John Robert Cocker, 20 May 1944, Sheffield, Yorkshire, England. The capricious but brilliant Cocker is felt by many to be the finest white soul singer Britain has yet produced. His rollercoaster career started in 1961 with a little-known local band the Cavaliers, who changed their name to the clumsier Vance Arnold And The Avengers and became known as a warm-up for big names such as the Hollies during the beat boom of 1963. Joe was spotted and offered a one single contract by Decca Records. This excellent record, a cover version of the Beatles Ill Cry Instead failed to sell and he was dropped. The sturdy Cocker refused to give in and formed the first Grease Band in 1966, comprising Vernon Nash (piano), Dave Memmott (drums), Frank Myles (guitar) and his future musical partner Chris Stainton (bass). After two years of solid club gigs building a reputation, they were rewarded with a recording session; however, only Cocker and Stainton were needed and the rest of the band was told to stay at home. The single Marjorine was a minor hit and Cocker and Stainton assembled a new Grease Band with Mickey Gee (guitar), Tommy Reilly (drums) and Tommy Eyre (keyboards). Once again a session was arranged; this time Gee and Reilly were banished. The resulting single took an age to record with session musicians including Jimmy Page and B.J. Wilson. The single, John Lennon and Paul McCartneys With A Little Help From My Friends, went straight to the top of the UK charts in 1968. This tour de force features one of the finest bloodcurdling screams ever to make it to record, and remains a rock classic.
The Grease Band had by now enlisted the talented guitarist Henry McCullough (b. Portstewart, Ireland; ex-Eire Apparent) who was able to copy Pages solo admirably. The band recorded their debut album with assistance from Steve Winwood and Jimmy Page and although it failed to chart in the UK it was a hit in the USA. Cocker and his band started touring America in 1969, and became huge stars through exposure on the Ed Sullivan Show and constant performing. The highlight of that year was Cockers performance at the Woodstock Festival. Few would deny that Cocker was one of the stars of the event; his astonishing delivery of With A Little Help From My Friends is captured on the film of the festival.
Cocker stayed in the USA for many months. By the end of 1969 he had a further two hits with Dave Masons Feelin Alright and Leon Russells Delta Lady, together with another solid and successful album Joe Cocker! The 70s began with the famous Mad Dogs And Englishmen tour. Over 60 concerts were played in as many days. A subsequent film and double album were released, although it was reported that Cocker was bankrupted by the whole charade. He then slid into a drink-and-drug stupor that lasted through most of the decade. Such was his stamina that he still regularly performed and continued to have hit records in America. In the UK he was largely forgotten apart form a loyal core of fans. He was deported from Australia during a 1972 tour, and was often so drunk onstage he was barely able to perform, even after throwing up in front of the audience. In the recording studio he was still able to find some magic and among the highlights of his catalogue of hits were Gregg Allmans Midnight Rider, You Are So Beautiful and Put Out The Light. His albums were patchy with only I Can Stand A Little Rain (1974) being totally satisfying.
Amazingly, Cocker survived the decade, and apart from a minor hit guesting with the Crusaders on Im So Glad Im Standing Here Today, little was heard from him until 1982. It was stated that it took two years for the alcohol to drain out of his body, but true or not, a thinner, older Cocker was seen promoting his best album for years, the critically well-received Sheffield Steel. Despite the plaudits, commercially the album was a comparative failure. Cocker had little time to worry about its dismal showing for within weeks he was back at the top of the US charts duetting with Jennifer Warnes with the soundtrack to the movie An Officer And A Gentlemen. The song Up Where We Belong also restored him to the UK singles chart in 1983 after an absence of 13 years. He celebrated it with a belated return to his home town for a memorable concert. Civilized Man was a disappointment, but three years later he released the superior Unchain My Heart. Cockers interpretation of his mentor Ray Charles classic was released as a single but was only a moderate hit.
A wiser and sober Cocker continued into the 90s with his amazing voice intact and a constitution as strong as Sheffield steel. Night Calls contained the Bryan Adams song Feels Like Forever and interesting Cocker reworkings of the Beatles Youve Got To Hide Your Love Away and Blind Faiths Cant Find My Way Home. A strong publicity campaign backed his anniversary tour in 1994; it was fortunate that the tour was accompanied by his best album in years, Have A Little Faith. It was preceded by The Simple Things and further hit singles poured forth as the album scaled the charts in most countries. A sympathetic television documentary in 1994 portrayed a shy but very together human being. He paid tribute to himself in 1996 with Organic, an album containing many remakes from his catalogue. This further emphasized his great ear for a good songwriter with covers of Billy Prestons You Are So Beautiful and John Sebastians Darlin Be Home Soon.
Cockers next two albums, Across From Midnight (1997) and No Ordinary World (1999), featured a number of lacklustre performances, and for the first time Cockers choice of other peoples material appeared flawed. He added nothing to Leonard Cohens First We Take Manhattan or the Steve Winwood / Will Jennings collaboration While You See A Chance. His first offering of the new millennium, Respect Yourself, certainly had its share of vocal moments but overall lacked the punch of real quality material. Cocker has an amazing voice that is currently in need of exercise and inspiration.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.