Obituary: Joe Cocker OBE, musician

Joe Cocker OBE: British singer whose gravelly voice was ideally suited to the blues. Picture: Getty
Joe Cocker OBE: British singer whose gravelly voice was ideally suited to the blues. Picture: Getty
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Born: 20 May, 1944, in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Died: 22 Decembe4, 2014, in Colorado, United States, aged 70

Joe Cocker was one of the great British singers of the late 20th century, a vocalist whose gruff baritone owed as much to the legacy of the American blues style as it did the UK music explosion of the 1960s in which he first came to prominence. His career wove in and out of vogue on both sides of the Atlantic over the next five decades, yielding hits in various eras.

His first major success was the Beatles cover With a Little Help From My Friends, a UK number one in 1968, while sustained prominence in the United States throughout the 1970s hit its peak with top ten reinterpretations of The Letter and You Are So Beautiful (originally recorded by the Box Tops and Billy Preston, respectively).

He also featured alongside Jennifer Warnes on 1982’s huge international hit Up Where We Belong from the Richard Gere film An Officer and a Gentleman, and his cover of the one-time Ray Charles song Unchain My Heart was a UK hit in 1992.

Born in Sheffield in 1944 to civil servant Harold and his wife Marjorie “Madge” Cocker as John Robert Cocker, the origins of his nickname “Joe” are lost to family legend. He had one older brother Victor, whose influence was instrumental in involving him with music, although contrary to rumours he’s no relation to fellow Sheffielder Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. Jarvis’s father, however, did cultivate a rumour that he was Joe’s brother, while Jarvis’s mother claimed that Joe once fitted a gas fire in a council flat for her.

The latter isn’t unfeasible, for in his teenage years Cocker attended Sheffield Central Technical School and qualified as a gas fitter, even as he made his first forays into music. Having appeared as a singer with Victor’s skiffle band at the age of 12 (Victor would later become an economist), Cocker formed his first band the Cavaliers with some friends in 1959, originally playing drums and harmonica.

However he found multi-tasking too complicated, and when the group renamed themselves Vance Arnold and the Avengers in 1961, he was the singer (as Arnold).

By his own admission, Cocker and his friends didn’t take the group entirely seriously, being happy to play for just enough beer money to fund the night out after the show. However, they did earn enough local notoriety to win Sheffield support slots with both the Rolling Stones and the Hollies, while a recording contract for Cocker soon surfaced from the Stones’ label Decca. Despite featuring future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page doing session work, his sole single from this time – the Beatles cover I’ll Cry Instead – flopped, and Cocker reportedly disliked it so much he refused to play it live.

After briefly forming a new group named Joe Cocker’s Big Blues, he took a year off from music, returning in 1966 with the Grease Band, another group of Sheffield pub rockers. Yet as part of this project Cocker had struck up a working relationship with keyboard player and songwriter Chris Stainton, and the duo’s subsequent association with Procol Harum and Moody Blues producer Denny Cordell finally brought success.

After moving to London, the pair were sponsored in a residency at the Marquee Club by Cordell, and the single Marjorine was a minor hit.

It was 1968’s follow-up With a Little Help From My Friends that really blew Cocker’s career wide open, however. Again featuring Page on guitar, it hit number one in the UK in the year of its release and the following year provided one of the most iconic recorded moments in rock history as he performed a bellowing, impassioned version at the Woodstock festival. Whether on the live stage or on nationally broadcast television shows, both Cocker’s voice and his vivid, idiosyncratic physical performance made his reputation.

The success of his version of the song inspired a telegram of congratulations from the Beatles themselves and permission from Paul McCartney and George Harrison to use their songs Something and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window on his second album Joe Cocker! Yet a somewhat rash decision to disband the Grease Band saw him hurriedly convene a new group featuring bandleader Leon Russell and singer Rita Coolidge for the contractually obliged Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, after which debauched jaunt his newfound problems with drugs and alcohol began to go to a head.

Even as his music succeeded across America in the 1970s, Cocker’s habits saw him become something of a cautionary byword for excess, appearing onstage inebriated and even physically sick, having already been arrested in 1972 for marijuana possession in Australia.

The nadir would come on Saturday Night Live in 1976, when even powerhouse drug addict John Belushi would mock his performance, yet his recovery would begin soon after. In 1978 he met Pam Baker through their mutual acquaintance Jane Fonda, and the couple married in 1987. Cocker would credit Baker with his return from the brink of excess, and the pair remained together until his death, living on their Mad Dog ranch in Colorado.

The strongest proof of his rehabilitation and greatest commercial hit of his career was Up Where We Belong, which won the Academy, Golden Globe and Bafta awards for best song in the year of its release, as well as a Grammy for Cocker and Warnes in 1983.

Sporadic chart hits would follow on both sides of the Atlantic until the mid-1990s, while in later years he became more of an album artist: his last of more than 20 original LPs was 2012’s Fire It Up, a top 20 UK hit.

In addition to his many well-known records and live performances, Cocker’s career highs also included singing You Are So Beautiful live on television with his hero Ray Charles in 1983 and being awarded an OBE for services to music in 2008.

He died at home from lung cancer, and is survived by his wife Pam, his brother Victor, his step-daughter Zoey and her two children.