He was “Simply unique and it will be impossible to fill the space he leaves in our hearts, ” Barrie Marshall, the late Joe Cocker’s agent said following the announcement of his death on December 22nd.
Joe, who was born John Robert Cocker in Sheffield in 1944, was the gravelly-voiced journeyman singer who made his name in the sixties following his sensational performance of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends at the Woodstock music festival in 1969.
His appearance there, which was captured in the 1970 concert film Woodstock, established him as one of pop’s most powerful and irrepressible white soul vocalists. With his tie-dyed shirt and shaggy beard covered in sweat, Joe, then 25, pleadingly teased out the song’s verses — ‘What would you do if I sang out of tune would you stand up and walk out on me’ — and threw himself into repeated climaxes with his flailing arms and gesticulating in ways that seemed to imitate a demented baboon.
Following Woodstock he toured continuously widely and took his place as one of rock world’s most distinctive interpreter of others people’s songs — an art then going out of fashion with the rise of folk-inspired singer-songwriters and groups, like the Beatles, that wrote their own material.
In 1969 he had a top 10 hit with a cover of Leon Russell’s song Delta Lady which was written about Rita Coolidge. In the UK, his only number one was With a Little Help From My Friends and in the US his only chart topper was Up Where We Belong which he recorded as a duet with Jennifer Warnes. It featured in the film An Officer and a Gentleman and it won him his only Grammy Award.
From the early seventies he struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. “If I’d been stronger mentally, I could have turned away from temptation,” he revealed in an interview in 2013 with the Daily Mail, “But there was no rehab back in those days. Drugs were readily available, and I dived in head first. And once you get into that downward spiral, it’s hard to pull out of it. It took me years to get straight.”
Tributes were led by the two remaining member of the Beatles, Ringo Starr wrote on Twitter, “Goodbye and God bless to Joe Cocker from one of his friends.” In a statement, Paul McCartney said of ‘Friends’, “It was just mind-blowing, totally turned the song into a soul anthem, and I was forever grateful for him for having done that.”
In a recent interview with The Guardian he was asked about his mannerisms to which Joe replied, “It came with my frustration at having never played guitar or piano.” He added, “It’s just a way of trying to get feeling out. I get excited, and it all comes through my body.”
Joe released more than 20 studio albums, his most recent being 2012’s Fire It Up.
At a concert in September this year, Billy Joel called Joe, “A great singer who is not very well right now and I think he should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’m amazed that he’s not yet, but I’m throwing in my vote for Joe Cocker.”