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Joe Cocker: We'll remember the voice, those hands...
We'll remember two things most about Joe Cocker.
The voice, of course. And the hands.
The former was the instrument that made Cocker -- who died Monday, Dec. 22, at the age of 70 from lung concert one of rock era's most identifiable singers. It was a gravelly, whiskey-soaked instrument that sounded like the last thing you'd hear before they kicked everyone out of the bar at closing time, but still supple enough to render tender love songs such as "You Are So Beautiful" and the award-winning "Up Where We Belong" duet with Jennifer Warnes from "An Officer and a Gentleman."
And then there were the hands, so captivating in the "Woodstock" film and adroitly parodied by the late John Belushi. The flailing seemed random and almost spastic, but Cocker said there was a method to that madness.
"That's me playing guitar," he once explained. "That my version of air guitar, really, just playing along with the music. It gave me something to do with my hands." Then he added with a chuckle, "People didn't know what to make of it, did they?"
Fans certainly knew what to make of Cocker himself, though. Ranking No. 97 on Rolling Stone magazine`s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, his enduring body of work included hit renditions of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends" and "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," Traffic's "Feeling Alright," the Box Tops` "The Letter," the Leon Russell's "Delta Lady," Ray Charles' "Unchain My Heart" and Randy Newman`s "You Can Leave Your Hat On." He released nearly two dozen studio albums and received an Order of the British Empire (OBE) award in 2008.
He'll also be remembered as a song stylist and interpreter rather than a writer, though Cocker's distinctive, and substantial re-arrangements of others' material was as much a creative endeavor as the composing itself.
"That's probably one of the few regrets I have, but I've always been a little disappointed with my writing abilities, I guess," acknowledges Cocker, who was dogged by drug and alcohol addictions into the `80s. "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."
That said, Cocker explains that he's always looked for songs that, like "With a Little Help From My Friends," he could re-arrange into something that was his own creation.
"Oddly enough, when I first started I used to consciously listen to music wanting to do a different version of what I heard," he says. "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."
Born John Robert Cocker in Sheffield and renamed by his parents after the family's window cleaner, he was singing publicly at age 12, when he appeared with his older brother Victor's band the Headliners. Cocker quit school at 15 to form a skiffle band with his friends, in which he played drums; he wound up working for the British Gas Board while at night played in Victor's subsequent group, the Cavaliers.
Within three years, Cocker was out front singing again, adopting the name Cowboy Joe and displaying his characteristic hand motions, which he describes as "kind of my version of playing air guitar, or air piano." His first break came in 1964, when he recorded a rendition of John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "I'll Cry Instead" for Decca Records; it failed to chart, however, and Cocker worked in a variety of situations until he put together the Grease Band with keyboardist Chris Stainton -- who remains a collaborator to this day.
The Grease Band recorded Cocker's first two albums and appeared with him on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1968 and then at Woodstock the following year, where he broke through with his soulful, aching rendition of "With a Little Help From My Friends" -- which, interestingly, was inspired by visit to the outhouse at his family home..
"I used to go there and sort of meditate once in awhile," Cocker recalled. "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."
One song he almost rejected out of hand, however, was his biggest hit, "Up Where We Belong."
"I really didn't want to know it at all because I hated the demo of it," he said with a laugh, adding that Chris Blackwell, his label chief at the time, didn't like the song 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 put her parts there and we worked it out, I knew, too. I knew it was going to be a real smash."
Looking over Cocker's catalog, it's clear he favored certain writers -- including John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But when pressed he puts Randy Newman at the top of his list.
"I've done a lot of his songs," said Cocker, whose list of Newman covers beyond "You Can Leave Your Hat On" included "Sail Away" and "Guilty." "On my last album, 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.' "
Cocker's last album, "Fire It Up," came out in 2012, followed by a "Fire It Up Live" CD and DVD in 2013. His last metro area performance was Aug. 9, 2012 at the DTE Energy Music Theatre. Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who played on several cocker sessions, recalled him on Twitter as "a kind man with a one of a kind voice." Cocker, meanwhile, said he had learned to appreciate making music more as he got older.
"As I'm getting older, I feel like when I do a two-hour show, it's kind of precious," he said in 2008. "As I'm getting to the back end of my career, I feel 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 gotten older to try to keep a little healthier a little longer, so I'm gonna keep rocking, as they say, as long as I can."
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