Joe Cocker, aged 70, has died. The most famous covers-artist in the world – the man who made his name singing the songs other people wrote – has succumbed to lung cancer. Death was always going to get him – he cheated it across his 20s and 30s. Cleaned up, got a bit healthy because he needed to and settled into working the world, touring with a sharp band always. He was a repeat visitor to New Zealand – I saw him half a dozen times, mostly because it was my job. But often because I loved a lot of his music.
Those first three albums – With A Little Help From My Friends, Joe Cocker! and Mad Dogs & Englishmen – those are the ones. They should be in any serious record collection. If he’d only done those three albums his name would have been secured – that Mad Dogs tour, the performance at Woodstock, those two things are what carved the name.
Then there was the drinking madness and shenanigans and some lost years. And then a dedicated “Comeback” – he sobered up, got serious, started living as clean as he could. And kept putting on great live shows. He never had another classic album – but you could do a lot worse than hear something like 1974’s I Can Stand A Little Rain.
Cocker was most famous for covering The Beatles – a half dozen songs of theirs, but particularly With A Little Help From My Friends, She Came In Through The Bathroom Window too. Then there were ballads by Randy Newman and Billy Preston, songs by Leon Russell, Harry Nilsson and Jimmy Webb.
We tend, so often, to rate talent due to songwriting – but Cocker was one of the great song-stylists. He made so many songs his own. Despite never writing his own hits.
Once or twice he was the greatest singer in the world. And that’s really something.
He started his career with the drunkman/spastic wild gesticulations. That had been calmed to tiny, silly little ski-jumps timed to end each song. But whether belting out one of his rock/soul classics or endearingly cracking through a tender ballad he always told (and sold) the story of the song. A wonderful performer – often in charge of one of the very best bands you could see.
R.I.P. Joe Cocker