976 concert tour mounted by Woodstock producer Michael Lang.
Cocker’s triumph with “Up Where We Belong” was prefaced by a Grammy-nominated 1982 performance of “I’m So Glad I’m Standing Here Today” with jazz unit the Crusaders.
In later years, hits eluded Cocker – his last album to reach the charts, 2004’s “Heart & Soul,” peaked at No. 81 in the U.S. – but he remained a popular touring attraction until the end of his life. His final release, “Fire It Up,” was issued in 2012.
Here’s a clip of Cocker performing “With a Little Help From My Friends” in 2008: