Rock and Soul man Joe Cocker dies at age 70

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    There are some voices that have been with us for so long, whose songs are such indelible parts of the fabric of our lives that we take them for granted. Can anyone remember a time when Joe Cocker’s voice wasn’t a part of the cultural milieu? Serving as the soundtracks of movies, becoming the theme songs of TV classics, selling us some product or another, Joe Cocker just always has been, and now he’s gone. Grammy-Award winning, multiplatinum singer/songwriter Joe Cocker died of lung cancer at his home in Crawford, Colorado on December 22, 2014 at the age of 70 years old.

    There are some voices that have been with us for so long, whose songs are such indelible parts of the fabric of our lives that we take them for granted. Can anyone remember a time when Joe Cocker’s voice wasn’t a part of the cultural milieu? Serving as the soundtracks of movies, becoming the theme songs of TV classics, selling us some product or another, Joe Cocker just always has been, and now he’s gone. Grammy-Award winning, multiplatinum singer/songwriter Joe Cocker died of lung cancer at his home in Crawford, Colorado on December 22, 2014 at the age of 70 years old.

    Named one of the “Top 100 Greatest Singers of All Time” by both Rolling Stone and the UK’s Mojo magazines, it seems his hoarse, bluesy, from the gut approach to singing has just always been too. Certainly songs like “With A Little Help From My Friends,” the theme song for the ‘80s hit TV show, The Wonder Years, and “You Are So Beautiful,” one of the purest love ballads ever recorded, have become such American standards that one couldn’t imagine what life was like without them. The rock, the blues, the soul of “Unchain My Heart” is America.

    The irony is Cocker was a working class Brit of humble beginnings from Sheffield, West Riding of Yorkshire, England. A cover band man who specialized in Ray Charles, one of his idols (the other being The King of Skiffle, British pop star, Lonnie Donegan), Cocker tried his hands as the frontman for a number of bands, including the Cavaliers, Vance Arnold and the Avengers, Joe Cocker’s Big Blues, before finally settling in with the band with whom he’d record his first minor hit, “Marjorine,” The Grease Band. He entered the American consciousness as a solo artist after cutting a couple of Beatles tunes, one for Decca in 1964, “I’ll Cry Instead” under the name Vance Arnold. It flopped. The other came four years later with a rearrangement of the Beatles “With A Little Help From My Friends"  featuring Jimmy Page on lead guitar, BJ Wilson on drums, Tommy Eyre on organ, and Sue and Sunny on backing vocals. It was a Top 10 UK hit for 13 weeks, hitting #1 before its rise was done. Interestingly enough, it only reached #68 on the US charts its first time around. The gold-selling album of the same name fared a bit better, reaching #35 in the U.S.

    Cocker followed a seminal Woodstock performance with more impacting Beatles’ covers of “Something” and “She Came In Through The Window” and earned another US hit-charting album (US #11) and another UK hit single with Leon Russell’s “Delta Lady.” The Grease Band dissolved shortly thereafter. The Mad Dogs and Englishmen, lead by Leon Russell, served as Cocker’s touring band for the next few years and helped shape the more blues based sound that would become his signature. Wildly animated, sometimes uneven performances aided by heavy drinking and bouts of depression did little to stymie the tide of hits from albums like Time and Life and the live album and film Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Cocker’s first U.S. Top 10; Cocker still managed to deliver such classics as “Feelin’ Alright” (most recently used in Denzel Washington’s hit film Flight) and the Top 25 hit “High Time We Went,” from A&M Records album, Joe Cocker, in 1972. 

    A major media kerfuffle over a 1972 arrest on marijuana possession charges in Melbourne, Australia only added to his legend, earning him the name “Mad Dog” among supporters, and served as an early precursor to the marijuana legalization movement in that country. Unfortunately, marijuana was not the extent of Cocker’s drug use, and he’d gain a reputation for his decades long struggle with drugs and alcohol abuse, in addition to suffering from chronic depression, issues which would eventually come to affect his live performances and bookings. Still, far from done at his height in 1974, Cocker delivered a #11 US charter with the album I Can Stand A Little Rain and it’s iconic #5 hit, a cover of a Dennis Wilson and Billy Preston tune entitled “You Are So Beautiful.” It would prove a high water mark that wouldn’t be seen again for nearly a decade, as his next four albums tanked, many more reggae-infused than his trademark sound: Jamaica Say You Will, Stingray, Live in L.A., Space Captain—Joe Cocker Live In Concert, and Luxury You Can Afford.      
     
    It would take a 1982 soundtrack to catapult Cocker back to the top for a little Oscar Award-winning film called, An Officer and a Gentleman. Produced by Stewart Levine and recorded with Jennifer Warnes, the #1 international smash “Up Where We Belong” would go on to win both the Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo and the Academy Award for Best Original Song. The song placed Cocker back on top with more songs appearing on soundtracks, like “You Can Leave Your Hat On” in the 1986 blockbuster 9½ Weeks, and major selling, more full-bodied production albums, including: Unchain My Heart, One Night of Sin, Cocker, Civilized Man and Sheffield Steel. One of two songs recorded in 1982 with the jazz funk band, The Crusaders, “I’m So Glad I’m Standing Here Today,” would also go on to be nominated for a Grammy Award. One of the most licensed musicians around, Cocker’s 1987 cover of Bobby Sharp’s (credited to Teddy Powell) “Unchain My Heart” would be immortalized in a Miller Lite commercial for their Dalmatian campaign.

    Not one to rest on his laurels, like clockwork Cocker continued to release an album every two to three years from 1992’s Night Calls to 2012’s Fire It Up, even slipped in one last Top 40 UK hit with 1992’s “Feels Like Forever,” and still maintained a fairly impressive global touring schedule during his veteran years. Cocker was also seen at a number of tributes and commemorative events including the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II and the inauguration concert of George H.W. Bush. He also appeared in The Beatles tribute film, Across the Universe as the lead singer of “Come Together.” Other awards including an OBE and a nomination for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have followed.

    Cocker is survived by his wife of 27 years, Pam Baker. He will be missed.

    By L. Michael Gipson

     
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