British white-soul singer Joe Cocker parlayed Ray Charles–ish vocals and an eccentric stage presence into a string of late-’60s hits only to suffer from his excesses in drugs and alcohol by the mid-1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, he went from tragic figure to well-respected interpreter, and his gritty, powerful voice remains one of the most distinctive in rock & roll.
Cocker attended Sheffield Central Technical School and worked as a gas fitter for the East Midlands Gas Board. In 1959 he joined his first group, the Cavaliers, playing drums and harmonica. He moved to lead vocals in 1961, and the band changed its name to Vance Arnold (Cocker) and the Avengers. They released regional singles and toured locally with the Hollies and the Rolling Stones. Decca offered Cocker a contract in 1964, and he took a six-month leave of absence from the gas company. Cocker’s version of the Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead” (which he hated so much that he refused to sing it onstage) and an English tour opening for Manfred Mann were ignored, and he went back to his day job.
The following year Cocker and keyboardist Chris Stainton assembled the Grease Band with guitarists Henry McCullough and Alan Spenner and two other musicians. They played Motown covers in northern England pubs until 1967, when producer Denny Cordell became Cocker’s manager and persuaded him and the band to move to London. A Cocker-Stainton song, “Marjorine,” became a minor British hit, and after some exposure in London, Cocker and the Grease Band recorded With a Little Help From My Friends in 1968 with guests Jimmy Page, Steve Winwood, and others. The title track, one of many cover versions Cocker would record over his career, went to Number One in En¬gland and Number 68 in the U.S. His explosive performance of the song at Woodstock was a festival highlight, and his habit of wildly flailing his arms as he sang became as much a rock archetype as Pete Townshend’s windmill. When Cocker sang Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, the program’s producer hid him behind a group of dancers —shades of Elvis Presley and his wiggling hips.
During the U.S. tour, Cocker met Leon Russell, who wrote “Delta Lady” and coproduced Joe Cocker!, the Grease Band’s swan song. Russell also pulled together the assemblage of musicians, hangers-on, and animals for the boisterous Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour Cocker made in 1970, resulting in a Number Two live double album that yielded a pair of hits — “The Letter” (Number Seven, 1970) and “Cry Me a River” (Number 11, 1970) — and a film. But the tour left Cocker broke and ill. On a 1972 tour, with Stainton again leading the band, Cocker was often too drunk to remember lyrics and to hold down food, although material from that tour was released in 1976 as Live in L.A. Cocker toured Britain and then Australia, where he was arrested for possession of marijuana.
At the height of his troubles, Cocker had one of the biggest hits of his career, the achingly tender modern standard “You Are So Beautiful” (Number Five, 1975), written by Billy Preston. He recorded regularly throughout the ’70s, but without much success. In 1976 he sang on TV’s Saturday Night Live, with comedian John Belushi doing a deadly accurate parody behind him. Given Cocker’s state at the time, it seemed more cruel than funny.
Cocker’s career turned around in 1982. A duet with Jennifer Warnes, “Up Where We Belong,” from the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, hit Number One. Since then, several other Cocker songs have graced films, including his version of Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On” (9 1/2 Weeks, 1986) and “When the Night Comes” (An Innocent Man, 1990). The latter, a dramatic hard-rock ballad cowritten by Bryan Adams, hit Number 11 in 1990.
Cocker, who moved to Colorado in 1991, continues to record and tour — sometimes accompanied by old friend Chris Stainton — and remains a popular live attraction in Europe. His 1994 album, Have a Little Faith, hit the U.K. Top 10, and at the request of his German label he revisited several songs from his own catalogue, including “You Are So Beautiful” and “Delta Lady,” on 1996’s Don Was–produced Organic.