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There was a terrible disease that was visited upon the white man in the 1960s. It was deemed as deadly as cholera and as easy to catch as mono from a kiss: If a dude loved a black singer, he felt compelled, in his suburban, self-conscious, sappy way, to imitate him, to appropriate that style as his own.
As a 10-year-old listener, I was subjected to plenty of these deluded Caucasians. If you require visual evidence, watch the film Woodstock and look for the band Ten Years After. Lead singer and guitarist Alvin Lee, born in Nottingham, England, tried so hard to sound like an African American (“Gawn home, baybuh!”) that after his set he was probably dosed with antipsychotics, slapped, and told, “Yer from England, you stupid git!”
On that same bill, and in that same superb film, was a man named Joe Cocker. As, uh, animated, as he was that day — he conducted wildly with his hands and moved his frame like a Tasmanian devil — it was the voice you really noticed, rising above the visual insubordination of his writhing physique. Unlike Lee (or his demonic offspring, Blood Sweat & Tears’ David Clayton-Thomas), Cocker, for all his spastic motion, sang his r&b as though he’d borrowed Ray Charles’s voice, promising to give it back in the same condition. Cocker’s great galvanic rasp came from somewhere deep inside. And by the time it reached his vocal cords, they were so ridiculously ripped, shredded, so rent by unearthly suffering, that Ray probably didn’t care that Joe returned the voice the next day, totaled.
Cocker, one of the finest, most fully committed soul singers of the rock era, died December 21 of lung cancer at his home in Crawford, Colorado. He was 70.
Cocker was one of those rare vocalists who seemed to know what every syllable in a song meant and how to convey it so you’d get it, too. As early as the 1970s, his range was compromised from wailing and substance abuse. But even if he only hit a bit of high note, as in his classic ballad, “You Are So Beautiful,” he could make you feel more emotional than any American Idol contestant with great equipment and perfect pitch. Joe Cocker possessed something most of those clowns couldn’t purchase from Satan himself: magic.
Unlike today’s instant stars, who usually last as long as one of Joe’s sets, Cocker came up like his contemporaries: He began gigging in Sheffield clubs in the early Sixties, calling himself Vance Arnold. He started in 1964 with a cover of the Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead”, which went nowhere. It seemed that this solidly built, Ray Charles-loving professional gas fitter was looking at a similar fate. But destiny had other plans for Cocker.
In 1968 Cocker hooked up with a custom-tailored quartet called the Grease Band, led by a skinny, stringy-haired pianist named Chris Stainton. The group garnered a tad of attention with the tune “Majorine.” But what cracked it for Cocker was a mind-blowing gospel overhaul of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” that made listeners step back in awe. Cover versions of Beatles songs weren’t supposed to make the original sound like the house band at the Elks Lodge. After Cocker’s remarkable, circusy remake of Lennon-McCartney’s “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” likewise crushed the original, it was time for Cocker to tour the United States.
The Grease Band’s tour climaxed at Woodstock. You need to remember: This was the Age of Cool. Bob Dylan, the Band, Crosby, Stills, & Nash — they all thought it beneath them to so much as move any recognizable body part. (They were artists, after all.) They had forgotten that worrying about your dignity in rock ‘n’ roll was as profoundly wrong as the New York Philharmonic doing the shing-a-ling and throwing the peace sign. Cocker didn’t care about humorless propriety. He went onstage in Bethel and sang with the urgency of a man whose house was burning down, all the while shimmying, shaking, and stumbling like someone who’d just been electrocuted. In a single performance, Cocker made graceless moves and shredded vocals as beautiful as a rising sun.
New York City seemed like something of a second home to him. Or he made it feel like home to the rest of us. As a little kid, wearing my Brooks Brothers jeans and my designer work boots, I went to see Cocker’s next incarnation, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, at the Fillmore East in the spring of 1970. There were only about five fewer people onstage than there were in the audience. Led by boogie-woogie pianist Leon Russell, this band had a huge horn section, a small cadre of backup singers, great guitar players, and an actual bunch of dogs wandering the stage.
After his grand peaks, Cocker, nearly flattened by drugs and work, disappeared. His reemergence, though more low-key than his entry, was moving, and successful. He and Jennifer Warnes won a Grammy for “Up Where We Belong,” and Cocker toured and charted a hit every few years. Perhaps his biggest, which steamrolled past the subtlety and character-driven nature of the song, was a cover of Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” which Cocker turned from a perv’s lament into a carnal celebration. He later took a star turn, performing onscreen in 2007’s Beatles-centric musical Across the Universe.
And we loved him in New York.
Perry Meisel wrote in the Village Voice in 1976 that Cocker’s voice “remained thick and lustrous” as he belted out tunes at Manhattan’s late, beloved nightclub Mikell’s. In 1982, writing about Cocker’s now-classic Sheffield Steel, Jeff Nesin wrote that the album “has quickly become as dear to me as his debut, dearer perhaps.”
Anyone who saw the man, so often in the summertime sheds of yuppiedom, will attest to the fact that to the end, Cocker, who loved all the greatest r&b singers, didn’t merely do them proud every time he stepped on stage, his crazy fingers moving in a strangely balletic fashion. No, he became one of the greats he so admired. You watch: In a few years, people will be listening to some youngster in a Manhattan bar. Some un-self-conscious kid who really feels the music and has no need to impress the judges on The Voice. And from somewhere in the back, an old geezer will smile and say, “You know something? That kid sounds like Joe Cocker.”