Born John Robert Cocker on May 20, 1944, in Sheffield, England. Addresses: Record company--NewDoor Records, Universal Music Enterprises, a Division of UMG Recordings, Inc., 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404. Website--Joe Cocker Official Website: http://www.cocker.com.
Powerful, raw, and full of anguish, Joe Cocker's voice is perfectly suited to sing the blues, and it was by doing so that he became well known in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Personal and professional problems rivalling those described in any blues song have plagued him over the years, and at times it seemed that his career was finished. In recent years, however, Cocker has not only returned to music, he has expanded his range and established a presence as a romantic balladeer, as a definitive interpreter of several generations of rock music's best songwriters, and as a blues and rhythm-and-blues shouter.
Born into a working-class family, Cocker studied plumbing at a trade school and worked at that profession for several years before his musical efforts began to pay off. As a teen, he was heavily influenced by the music of Ray Charles, which led him to begin playing harmonica in a local group, The Cavaliers. When The Cavaliers reorganized and became Vance Arnold and The Avengers, Cocker was transformed into the lead vocalist. In this role, he made his first recording, a 1963 version of The Beatles' "I'll Cry Instead." Soon afterwards he was offered a solo contract with British Decca, but this venture led nowhere; before long, Cocker was back to plumbing.
In 1966 he resurfaced as the leader of The Grease Band, which included Chris Stainton on keyboards, Alan Spenner on bass, Henry McCullough on guitar, and Bruce Rowlands on drums. Producer Denny Cordell signed The Grease Band to the Regal Zenophone label. Their first single, "Marjorine," was a moderate success in the United Kingdom and gave Cocker's powerful voice its first notable exposure. The Grease Band followed "Marjorine" with a slow version of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends"; it went to number one in Britain, and became a hit in the United States and many other countries. An album of the same name was recorded, featuring the likes of Jimmy Page, Albert Lee, and Steve Winwood.
The Grease Band played the United States in 1969, winding up their tour with an appearance at the now-famous Woodstock music festival. Cocker met musician and songwriter Leon Russell at the festival, and the two became fast friends. Russell penned Cocker's next hit, "Delta Lady," and supervised the recording of the album Joe Cocker!. When The Grease Band dropped out as Cocker's backup band, Russell organized a 40-day tour of the United States for his friend. More than 20 musicians were involved, including the Delanie and Bonnie Band, Rita Coolidge, and various members of Derek and the Dominoes. The "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour was a huge success, leading to a live album that went gold, and a film that made Cocker's strange, spastic stage presence as familiar as his rasping voice. Russell was propelled to major star status as a result of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." Ironically, the only major casualty of the tour was its star, Joe Cocker. By some accounts, he made only $800 from the entire event. Physically, mentally, and emotionally drained, he recorded one more song, "High Time We Went," before returning to England and retiring from performing.
By 1972 Cocker was attempting a comeback, but legal disputes, drinking, health problems, and a noticeable deterioration in his vocal prowess all plagued his efforts. He toured the United States and then Australia, where repeated arrests finally caused him to be deported. He jumped from one record company to another, and put himself in the hands of many different producers and writers, resulting in a catalog of recordings that is now considered wildly uneven. Despite all his difficulties, he persisted, and by 1975 he had climbed back into the top ten charts in the United States with the arresting ballad "You Are So Beautiful," written by Billy Preston. The rest of the decade was rocky, with albums such as Stingray and Luxury You Can Afford being largely overlooked, despite some good performances.
It wasn't until 1982 that Cocker had another significant hit. Again, it was a ballad---"Up Where We Belong," a duet with Jennifer Warnes---which gained wide exposure through its use in the popular film An Officer and a Gentleman. Thereafter, Cocker's managers seemed determined to change his image from that of a boozy bluesman into that of a gentle crooner. The change led to some moderately successful recordings, but proved puzzling and disappointing to some, such as the Stereo Review writer who complained about the "cautious and polite" renditions of "mild love songs, sung with only a trace of Cocker's famous rasp and guttural fury," that were found on the 1982 release Sheffield Steel. Other commentators were less critical, believing that a mellower style was an indication of Cocker's maturation. "A certain world-weary calm seems to have settled into his music," noted Ralph Novak in his People review of Civilized Man, "and it combines with the raggedy-edged blues that made him famous to produce a uniquely affecting sound."
