Joe Cocker, the British singer who was one of the first to popularize American soul music to the Woodstock generation, died Monday. He was 70.
The BBC reports Cocker died of an undisclosed illness in Telluride, Colorado, where he owned a ranch. According to Billboard he had been battling lung cancer in recent years.
Barrie Marshall, his London-based manager of 30 years, released a statement, calling him “a kind and humble man who loved to perform. Anyone who ever saw him live will never forget him.”
Cocker was known for his rapturous interpretations of well-known songs like “The Letter” by teenage Memphis group The Boxtops, “Feelin’ Alright” by Traffic, “Delta Lady” by Leon Russell, and, most famously, “With a Little Help From My Friends” by the Beatles. His voice channeled the raw, religious fervor of Ray Charles, who he often cited as his earliest childhood influence. Following a career-defining performance at the Woodstock festival in 1969, Cocker would become the premier song interpreter of his generation, which opened the door for all blue-eyed soul singers after him, from Michael McDonald to Hall & Oates to Billy Joel.
Like many who grew up in working-class in England at the time, John Robert Cocker embraced American rock ‘n’ roll and R&B as a boy. He changed his name to Vance Arnold and, with his band the Avengers, played rockabilly in pubs throughout Northern England and recorded singles for Decca, none of which failed to chart. A few years later Cocker relocated to London and formed the Grease Band that focused more on retuning contemporary songs through a heavier sound and creating new arrangements that made songs uniquely their own.
The Beatles were so impressed with Cocker’s breakthrough hit of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” which included future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, they agreed to allow him to record more of their songs, starting with “Something” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” both of which appeared on his second album.
On Twitter Monday, Ringo Starr posted, “goodbye and God bless to Joe Cocker from one of his friends.”
Cocker’s singing style pulsed through his body, creating an electrifying performance style in the first half of his career that was later famously parodied by John Belushi on “Saturday Night Live.” Cocker later said that even though he was encouraged by others to sue the actor, he found the parody amusing and invited Belushi to appear with him live on several occasions. He said the intense physicality of his performance came from not having an instrument to play where his energy could be channeled.
“I guess that came with my frustration at never having played piano or guitar. If you see me nowadays, I’m not quite so animated, but it’s just a way of trying to get feeling out — I get excited and it all comes through my body,” he told The Guardian in 2013.
Despite publicly acknowledging his battles with alcohol, drugs and financial debt, Cocker remained consistent in his recording output and touring throughout his life. In the U.S. he became better known as a ballad singer. He earned a 1982 Grammy and Academy Award for “Up Where We Belong,” a duet with Jennifer Warnes. Other Top 40 hits included “You Are So Beautiful” in 1975 and “You Can Leave Your Hat On” in 1986.
Mark Guarino is a local freelance writer.