Joe Cocker, 1944-2014

Joe Cocker looked old even when he was young, his hair thinning as he lurched across the stage. And his signature soulful voice made him sound much older than he was, too.

He died of lung cancer in Colorado today, December 22.

“Who is that guy?” we were all asking as we watched his incendiary performance on film at Woodstock with the Grease Band, his hands flailing spasmodically, his voice seeming to tear at the words to With A Little Help From My Friends.

That mesmerizing appearance proved to be his breakthrough, leading to a successful recording and concert career that had its ups and downs, depending on how he was handling his fondness for drugs and alcohol.

The Beatles hardly needed another artist to cover their songs, but Cocker was a worthy interpreter, and not only on With A Little Help. In fact, his first single was a cover of the Lennon-McCartney tune I’ll Cry Instead, and he did superb versions of She Came In Through The Bathroom Window and Something.

He became a collaborator very much in demand, peaking when he organized the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour between 1969 and 1971, featuring an all-star band of Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge, Jim Keltner and others.

He did have a tendency to get into trouble, busted for pot and then kicked out of Australia country for brawling in an Aussie bar. He shook a heroin addiction in 1973 only to continue drinking so heavily that he often threw up onstage.

He got his next big break in 1982 when he recorded Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Up Where We Belong with Jennifer Warnes. The track topped the Billboard charts, won a Grammy for best pop performance by a duo and took the Oscar that same year.

In 2008, he was named one of the top 100 singers of all time by Rolling Stone.

It was as a performer that he made the biggest impression. He played air guitar – unironically – letting his fingers twitch to every guitar note, and staggered across the stage as if the emotions in a song were sending him reeling.

We won’t see his likes again.

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