Joe Cocker: Looking Back at 50 Years of Music, In His Own Words

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Photo of Joe Cocker in the 1970s.

A few years back, Joe Cocker took a minute to mull over the longview of a career that stretched back into the early 1960s. 

"You know, now that I'm getting older, when I do a two-hour show I feel it's kind of precious," he said. "As I'm getting to the back end of my career, I feel like there's something special each time, just going out and doing a show. I never really looked after myself when I was young, but I've been lucky enough to have caught on to stuff as I've got older to try to keep a little healthier.

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"So I'm gonna keep rockin', as they say, as long as I can."

Cocker stopped rocking on Monday, when he died at the age of 70 after a battle with lung cancer. The well-deserved tributes are coming fast and furious from colleagues, fans, and anybody who had any sort of connection to Cocker's distinctive voice and unique performance style. But let's give the man himself a minute to reflect on himself, as culled from years of interviews.

He felt bad about not doing more songwriting...

"That's probably one of the few regrets I have, but I've always been a little disappointed with my writing abilities, I guess. I never thought I contributed enough. Maybe if I'd have started earlier...But the fact is I've never played piano well enough to write tunes, and I never took up guitar when I was a kid. So I've written some stuff -- Chris Stainton and I did 'High Time We Went' -- but I've always needed to rely on other people, basically, to put songs in front of me."

But he did approach song interpretation like songwriting...

"Oddly enough, when I first started I used to consciously listen to music wanting to do a different version of what I heard. Then, as I got older, it's more or less if I can come up with any song, really, and just kind of do a different kind of arrangement on it. There's no set format to it. Usually I get a band in a studio and we'll find a good key, and then I might mess with just changing the time [signature] of it and take it from there, really. In a lot of these songs I'm not trying to top the original, 'cause you can't. I'm just trying to give them some new life."

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He never backed off the hard song choices...

"I take a lot of flack over this in Europe. The French are always like, 'Joe, why do you always do these covers, these endless covers?' and I go well, Y'know, it's something I do well. Isn't that enough?' "

He felt a particular license to cover the Beatles...

"When I talked to Paul [McCartney], he said to me, 'You know, your version of 'A Little Help...' is the definitive version.' I thought, 'Well, that's pretty cool.' But whether that gives me liberty to do them when I want, I think you still have to try to reinvent them in some way. I've had a go at a few songs of the Beatles that I won't go into now, but 'Little Help...' was such a spontaneous idea that I had that some of the others were just like covers, not re-think." 

That "spontaneous" idea actually occurred in an outhouse. Really...

"It's hard to believe, but we used to have an outdoor toilet in Sheffield when I was growing up. I used to go there and sort of meditate once in awhile. I just remember sitting in there, and I was looking for a vehicle, as we call songs sometimes, to do a waltz with. I suddenly got this concept in my mind of doing ('With a Little Help From My Friends') with a chorus of black girls. And then once we got the band together it turned into something else. I never realized it was going to become such an arrangement in the end."

Past issues aside, health became a priority later in life...

"I think the fact that I quit tobacco and I quit drinking, in some ways that made my voice probably better than it was before, even. There's a kind of spirit you have when you're young that pulls you through, no matter what. But when you get older you start to get more mindful and more focused about sticking around a while longer. 

He began to interpret his interpretations...

"When you get older you kinda digest what you've done over the years and what you lose in the high end and things. I think you develop more of a thinking mind about the way to preset your tunes. But, y'know, Dylan does 'em different every night, doesn't he? But I still like mine to sound pretty much like I recorded them, maybe just with a little bit of difference."

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His favorite songs of his own was...

"I still put 'You Are So Beautiful' out front, I think. It's very few words, but it always seems to touch a nerve. It's one of those that you look out at people and you can always see them affected by it. The opening chords just kind of ring and just remind people of something or touch a nerve with people. And it does with me.; each time I do it, it's always a little different."

His favorite writer was...

"That would be Randy Newman. I've done a lot of his songs. I did a version of his 'Every Time it Rains,' and when I first heard it I thought, 'My God, if I wrote a song I couldn't write closer to what I want to sing than that.' He'd be the artist that, if I ever did a 'Joe Cocker sings Gershwin' kind of think, it would be Cocker sings Newman.'"

He almost rejected "Up Where We Belong" off the bat...

"I really didn't want to know it at all because I hated the demo of it. [Island Records chief] Chris Blackwell didn't like it, either. It was only Stewart Levine, the producer, who convinced me it could be a hit. And by the time we finished working on it, by the time Jennifer [Warnes] put her parts there and we worked it out, I knew, too. I knew it was going to be a real smash."

He never envisioned a reunion of the Mad Dogs & Englishmen band...

"It's weird because people are always coming up with that. You've got to look at the past, and how many people have either died who were on that tour or are just incapacitated? It's not like the Eagles getting back together. You'd be trying to put something together that was a feeling, and an event. The reason that tour broke up was I fell out with Leon [Russell] and we all ended up very unhappy, so it's not like you're putting together some happy memories. I mean, why should I, at this stage of my life, want to go back into something that made me unhappy. I'm quite happy with my own band, but I know [the reunion idea] is something that won't go away." 

You probably wouldn't have caught him doing standards, either, like Rod Stewart...

"I think I'd do a blues album before I did that. I like a lot of those songs. I loved Ray Charles when he did those albums, The Genius of Ray Charles album with "Just a Thrill," "Come Rain or Come Shine," all those tunes. But Rod's reading to me is almost a little too light for where I would go. So I don't know; one day I might do a blues album, but it seems a little far off."


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