joe cocker, 1944-2014

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joe cocker.

For the longest time, I thought Cry Me a River was a Joe Cocker song. More than that, I was convinced the tune my dad cherished as an Ella Fitzgerald classic was written to be played as a boozy, barrelhouse rocker with a soul-scabbed voice like Cocker’s out front. Cocker just had that way with songs.

After all, this was the Englishman that turned the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends into a psychedelic soul free-for-all at Woodstock by eschewing pop references in favor of scorched R&B. He also turned the Box Tops hit The Letter into earth rumbling soul carnival at the dawn of the ‘70s. And when Cocker turned sweet, as he did in his most prized radio hit, 1974’s You Are So Beautiful, he sounded like was on the losing end of a prizefight – bloodied, beaten up yet so soulful you could just sob.

Of course, Cocker underscored the coarse texture of his singing with a lifestyle that was equally ragged. By the mid ‘70s, you couldn’t tell if he was entranced onstage by the music he was making or simply inebriated. Unfortunately, rock bottom was played out in public when John Belushi popularized a drunken, buffoonish impersonation of him during the second season of Saturday Night Live. The comic even performed it in front of Cocker when the singer was a guest on the program in 1976. It was beyond painful to watch.

“I got on a downward spiral after You Are So Beautiful,” Cocker told me in an interview ahead of his 2000 Rupp Arena performance with Tina Turner. “I was still making music, but I just had a bad attitude about life. I used to wake up and start drinking beer at 10 in the morning. I lived in a cloud. 

“Kids in Germany and a few other places would still come to see me even when I was stoned out of my mind and forgetting the words to songs. Then it dawned on me. The realization hit that I should give these kids something back. I knew I had to give a good performance. So slowly and surely, I got better.”

That translated into an ‘80s renaissance that included Cocker’s biggest hit (1982’s Up Where We Belong), one of his best albums (1982’s Sheffield Steel) and a renewed reputation internationally as a concert performer that lasted right up until his death yesterday at age 70 from lung cancer. That also meant getting the last laugh as Cocker outlived Belushi by some 33 years.

“It fascinates people just what happened in the ’70s,” Cocker said in our interview. “To be honest, that whole period bemuses myself.”



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