Joe Cocker, who died on Sunday of lung cancer at the age of 70, reached a career pinnacle during eight unforgettable minutes in 1969. His performance of the Beatles’ "With A Little Help From My Friends" at Woodstock was one of the highlights of the festival.
Everything the singer had learned from Ray Charles’s records, and his native Sheffield’s pub circuit, went into alchemising Ringo Starr’s amiable version on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band into a soul-blues classic. Backed by his road-hardened Grease Band, Cocker appeared possessed by the song, roaring it with a gravel-rough voice, his hands shaking at his side, and his body spasming.
This unhinged style would become a trademark, later parodied by Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi. But that day, he was a man leaving everything he had on the stage.
Cocker “totally turned the song into a soul anthem,” its writer Sir Paul McCartney said on Monday night. “And I was forever grateful to him for doing that.” Starr, said “goodbye and God bless... from one of his friends.”
“In two years I’d come from drinking beer in Sheffield to this,” Cocker told me in 2007, recalling how he conquered the vast Woodstock crowd. “I think I was the only guy who wasn’t on acid – the band were out of their minds and didn’t tell me. I got off a helicopter and walked straight on the stage. It was very hard for the first half of the show, it was lunchtime, and there were all these people, and they were doing anything and everything but looking at the stage. Then we did “Let’s Get Stoned”, the old Ray Charles number. That’s why our clip in the movie stood up, because by the time we did “With a Little Help…”, we’d really got ‘em.”Cocker worked as a pipefitter while playing Sheffield pubs at night in the early 1960s. Briefly signed to Decca in 1965 as Vance Arnold & The Avengers, his first attempt at a Beatles cover, “I’ll Cry Instead”, flopped. Under the guidance of the producer Denny Cordell, he got his second chance in 1967. “We always felt like we were very late on the scene,” he said of his place in the Sixties, “coming after so many bands. We didn’t have a hit till ’68.”
“With a Little Help From My Friends” had topped the UK charts in 1968, but the Woodstock film in 1969 propelled his US career. Burnt out by two years of fruitless touring before the festival, Cocker split the Grease Band, only to fall straight into 1970’s even more gruelling and riotous Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of the US, with Leon Russell. “I didn’t look after my health very well back then,” Cocker said. “By the time we’d done, I only weighed 150lb [10st 7lb]. We were shell-shocked.”
Cocker was debilitated first by a heroin habit, then alcoholism. Though he maintained his US chart presence until 1974, he disappeared until his unlikely hit duet with Jennifer Warnes in 1982, “Up Where We Belong”, from the film An Officer And A Gentleman. His body shivered with passion like it was still 1968 when the pair performed it on Top Of the Pops. There were other minor comebacks as Cocker pulled free of his addictions, and he was awarded an OBE in 2007.
His voice remained an instrument of soul-baring emotion, befitting a straightforwardly decent man who never lost his roots.
Edgar Berger, the chairman of Sony Music, said: “Joe Cocker is a legendary artist of rock and blues history and yet he was one of the most humble men I’ve ever met.”
Cocker is survived by his wife, Pam; brother, Victor; step-daughter and two grandchildren.