When a Joe Cocker song came on the airwaves, you instantly knew it was Joe Cocker. He was known for his rasping voice, after he rose to fame with his cover of the Beatles song With a Little Help from My Friends, which went to No 1 in 1968. Cocker was “without a doubt the greatest rock/soul voice ever to come out of Britain – and remained the same man throughout his life. Hugely talented, a true star, but a kind and humble man who loved to perform. Anyone who ever saw him live will never forget him.”
Born John Robert Cocker in 1944, he was raised in Sheffield, the youngest son of a civil servant. His first foray into music was under the stage name Vance Arnold with his band Vance Arnold and the Avengers, mainly covering Chuck Berry and Ray Charles in Sheffield pubs, but the band landed their big break in 1963. They supported the Rolling Stones at Sheffield City Hall and Joe cut his first single, a cover of the Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead”, with Jim Sullivan and Jimmy Page on guitars. He soon developed an interest in blues music of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and teamed up with Chris Stainton to form the Grease Band. He then moved to London with Chris Stainton, where a new Grease Band were given a residency at the Marquee Club in London. He formed the new band with Chris Stainton and keyboardist Tommy Eyre. After minor success in the United States with the single “Marjorine”, Joe and his Grease band was propelled to pop stardom when his version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” reached No.1 in 1968. The recording features Jimmy Page on lead guitar, drumming by B. J. Wilson, backing vocals by Sue and Sunny, and Tommy Eyre on organ. Their touring line-up now featured Henry McCullough on lead guitar and they embarked on their first tour of the United States in spring 1969, which included several large festivals, including the Newport Rock Festival, the Denver Pop Festival and the Woodstock Festival 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”. Joe is also well known for his epic ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ Tour of 1970, which featured over 40 musicians which included Chris Stainton, Bobby Keys, Rita Coolidge, Leon Russell, and Chuck Blackwell. They toured 48 cities across the US, and resulted in a third gold album by the same name and a concert film. Joe carried on touring the world throughout the 70s though to the 2000s, producing hits such as “The Letter”, You Are So Beautiful”, “Woman To Woman”. In 1978 Joe moved to in Santa Barbara, California. In 1983 he won his first Grammy with ‘Up Where We Belong’, a duet with Jennifer Warnes, the theme from the 1982 film ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’. On June 3rd 2002, Joe performed “With A Little Help From My Friends” accompanied by Phil Collins on drums and guitarist Brian May at the Party at the Palace concert in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, an event in commemoration of the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II. He went onto receive an OBE in 2011 for his great contribution to music and a career in which he recorded more than 40 albums.
Paul McCartney led the tributes to the musician who had covered so many of the Beatles’ tracks in his long career, and said he was for ever grateful to Cocker for turning With a Little Help from My Friends into a soul anthem.
“It’s really sad to hear about Joe’s passing,” he said. “He was a lovely northern lad who I loved a lot and, like many people, I loved his singing. I knew him through the years as a good mate and I was so sad to hear that he had been ill and really sad to hear today that he had passed away. He was a great guy, a lovely guy who brought so much to the world and we’ll all miss him.”
The sentiment was echoed by the Beatles’ drummer, Ringo Starr, who wrote: “Goodbye and God bless to Joe Cocker from one of his friends peace and love. R.”
In a testament to Cocker’s widespread influence, other musicians from singer Ronan Keating to American rapper Lupe Fiasco and British rock band the Darkness also took to social media to pay their respects. Singer Bryan Adams said: “RIP my good friend, you were one of the best rock singers EVER.”
Road to Stardom
Cocker’s performance of With a Little Help from My Friends at the 1969 Woodstock festival in New York is still considered by many as one of the great moments in rock performance history and was later described by him as “like an eclipse”.
He released his second album, Joe Cocker!, in the same year, featuring covers of songs originally performed by artists such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Paul McCartney and George Harrison, impressed with his talent, allowed him to cover two Beatles tracks on the album.
In 1970, he embarked on a mammoth tour of America under the guise of his new band, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which included pianist Leonard Russell and singer Rita Coolidge. In line with the rock-n-roll scenes of the era performing alongside musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and releasing several successful cover songs, including his take on the Box Tops’ The Letter, which became his first US top 10 hit, Cocker began to struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, and returned to Sheffield in 1971.
Speaking years later about his experiences on tour, Cocker said: “There was no rehab back in those days. Drugs were readily available, and I dived in head first … It took me years to get straight. When I first became successful, I was a beer-drinker from Sheffield. Then I was thrown into the world of American rock.”
After almost a decade of releasing several albums that mostly received only a tepid response, Cocker married Pam, his second wife, in 1978, whom he credited with helping him escape the downward spiral. Cocker staged a successful comeback in the 1980s that saw his 1983 duet with Jennifer Warnes, Up Where We Belong, earn him a Grammy and an Academy award for best original song as the theme to the film An Officer and A Gentleman. Cocker was then nominated for a Brit award for best British male in 1993, and in 2007 he received an OBE for his contribution to music.
He continued to record albums until 2012, when his final album, Fire It Up, was released, reaching number 17 in the UK charts. He played a 20-date tour across Europe last year. His last concert was in Hammersmith in June of 2014.
Sony Music said in a statement: “John Robert Cocker, known to family, friends, his community and fans around the world as Joe Cocker, passed away on 22 December 2014 after a hard-fought battle with small-cell lung cancer … His international success as a blues/rock singer began in 1964 and continues till this day.”
Singer-songwriter and musician Peter Frampton said: “So sad to hear of Joe Cocker’s passing. You Are So Beautiful is both Joe and Nicky Hopkins piano at their very best. Gonna play it now RIP.”
Singer-songwriter Frank Turner tweeted: “Wow. Sad to hear of Joe Cocker’s passing. Incredible singer.” Irish pop star Ronan Keating wrote: “So sad to hear of Joe Cocker passing. What a brilliant and unique voice. Peace.” British comedian Ricky Gervais also paid tribute, saying: “RIP the mighty Joe Cocker.”
Sheffield Soul rocker Joe Cocker, whose career spanned almost 5 decades, died after a three year battle with small cell lung cancer on December 22, 2014.