rock, soul & blues

The surprising thing about Joe Cocker’s recent death might be that he made it to 70. The human body can be most resilient.

Joe Cocker, 1970
Joe Cocker, 1970

More than half his lifetime ago, the obit for Cocker was likely being held in readiness at newspapers and periodicals throughout Europe and America. The reportage, even in Rolling Stone, by 1972, gave readers the impression that Cocker was trashing his career while on the way to becoming rock’s next drug casualty. This was only three years after his triumphant appearance at Woodstock. Only two years after his electrifying Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour — and its subsequent concert film and soundtrack. The soundtrack album yielded two hit singles, Cocker’s other-worldly takes on “The Letter” and “Cry Me A River.”

Those were the days of great innovation in rock and roll, but for a brief time Cocker stood alone. He took the songs you knew by heart: standards from rock, rhythm and blues — even going as far back as the prohibition era with “Bye Bye Blackbird” — and made them his songs. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and even Ray Henderson, still around to hear a new twist on the 20s classic he wrote with Mort Dixon, had to be impressed with Cocker’s singular interpretations of their songs. Rock critic Robert Christgau, never free with praise, wrote that Cocker was “rock’s best interpreter.” For Joe Cocker, the only direction was up. Or so it seemed.

Cocker had management issues. As with many artists, he likely had more dollars coming than he actually received. And as with many performers living on the road, he felt a sense of boredom that could only be vanquished by alcohol and drugs. Or so it’s said. In the May 25, 1972 Rolling Stone, Timothy Crouse wrote of catching up with Cocker the night before a big show at Madison Square Garden. The opening night of his tour. In New York City.

Joe was drawing long deep tokes on his joint. Just one of those tokes would have sent any opera singer reeling, terrified, for the throat spray. But Joe kept on inhaling and holding his breath, and he showed no sign of remembering that his vocal chords were the band’s single most valuable asset.

After the Madison Square Garden opening, Joe would say, “I was very hoarse at the Garden. We’d been rehearsing up to the day, which I’d forgotten about.” On the eve of the opening night, he seemed to be trying very hard to forget.
Cocker’s girlfriend explained it all to Crouse, “You know, on the road, you need the booze and the drugs and what-not just to cope with all the creeps that push themselves on you.”

She had a point about all the creeps. An artist is targeted by managers managing to manage — for themselves. There are leeches pitching this and that, knowing a performer can be an easy touch. So Cocker commenced to “cope.” Crouse again caught up with Joe later on the tour, this time in Boston. The New York show was a stinker, but the performances had been picking up some since the tour opener. In a hotel room before the Boston concert, Crouse witnessed Joe getting another sort of pick-me-up.

Joe puts down his joint, poured out a neat pile of coke from a plastic pill bottle on the bed table, and took a deep snort. “Oh my, it’s fine! he crowed, “Wakes you right up.”

A curious aspect of Crouse’s story, entitled What’s Going On Here, Joe Cocker? was the judgmental tone regarding drug use in — of all places — Rolling Stone. The partaking of illicit stimulants was seldom criticized in the magazine, which counted among its subscribers a large percentage of druggies. But Crouse, author of The Boys on the Bus, sensed Cocker’s career was going down fast. His article explained why.

As a follow-up to the success of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen soundtrack, in November ’72 Cocker released a self-titled collection of live recordings and studio tracks, which mostly tasted of leftovers. There were a couple of Cocker rave-ups, however. One was his rendition of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider;” the other, “High Time We Went,” a hit from the year before. Pushed hard by pianist Chris Stainton, “High Time We Went” is a barn-burner that doesn’t let up. Cocker gave it his all in the song — hardly a serious composition, just a groove that he and Stainton put down and drove hard, akin to a long, intense jam. Cocker and Stainton performed as if their lives depended on it. Just as we expected of Joe Cocker in those days. But expectations have a way of shifting.

Again Rolling Stone, this time in Ken Emerson’s review of Cocker’s ’74 album, I Can Stand A Little Rain, shed light on the singer’s impasse. Given the title of the review, Return of the Ravaged, Emerson sure didn’t sugarcoat it, but he was spot-on with his perspective:

His voice is ravaged almost beyond belief — but this is what makes I Can Stand A Little Rain so moving.

It is a record about pain and decline, which to make its point, cruelly exposes and exploits Cocker’s damaged condition.

One example of this is “You Are So Beautiful,” a Billy Preston song which, at its end, demands that Cocker reach two high notes he doesn’t have a prayer of hitting. He stretches, struggles, quavers and fails; his failure makes the track and the listener hurt, which is precisely the record’s intended effect.

Yes, “You Are So Beautiful” was painful for many listeners, but masochists throughout America pushed the single all the way to number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Cocker’s pain was his gain, softening the blows from Emerson’s review, which also said that one cut, “I Get Mad,” “literally sounds as if Cocker is vomiting.” Emerson was most prescient. During the same month his Cocker review was on the newsstands, Cocker threw up during performances in Seattle and San Francisco. Those sad incidents would shape the image Cocker would deal with in the years to come, especially once John Belushi’s uncanny impressions were seen by millions. Here was a great artist hitting bottom. The acclaimed singer who once commanded the stage was regarded a laughing stock. Still, Cocker’s achievements of just a few years earlier would always matter; the great recordings still resonated. No doubt, that compelled Emerson, with his tough but honest review, to strike a thoughtful tone when called for:

Even the titles of the tracks reflect Cocker’s meteoric rise and fall, “Performance,” “Guilty,” “Put Out The Light,” “Don’t Forget Me.” …. The painful pertinence of the material is remarkable because it was written by so many different people (Allen Toussaint, Jimmy Webb, Harry Nilsson and others).

