I can still remember the first time I heard Joe Cocker sing, which is what they always say is the sign of a truly great singer or song: if you can remember the first time. I was in a "music appreciation class" (whatever the hell that is) before I even hit my teens and our teacher, who must have been having mid-life crisis pangs, subversively decided to show my confused class some grainy footage from the muddy Woodstock festival.
When I first recognized the strains of one of my favorite Beatles songs ("With a Little Help From My Friends") being reinterpreted by this unlikely -- to my young eyes -- edgy man and his absolutely unrestrained voice, my first instinct was to not want to like it. That was, until that anguished raw soul that I could nary understand as a child instantly morphed into something I would instead feel. I was a lifelong Joe fan before class ended.
But that admiration presented itself in a totally different way than I had experienced with rock bands or singer-songwriters that primarily sang their own material. Here was a fearless original and one of the only male "song interpreters" I've ever loved, cherished and respected. He brought second-nature brilliance to most every vocal he did. He could interpret a great song with the nuance and genius of a Dionne Warwick or the fierceness of a Janis Joplin, often within the same verse. No mean feat.
Joe was what some might call Sheffield Soul, as opposed to the beloved Detroit soul I grew up around that spawned everything from Stevie to Smokey. Here was a white guy from a working northern (albeit English) city and you just knew the moment he opened his mouth that he had paid his dues. He stood above and beyond the omnipresent fashion and image of his era, a true everyman who few seemed to know much of anything about, as he always let the music do the talking.
Years later, when I first heard his voice coming out of the radio on "Up Where We Belong," it was like reconnecting with an old friend. Oddly enough, it was in a film (An Officer And A Gentleman) that won an Oscar for best song -- and thank God the film's producer didn’t get his way and have the song pulled, reportedly saying "the song isn't a hit!"). Boy, was he wrong. It ended up one of the signature tunes of a bygone era -- when a song could be both messenger and ambassador for a good film.
Now, for you: please ponder back and think about your own first memories of hearing Joe sing in that gruff, hopeful and vulnerable tune, "You Are So Beautiful." One of the most compelling and addictive qualities to Joe's voice and original delivery was his raspy, angelic pipes' ability to inadvertently disarm and disorient the listener into foolishly thinking that emotional "out of reach" note he was always seemingly striving for may not get there. But he always reached.
Like a Rod Stewart minus the polish, a Steve Winwood minus the "perfect pitch," Humble Pie's Steve Marriott without the … well, actually the long-deceased Marriott was probably one of Joe's only real "peers" in terms of raw vocal instinct and genius.
The absurd possibility that the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame spent its recent years debating the induction of boy bands, whose songs are written for them by middle-aged Swedish men, while an unrecognized Joe quietly fought lung cancer, is another stark reminder that we all need to acknowledge and love those who touched us in real time.
The world may have just lost its greatest living British soul singer, and, just like Joe, sadly, that’s saying -- or singing -- something. As a matter of fact, corny as it sounds (even for a man who stock and trade was singing love songs!), if the world were to compose a thank you song to Joe, it might go, "You are so beautiful … to us."
Gregg Alexander is best known as the frontman for the New Radicals and a Grammy-winning songwriter of such hits as "You Get What You Give" and, for Carlos Santana, "The Game of Love." His most recent hit is the song “Lost Stars” from the film Begin Again.