For the remainder of the 1980s and into the present, Cocker's voice improved markedly from its low point in the mid-1970s, and he continued to exercise his greatest gift: that of reading meaning into others' words. "At his most inspired, Cocker is truly a masterful interpreter," stated High Fidelity writer Steven X. Rea, in a review of Sheffield Steel. "He has transformed material like the Beatles' cutesy-poo 'With a Little Help from My Friends' and the schmaltzy 'You Are So Beautiful' into ragged, soulful numbers of his own creation.... Few singers are as readily identifiable; fewer interpreters are as adept at making outside material sound like their own creation. It's good to hear Cocker in fine form again."
For the remainder of the 1980s, Cocker attempted to match the success he had realized during the first half of the decade. He covered Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On," which appeared on the soundtrack of the sexually provocative 1986 Hollywood film 9 1/2 Weeks. His cover of "Unchain My Heart" from the 1987 album of the same name reestablished him as an admirable interpreter of grittier material. The gist of the album was to pay homage to Cocker's primary vocal influence, Ray Charles, and to a large extent, Cocker succeeded in harnessing his voice to the rhythm-and-blues chestnuts selected for the recording. He also scored a hit in 1990 with the song "When the Night Comes," a title co-written by Bryan Adams. After several releases that largely went unnoticed in the 1990s, including Have a Little Faith, which featured the title song written by John Hiatt, and the Don Was-produced Organic, Cocker returned to form with his 2004 release, Heart & Soul. The album, produced by CJ Vanston, includes covers of U2's "One," Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller's "I (Who Have Nothing)," Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed," John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," and REM's "Everybody Hurts."
Throughout a career blessed with soaring heights and cursed with debilitating lows, Cocker has continuously sought out material from the best songwriters in a wide variety of genres. His renditions of such songs as Traffic's "Feelin' Alright," the Lovin' Spoonful's "Darling, Be Home Soon," Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," and the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider" are testimonials to a perfect marriage of songwriting craftsmanship and superb interpretive skills.
by Joan Goldsworthy and Bruce Walker
Joe Cocker's Career
Began musical career playing harmonica with The Cavaliers; band reorganized in the early 1960s as Vance Arnold and the Avengers, with Cocker as lead singer; leader of The Grease Band, 1966-70; toured and recorded as solo artist, 1972--.
- Selected discography
- With a Little Help from My Friends Regal Zenophone, 1969.
- Joe Cocker Regal Zenophone, 1969.
- Mad Dogs & Englishmen A&M, 1971.
- Cocker Happy Fly, 1971.
- Something to Say Cube, 1973.
- I Can Stand a Little Rain A&M, 1974.
- Jamaica Say You Will A&M, 1975.
- Stingray A&M, 1976.
- Live in L.A. Cube, 1976.
- Luxury You Can Afford Asylum, 1978.
- Platinum Collection Dakota, 1981.
- Joe Cocker Dakota, 1982.
- Space Captain Cube, 1982.
- Sheffield Steel Island, 1982.
- Civilized Man Capitol, 1984.
- Off the Record Sierra, 1984.
- Cocker Capitol, 1986.
- Unchain My Heart Capitol, 1988.
- Joe Cocker Live! Capitol, 1990.
- Night Calls Capitol, 1992.
- Have a Little Faith Epic, 1994.
- Organic 550 Music, 1996.
- Across from Midnight CMC International, 1997.
- No Ordinary World Red Ink, 2000.
- Respect Yourself Red Ink, 2002.
- Definitive Collection Festival, 2002.
- Heart & Soul NewDoor, 2005.
- Billboard, February 13, 1993; August 6, 1994; November 25, 1995.
- Entertainment Weekly, February 4, 2005.
- High Fidelity, September 1982.
- People, June 14, 1984; May 19, 1986.
- Rolling Stone, June 19, 1986.
- Stereo Review, October 1982; September 1984.
- Joe Cocker Official Website, http://www.cocker.com (May 28, 2005).