Tuesday, January 6, 2015

In Memoriam: Joe Cocker

This was still a shock, when, just before Christmas, the news of Joe's passing crept into the newsfeeds. Despite the well acknowledged punishments he had put himself through, he seemed always the eternal trouper, plugging away in the background, touring occasionally, with regular recording to remind of the ragged beauty of his voice, ageing but unmistakeable. Once this man was a colossus, known to all, courtesy of three days of love and peace in upperstate New York, late 60s. Featuring in most lists of best male vocalists, whether in Rolling Stone (a lowly 97/100) or elsewhere, in my list he was up there where he belonged (sic). His critics made great play of his loss of range in latter years, but I believe most singers in his idiom would be more than satisfied by even only the slightest morsels from his larynx. I was a fan and I miss you, Joe.

Born in Steeltown, UK, Sheffield that is, at the tail end of the war, he had, unsurprisingly, had the influence of Ray Charles etched upon his teenage years, as well as of Lonnie Donegan, skiffle-meister supreme. Singing from the age of 12, he started his semi-pro career as Vance Arnold in the south Yorkshire pubs around his hometown, supporting the Rolling Stones as early as 1963, from which came his first recording contract. Dropped after a year or so, he grafted away, with a few name changes ahead of meeting up with fellow sheffield muso, Chris Stainton, to form the Grease band. For someone so well known as an interpreter of songs, his first  success, albeit minor, was with his co-write, with Stainton, Marjorine , reaching 48 in the UK charts. But his Midas moment appeared shortly thereafter, electing to cover the Ringo singalong, "With a Little Help from my Friends", transforming this arguably throw-away song into a massive soul anthem. And that was Paul McCartney's opinion rather than mine. Most people would now steam straight into theWoodstcock footage, which undeniably brought him to worldwide attention, through the film, but I recently read that the field recording on the day was apparently dodgy, and that Joe had later crept into a studio and overdubbed his entire vocal, synching every moment perfectly. (On a contrary note, there is a Live at Woodstock recording that begs to differ.........) So what, maybe, but here is my Joe, and it is back to Top of the Pops, the universal portal to pop that graced the BBC for so many years. This is one where even my mother's withering words and my father's disbelief couldn't destroy my joy:
One point consistently undermentioned in most recent eulogies has been the sheer quality and class of the musicians he surrounded himself with in his early years. A glance of my copy of his first LP reveals names such as Jimmy Page, Albert Lee, Steve Winwood, B.J. Wilson, Merry Clayton, all these alongside the exemplary Greaseband. (This record, however, has possibly the worst cover picture of possibly any in my collection, and is the visage at the head of this piece.)

As the 70s opened and my mid teens beckoned, Joe could do no wrong, his Tourette inspired flailing arms and contortions denoting the template of my then dancing style. As he moved into the rock'n'roll circus of Mad Dogs and Englishman, my fantasies of life on the road became further fuelled by tales of excesses, usually holding the image of a bra-less Rita Coolidge well to the fore. Still the sidesmen and the material was exemplary, as was his voice, though perhaps the seeds of its demise were hereby being sown, alcohol getting a hold on his well-being and depression a hold on his mind. He effectively retired for two years, before returning to the live arena in 1972, the subsequent few years marred by a dalliance with heroin and further descent into alcoholism, with the full rack of onstage drunkenness, vomiting and all. To any eye he seemed close to burn and his sales were reflecting this.

In 1976 the unexpected arose and despite major debts, he became signed to a new manager, producer Michael Lang, on the condition he remained sober, getting shakily back into his stride, garnishing a Grammy nomination along the way for his work with the Crusaders. I should also mention he also gave due credit to his wife for the turnaround in lifestyle and fortune. His next stroke of luck was his involvement with Jennifer Warnes for the film soundtrack of "An Officer and a Gentleman". Most of his existing fans may disagree, let alone those of his duet partner, but this ghastly epitome of schlock, I forget it's name (ha!), was massive and catapulted him back into the recognition both of a public who had forgotten him, or had never heard of him in the first place. This time he got the Grammy. This allowed him the recognition and the kudos to keep touring and to put out regular recordings, all bolstered by a canny intuition to continue to ally himself with film soundtracks. It's true he never managed as memorable recordings as within his early years, but the choice of material always remained top-notch, mostly with an ear to the songs and the songwriters who count, making the credits always worth a good read, sometimes pointing towards their originators as much as this consummate interpreter.

Here's a selection of my favourites:

Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

Do I Still Figure In Your Life

My Father's Son

Sail Away

Many Rivers To Cross (live)

And yes, it is still dear old Chris Stainton playing in that last clip!

What to buy? Hell, I don't know. There are a stash of Greatest Hits collections that might suit some. Personally it would be always be this , sorry only that the full majesty of the picture really needs  gatefold vinyl

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