Joe Cocker, whose unmistakable rasp and intensity made him a singular interpreter of the Beatles, R&B and songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen, died at his home in Colorado on Monday (Dec. 22) after a battle with lung cancer. He was 70.
Even with only a passel of top 10 hit singles — “Up Where We Belong,” “You Are So Beautiful” and “The Letter” — Cocker made an immediate impression in the U.S. with his passionate performance at Woodstock in August 1969 coming four months after the release of his first album. A visually arresting performer whose wild gyrations and air guitar movements were as much his signature as his intense growls, early appearances on TV shows such as Ed Sullivan and This Is Tom Jones helped established Cocker as a significant new interpreter of pop music.
Unlike many of his Woodstock-era contemporaries, Cocker was able to retain his trademark vocal style and apply it to various pop music styles over multiple decades. As the power waned in his voice, material that exposed vulnerability and tenderness became his forte, Cocker’s impeccable taste in songs never in doubt.
Cocker had only one No. 1 single, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning “Up Where We Belong” with Jennifer Warnes from the film An Officer and Gentleman in 1982. His highest-charting singles were “You Are So Beautiful,” co-written by Billy Preston, at No. 5 in 1975; “The Letter,” No. 7 in 1970; and “When the Night Comes,” No. 11 in 1989.
He would release more than 20 studio albums in his career and continue to expand the breadth of material that would become staples in his live shows: Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On”; the Ray Charles hit “Unchain My Heart”; Jimmy Cliff‘s “Many Rivers to Cross”; John Hiatt‘s “Have a Little Faith in Me”; and U2‘s “One” among them.
Born John Robert Cocker on May 20, 1944, in Sheffield, England, Cocker’s early singing days were spent in local pubs with various bands. Decca signed Cocker in 1964 and his first single, a cover of the Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead,” flopped. He returned to the music he loved as a youth — the blues — forming a group called the Grease Band with Chris Stainton in 1966, recording “Marjorine” for their first single.
With Stainton as his songwriting collaborator, keyboardist and bandleader, Cocker released two albums for A&M in 1969 that established him as the rare voice uniting contemporary folk-rock with pop material and his own blues-based rock.The first edition of the Grease Band broke up and Cocker quickly assembled a new group of musicians, among them a then-undiscovered Leon Russell for his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in 1970.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen, an elaborately packaged live album culled from that tour, was released in 1971 and became his highest-charting record, hitting No.2 on the Billboard 200. A documentary film of the tour further enhanced Cocker’s reputation as a vital new voice in rock ‘n’ roll.
That tour, which visited 48 cities, took its toll on Cocker, who struggled with depression and alcohol and returned to his hometown of Sheffield, England. His retreat from music would last nearly two years — A&M released a new single, “High Time We Went,” in the summer of 1971 that hit No. 22 on the Hot 100, and his return was with a tour rather than a record. He started with a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden before heading to Europe, recording songs for his next album, Joe Cocker, along the way. Released in late November 1972, it peaked at No. 30.
Aware of the need to have great musicians in his backing band, Cocker worked with guitarist Cornell Dupree and his band Stuff in the late 1970s; Don Was assembled an all-star roster to back him on the well-received 1996 disc Organic.
Throughout the ’70s, Cocker’s alcoholism interfered with his live performances even as he maintained a prolific pace as a recording artist. By 1980, Cocker had cleaned up and spent the decade stretching out musically, recording “You Can Leave Your Hat On” for the film 9 1/2 Weeks; recording with the jazz group the Crusaders and touring with Ronnie Lane of Faces; and recording a reggae album with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.
Cocker was one of the few Woodstock performers to return to upstate New York for the 25th-anniversary edition of the rock festival in 1994.
Cocker received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2007 for services to music. He celebrated with performances in London and Sheffield.
He is survived by his wife, Pam, of Crawford, Colo.; his brother Victor Cocker (Jennifer) of Norfolk, England; his stepdaughter, Zoey Schroeder (Jeff) of Stevenson Ranch, Calif.; and two grandchildren, Eva and Simon Schroeder.
A private memorial is planned. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Cocker Kids’ Foundation, P.O. Box 404, Crawford, Colo., 81415.