A tribute to Joe Cocker
“Joe Goes Down the Drain.”
That was the headline when Joe Cocker played Pittsburgh in 1974 with Traffic, five years after his historic and breathtaking performance at Woodstock.
The review noted that a “zombie-like Cocker grunted and groaned off-key through a performance that showed no style or emotion. At times Cocker, apparently boozed up, just didn’t know where he was or who he was.”
Rather than joining Janis and Jimi as a Woodstock casualty, Cocker, who died Dec. 22 of lung cancer at 70, was able to bounce back two years later to have a laugh at himself with Cocker parodist John Belushi on an unforgettable “Saturday Night Live” episode and live on to make nearly 20 more albums.
Cocker was a unique talent who idolized Ray Charles and, despite being a white Englishman son of a civil servant, managed to growl like a black Southern bluesman.
He started performing at age 12 and released his first single, a cover of the Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead,” on Decca in 1964 (with Jimmy Page on guitar), but he was not embraced as part of that British Invasion. It wasn’t until four years later that he topped the British charts, and cracked the U.S. charts (at No. 68) with a second Beatles cover, this one a positively scorching version of “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
Joe Cocker and the Grease Band did its first U.S. tour in the spring of 1969, timed with the release of his classic debut album named for that Beatles track. Cocker was a stylist who had a way of stealing a song out from under you, and that was the case with the album’s lead track, a cover of Dave Mason’s “Feeling Alright” that became another of his signature tunes.
Despite being one of the marginal acts on the bill, Cocker delivered one of the standout performances at the most important music festival in American history. When you think of Woodstock, one of the first images that arises is of Joe Cocker with scraggly hair and ugly tie-dye, flailing every limb while turning the Beatles’ cool, flat “With a Little Help from My Friends” into a hot, fiery tour de force.
In the immediate years after, he applied that soul-drenched formula to Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful” and The Box Tops’ “The Letter,” taking them both into the Top 20 of the charts.
On stage, he was a wild card, especially in the mid-’70s. In fact, promoter Rich Engler will never forget 1976 at Agricultural Hall in Allentown, Pa., with Cocker and Golden Earring.
“He was already gone when he went on stage,” the promoter said. “Someone in the crowd handed him a bottle of red wine, which was the worst possible thing that could have happened. He drank it and on the next song he projectile vomited. Never seen anything like it. It went out about six feet straight out and hit the audience. It was disgusting.”
The singer then removed his shirt, socks and shoes, prompting the fear of a Mad Englishman striptease.
Engler recalls the chief of police telling the promoter, “If he touches his zipper, I’m stopping the show, and you and he are going to jail.” He added, “Why would you bring something like this into Allentown?!”
Cocker’s pants stayed on and they never went to jail, but Engler knew he had a problem bringing this show to Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque the next night. According to the promoter, house manager Dorothy Steele “didn’t even like Lawrence Welk! I could never take anything like that into that facility.”
He called into the local radio station that night and announced that the show would be canceled.
Audiences were able to see Joe Cocker in much better and polished form in the ‘80s, which he began by going to the top of the charts with the Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong,” a duet with Jennifer Warnes that played during the climax of “An Officer and A Gentleman.”
“I give him a lot of credit for coming back after being down in the dumps,” Engler says.
Cocker also impressed in 2000, opening for Tina Turner on her farewell tour. The last time we saw him was 2008 in the opening slot for Steve Miller, smartly dressed in all black and, 39 years later, still bringing the house down with a 10-minute “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
“They didn’t come just to open for Miller,” I wrote of Cocker and his band. “They came to steal the show.”
Unlike the fans, Engler had the pleasure — with the exception of that night in ‘76, of course — of spending time backstage with him over the years.
“He was a great individual,” he said. “He suffered some down times and alcohol and drug problems. In the big picture he was a great performer — the epitome of rock and blues together. He really had it.”