This week, an improbable rock icon died. The world lost the inimitable Joe Cocker to lung cancer, much in the same way it silenced Nat King Cole many years prior. At 70, Cocker’s trademark voice is finally still after 40-plus years of performing, although the echoes of it will resound like ripples in a pond for many years to come.
Cocker, born in blue-collar Sheffield, England, was an unlikely rock star. His erratic mannerisms and facial contortions when performing almost overshadowed his potent, raspy blues vocals. Almost. But the depth of soul in that voice, and the magnitude of emotion Cocker infused into his own songs and renditions of other people’s classics, captivated generations of fans and cemented his place in the pantheon of beloved ballad-belters.
His Grammy-winning 1983 duet with Jennifer Warnes, “Up Where We Belong” featured in the soundtrack of An Officer And A Gentleman was not only a runaway hit, but still has the power to evoke strong, fond memories thirty-one years later. There is a haunting, persistent beauty to the song.
When Cocker took the stage, people waited, entranced for what would follow. He was a masterful singer, seductively luring audiences in with soft, rough-whispered phrases and melodic mutterings, only to then lean back in the next stanza and bellow like a Viking charging into battle, giving everything he had. Like all the great rockers, he held nothing back.
Do you recall the first time you heard his Woodstock rendition of “A Little Help From My Friends”? I was transfixed when it came on the radio. The song was already hugely popular as a perky, early Beatles hit. Then Joe Cocker got hold of it, turned up the soul to 900, and transformed it into the anthem of a generation. His version literally pulsates with dramatic pauses, soaring volume then dropping to silence, and finally his howl of emotion supplanting the chorus words…..I never wanted the tune to end. Still don’t.
An extremely versatile vocalist, Joe could rock with the best of them, as the runaway train of “Feelin’ Alright” demonstrates. The exquisite polish of his soul and blues chops was artfully masked beneath the gruffness of his delivery, but every emotion came across full volume. Yet he is perhaps most loved for his soft, tender ballads, culminating in the childishly simple, yet profoundly moving “You Are So Beautiful”. When Cocker strains to barely hit that climactic, quavering high note at the end, you are hypnotically caught up in willing him to do so. The man was a master at dramatic delivery.
Joe Cocker had a special gift, one that goes beyond his musical ability. He was able to make people feel good. In a realm where frontmen are stereotypically coiffed manikins of virile sensuality, Cocker’s spastic, lion-headed visage was the antithesis. Missing also from his persona was any vestige of the spoiled prima donna attitude.
When life serves up a bruising, hard day’s night…..cuddle up with a Joe Cocker song. He’ll have you feelin’ alright in no time.
Farewell, Joe. You are so beautiful…To me.