Monday, December 29, 2014

Joe Cocker Passes On

Rock and blues singer Joe Cocker died on 22 December 2014 at the age of 70. The cause was lung cancer.

Joe Cocker was born John Cocker on 20 May 1944 in Crookes, Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Accounts vary as to how he received his nickname of "Joe". He took an interest in music while still a child, being particularly influenced by skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan and R&B singer Ray Charles. It was when Mr. Cocker was only 12, that his brother Victor let him sing in his skiffle group on stage at one of their gigs. It was the first time he ever sung in public. In 1960 Joe Cocker and three friends formed his first band, The Cavaliers. Joe Cocker left school to  become an apprentice gasfitter. It was not long afterwards that The Cavaliers broke up. Using the stage name Vance Arnold, Joe Cocker would be part of the band Vance Arnold and the Avengers starting in 1961. They played local gigs around Sheffield and in 1963 supported The Rolling Stones  at Sheffield City Hall.

In 1963 Joe Cocker signed a recording contract with Decca as a solo artist under the name Vance Arnold. Fittingly enough for a singer whose best known song would be the cover of a Beatles tune, his first single was a cover of The Beatles' "I'll Cry Instead". Unfortunately the single did not sell well at all, and Decca terminated his contract in 1964. After his contract with Decca ended Mr. Cocker formed a new band, Joe Cocker's Big Blues.  Joe Cocker's Big Blues did not last long, and after their break up he took a year long break from music.

It was in 1966 that Joe Cocker and Chris Stainton to form the Grease Band. The Grease Band primarily played local gigs around Sheffield. Eventually they came to the attention of  Denny Cordell, who had produced such acts Georgie Fame, The Moody Blues, and Procol Harum. In the end Joe Cocker  recorded the single "Marjorine" as a solo artist. Denny Cordell also got Mr. Cocker a residency at the Marquee Club, where such bands as The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Yardbirds had performed. The single "Marjorine" saw some success, going to #48 on the UK singles chart.

Joe Cocker followed "Marjorine" with his cover of The Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends". The single proved to be a huge hit in the United Kingdom, going all the way to #1 there. In the United States it peaked at #68 on the Billboard Hot 100. He also released the album With a Little Help from My  Friends, which went to #29 on the UK albums chart and #35 on the US albums chart. In the wake of his cover of "With a Little Help from My Friends" Joe Cocker would see further hit singles.  "Delta Lady" went to #10 on the UK singles chart. He would do even better on the Billboard Hot 100. His cover of "The Letter" went to #7 on the Billboard chart. His single "Cry Me a River" went to #11. Until 1975 Joe Cocker regularly hit the Billboard Hot 100, with four more singles hitting the top forty. His version of "You Are So Beautiful" went to #5 in 1975. His albums also did well, with Joe Cocker! going to #11 on the Billboard albums chart and  I Can Stand a Little Rain doing the same.

During his first American tour in 1969 Joe Cocker performed at many of the major music festivals, including the Newport Rock Festival and the Denver Pop Festival. His most legendary performance was perhaps at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. Immediately afterwards he returned to England where he performed at the Isle of Wight Festival. He also appeared on shows ranging from The Joey Bishop Show to This is Tom Jones.

Joe Cocker's career declined slightly in the late Seventies and early Eighties, with his highest ranking album in the United States being 1976's Stingray. Most of his singles either failed to chart or did not peak very high in the Billboard Hot 100. It was in 1982 that his duet with Jennifer Warnes, "Up Where We Belong", became an international hit. It peaked at #7 in the UK, #1 in the U.S., #6 in Australia, and made the top twenty in some European countries. His albums sales improved towards the end of the decade, and by the Nineties he was regularly having hit singles again. The album track  "You Can Leave Your Hat On" from 1984's Civilised Man would not chart, but became a hit on FM radio and has become one of his the songs with which he is most identified. In 1989 "When the Night Comes" went to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Unchain My Heart" went to #17 in the UK in 1992. "The Simple Things" peaked at #17 in the UK in 1994.

Joe Cocker continued to record into the Naughts and the Teens, releasing five more albums, the last of which was Fire It Up in 2012. His single, "Fire It Up", peaked at #64 in the UK that same year.

Joe Cocker was utterly unique with a voice that was unlike anyone else's in rock or blues. What is more, it was a powerful voice. Joe Cocker put so much emotion into his performances that he sang as if his heart was being torn from his body. His performances were raw and filled with energy, as can be seen in his performance at Woodstock in the film of the same name. In fact, many of his cover songs were often better than the originals. It is perhaps unfortunate that "Up Where We Belong" may be his best known song outside of his cover of "With a Little Help from My Friends", as it is atypical of his performances. People would be better off listening to his version of "Unchain My Heart" or, better yet, "You Can Leave Your Hat On." That having been said, "Up Where We Belong" did restore Joe Cocker's career. And it is a career worth remembering. Few vocalists in rock or blues has as powerful a voice as Joe Cocker did. Few ever will.

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