The raspy blues of the inimitable Joe Cocker

There are voices in the world of rock n’ roll as quickly recognizable as one of those classic guitar riffs which peal off a Jimi Hendrix or an Eric Clapton Fender Stratocaster. Even from the first syllables we know Aretha Franklin, or Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, or Jim Morrison. It is a stellar list and a passionately contested one.[1] What is certain somewhere on this list we find the inimitable Joe Cocker, he of the spasmodic movement and of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” fame.[2] Yet he still remains underappreciated. Perhaps he is too often typeset into those images of the young and wild rocker from the 70’s who made his iconic mark with a cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help of My Friends” at Woodstock on August 17th, 1969.[3] And yet “[c]ontrary to his image”, writes Jimmy Webb, “[he was] sober for most of his life.”[4] John Robert Cocker born 1944 in Sheffield, England, passed away after a battle with lung cancer in Colorado on 22nd December 2014.[5] His body and soul were a well weathered seventy years of living. And a voice from the depths of the earth which could break you into a thousand pieces and put you back together inside the time-frame of a song. There is a broad consensus in the music world that the bluesy and raspy Cocker was “without doubt the greatest rock/soul singer ever to come out of Britain.”[6] It is not surprising that one of his great musical influences was the pioneer of soul music himself, “The Genius” Ray Charles.[7]

There is a wonderful moment in time captured on video where a noticeably emotional Joe Cocker shares the stage with his boyhood hero to deliciously belt out one of his signature songs, Billy Preston’s and Bruce Fisher’s, You Are So Beautiful.[8]

Similarly to Joplin, his was not the most beautiful voice, but like Janis herself, it was one of the most recognizably soulful. A “soulful growl” some have called it. I came to Joe Cocker later in life but it was all the sweeter to make this discovery at a time when the great anthemic music of the 60s and 70s was disappearing. At high school like most of my mates I was into the progressive hard rock bands, soloists were not your typical “cool”.

In a characteristically relaxed interview with ZDFkultur, Joe Coker smiles: “My dad would say get a proper job.”[9]

An hour ago I was listening to Gabriel Fauré’s exquisite Requiem[10] and now I am enthralled by Cocker’s gravely sorrowing in “The Letter”. How is that possible? “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness” (Maya Angelou).

Sometimes it can be too difficult to pray, music is the only honest alternative.

Below is a selection of Joe Cocker songs which have accompanied me on various journeys. Two of my favourites are Noubliez Jamais (J. Cregan and R. Kunkel) “So dance your own dance, and never forget” and Unforgiven (M. Allen, K. Dioguardi, et al.) “As much as life seems less for living/ I still try”. Harold and Madge’s son might not have been a song writer nor learnt to play the guitar, but very few could cover a tune like he could and make it distinctively their own.