… and Joe Cocker. The late, leather-lunged song interpreter was my tour guide for another auditory excursion on the deck last week. It was a relatively short journey, because I have just one Cocker album: the one that put him on the map, his debut offering, “With a Little Help from My Friends.” (Although I revisited it this evening.)
“With a Little Help” is most notable for the title tune, a cover of the Lennon-McCartney tune, which is the second track on the landmark “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. As a single, it gave Cocker a 1968 No. 1 in his native United Kingdom, and a Hot 100 debut in the U.S.
It did not mark Cocker’s first chart success, though. He had already had a U.K. No. 48 earlier in the year with “Marjorine” — oddly, for an artist known best for doing covers of other peoples’ songs, a song co-written by Cocker. But more about that in a minute.
Cocker had already done his time in the music business when his first charting single came out. Born John Robert Cocker — accounts differ about how he got the nickname Joe — in 1944 in Sheffield, England, one of his early influences was the raspy-voiced American soul/rhythm and blues singer Ray Charles.
Cocker made his first public performance singing for his older brother’s skiffle group, about the time that the band that would become the Beatles was playing that English genre of music. His first group, formed when he was 16, called the Cavaliers, also did skiffle.
The band broke up, and Cocker left school to train as an apprentice gas fitter. After a year of that, he returned to performing, fronting — under the stage name Vance Arnold — a band called the Avengers. He developed an interest in American blues music, and two years later, his band opened for the Rolling Stones during their breakout year.
Cocker’s first recording contract was as a solo act, and his first studio recording was a cover of a Beatles song — with future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page sitting in as one of the session musicians. “I’ll Cry Instead” went nowhere, though, he lost his contract and then formed the Joe Cocker Blues Band, which made only one known recording.
Cocker then took another one-year hiatus from performing, returning in 1966 to form the Grease Band. That was essentially the backing band for “Marjorine” and “With a Little Help”; the latter recording also featured Page on guitar and B.J. Wilson of Procul Harum on drums. (Cocker at the time shared the same producer with PH, the Moody Blues and Georgie Fame.)
“With a Little Help” showed Cocker’s ability to select good material written by others, and to make those songs his own. There are likely more than a few people who think of “With a Little Help” as Cocker’s song. (A feeling perhaps cemented by his performance of it at Woodstock, and the use of the recording as the theme song for the nostalgic TV show The Wonder Years).
Ditto for “Feeling Alright,” the Traffic song written by Dave Mason that leads off Cocker’s debut album. And the Billy Preston-Bruce Fisher composition “You Are So Beautiful,” another big hit for Cocker.
That said, his 1969 debut album includes more songs co-written by Cocker than all but one of his other LPs. And they’re pretty good tunes: “Marjorine,” “Change in Louise” and “Sandpaper Cadillac.”
The strongest songs on the first Cocker album, though, are the covers. Even Sir Paul McCartney was wowed by Cocker’s gritty, wrenching interpretation of “With a Little Help,” which had been a bouncy, novelty-song kind of thing in the original version (in part because Ringo sang the lead).
Then there are the Mason composition, two Dylan tunes, the outstanding “I Shall Be Released” (also well-covered by the Band) and “Just Like a Woman,” and “Bye Bye Blackbird,” a popular standard dating from 1926. But perhaps my favorite is “Do I Still Figure in Your Life,” penned by skiffle-era musician Pete Dello, who seems not to have written a lot of other songs of note.
The lyric of “Do I” paints a picture of a marriage teetering on the brink: “Hey there, well I hardly even know your face/It’s got a brand new look about it/that’s hard to trace … To think I once took you for my wife/Do I still figure in your life.” It’s delivered with Cocker’s signature emotive style, with a nice piano break (seemingly uncredited on Wikipedia, although perhaps done by long-time Cocker collaborator and former Grease Band member Chris Stainton).
(Cocker not only had a very distinctive vocal style, his physical delivery on stage was demonstrative to the point of being manic. Which helped give us that great Saturday Night Live memory: John Belushi trying to out-spasmodic Cocker on “Feelin’ Alright” — but at the same time pretty much nailing the vocal.)
On subsequent albums, Cocker continued to mine the great songwriters of the 1960s and ’70s: Dylan, Lennon and McCartney (together and separately), Randy Newman, Leon Russell (including “Delta Lady,” a U.K. Top 10), John Sebastian and Jimmy Webb. He also plucked some gems from lesser-known writers — his best-selling U.S. single as a solo artist, after “You Are So Beautiful,” was a cover of the Boxtop’s “The Letter,” penned by Wayne Carson.
But after his 1972 album “Joe Cocker,” the singer-songwriter thing pretty much went away. The second of three self-titled LPs, it included five songs co-written with Stainton and one other Cocker collaboration; he got writing credit on just three cuts on the 20 studio albums that followed, up through his final effort in 2012.
That may reflect the downward spiral that Cocker’s life followed in the early ’70s and later. He became depressed and began drinking heavily during the Russell-led Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, spent two years away from recording and performing, got busted for pot in Australia, and developed a heroin addiction, which he later kicked but kept drinking too much.
After “You Are So Beautiful” and one other No. 5 in 1975, Cocker didn’t have much chart success until 1982. Then, his duet with Jennifer Warnes, “Up Where We Belong,” made No. 1 in the U.S. and the soundtrack of the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman,” and earned him a share of a Grammy.
After that, Cocker only had five charting singles, the last of those in last of those in 2004. A two-pack-a-day smoker at one time, he died in 2014 from lung cancer.
Or maybe he just worked those lungs too hard belting out the blues, and other peoples’ songs. Regardless, it’s great to go back and listen to him early in his career.