Amazingly, above Emerson’s review is a photo of Cocker, with a caption reading, “Cocker is far from a lost cause — but he is not the singer he once was.”

Singing was Cocker’s job; he didn’t think himself a lost cause and wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. Like a young pitcher who lost his fastball and attempts to reinvent his style and motion, even if it meant a trip to the minors, Cocker hung in there. Those who knew there was no way Cocker could summon the power he did with Mad Dogs and Englishmen hoped he could at least come up with a “High Time We Went” on occasion. As it was, such hope was soon abandoned.

Word got out that Cocker had recorded “Catfish,” Bob Dylan’s song about New York Yankees pitching great Jim “Catfish’ Hunter.” What seemed promising enough was a letdown. The low-key recording by Dylan* captured the essence of a “lazy stadium night” and imagery of what was then America’s national pastime. But Cocker swings amd misses at the fastball right in his wheelhouse. His “Catfish” has no atmosphere nor does it convey the sly humor Dylan intended. It could be that Cocker didn’t know Catfish Hunter from Peggy Fleming. The album featuring “Catfish,” Stingray, was no hit either, peaking at #70 on the US charts upon its release in spring ’76, just as Hunter was beginning what would be his last great year on the mound, displaying the endurance Joe Cocker or even Mick Jagger would envy.

But again, Cocker hung in there. His personal life improved as he continued to record albums featuring songs by the likes of Dylan, Jimmy Cliff and Randy Newman. Parke Puterbaugh of Rolling Stone, reviewing Cocker’s ’82 album, Sheffield Steel, was encouraged that Cocker was showing some of the spirit of 10-12 years back, even if the fire didn’t run as hot. It was “rockin’ chair rocking,” said Puterbaugh. Sheffield Steel peaked at 105 on the American album charts. Cocker’s old fans gave him little thought at the time. Just a distant memory, like the brown acid and skinny-dippin’ at Woodstock.

A few months after Sheffield Steel was released and quickly forgotten, Cocker hit pay dirt for the first time in more than a decade. Yielding to the gentle persuasion of producer Stewart Levine, Cocker, along with Jennifer Warnes, recorded the soppy “Up Where We Belong,” which was featured in a soppy moment of the film, An Officer And A Gentleman. “Up Where We Belong” wasn’t anything he would have played with Leon Russell and the boys at the Fillmore, but it was a huge hit. It went to number one on the pop charts, winning a Grammy and an Academy Award for best song. The song was omnipresent in the early Reagan years, just like the TV show, Family Ties, Debra Winger and Ed Meese. All one can hope was that Cocker made lots of money from the song. At one time he owed A & M Records, the label he made big money for, as much as $800,000.00. Given the ubiquity of “Up Where We Belong,” Cocker may have had a good bit left after settling his debt.

Joe Cocker, 2013 (creative commons via Wikipedia.org)
Joe Cocker, 2013

For the rest of his life, Joe Cocker, his vocal fire burning much lower, became sort of an adult contemporary pop singer. His CDs shared space on shelves with Michael McDonald, Neil Diamond and the poster boy of fallen rockers, Rod Stewart. Aesthetically, that left lots to be desired but Cocker was just glad to be among the living. To his credit, Cocker embraced life beyond the stage. He and his wife, Pam, married for 27 years, settled in at their Mad Dog Ranch in Crawford, Colorado. There Cocker was well known for contributions to the community through the Cocker Kids’ Foundation. The kids in Crawford and throughout the North Fork Valley in Delta County have needed a little help from their friends. The average household income for families in Crawford is $27,500.00 with 29.4% of the population below the poverty line.

Established in 1998, the Cocker Kids’ Foundation has succeeded due to close involvement by its namesakes and board members. According to its website, Joe and Pam Cocker “have made sure that the funds have impacted the kids who need it the most.” Since its founding, the Cocker Kids’ Foundation has funded over $1,000,000.00 to programs and grants aiding area youth under 21 in achieving their goals in the fields of education, recreation, arts and athletics. The Cocker Kids’ Foundation also honors dedicated school teachers in the region.

This generosity of spirit and deed calls to mind a chance meeting with Cocker in the late ’70s. He was in Atlanta for a concert. The promo guy from Elektra-Asylum called us at the Peaches Records and Tapes on Peachtree to say he was bringing Cocker by to say hello. Along for the ride was the great saxophonist Bobby Keyes, who, ironically, died on December 2 of last year, just 20 days before Cocker’s death. We were happy to meet Cocker. After all, he was a guy, who despite his problems in years gone by, accomplished greatness that most people can only dream of. That day Cocker was politely detached; he knew Keyes would regale us with stories about the Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and many others. Talk about a thrilled group of record store guys. Here was Keyes, who arguably played the greatest sax solo in all of rock on the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” And right beside him was his friend, Joe Cocker, who infused modern music with an inspired blend of rock, soul and blues. For just a few years, less than a decade earlier, Cocker commanded one’s attention. Learning more about life as the years passed, he was happy to share the stage.

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*Bob Dylan recorded “Catfish” in July 1975. His recording wasn’t released until 1991, when it was included on the Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3.

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Images: Joe Cocker, 1970 (public domain via Wikipedia.org) and Joe Cocker, 2013 (creative commons via Wikipedia.org)

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.