Joe Cocker, a singer possessed of the sort of rough, gritty voice that could sandpaper any song he got his hands on into a bluesy classic, has died aged 70. A Sheffield lad who grew up in the 40s, Cocker first came to fame with a cover of a Beatles song at the tail end of the Sixties, and his classic 1970 live album ‘Mad Dogs & Englishmen’ featured his versions of everything from rock and folk classics by The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen through to soul staples by Ray Charles, Sam and Dave and Otis Redding. He got heavily into drugs and booze by the the mid-70s, but the following decade he reinvented himself with high-profile hits on film soundtracks. His was a life fully lived, full of stories and legends – but no, contrary to what the ladies say in Pulp’s ‘Life, Death and Supermarkets’, he wasn’t Jarvis’ dad. Here are five songs that helped define his career:
Making his name and then blowing away Woodstock: ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’
Having knocked around the lower reaches of the charts for four years, Cocker had a number one smash single when he covered The Beatles’ ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ in 1968. The band sent him a telegram to congratulate him, and Paul McCartney would later tell him that his cover was “clearly the definitive version of the song”. No higher praise than that. The song also helped Cocker make his name in the States, when he closed his set at Woodstock with it in 1969. You can watch that version above. It’s a barnstormer.
Tupac’s favourite: ‘Woman To Woman’
Even if you don’t know ‘Woman To Woman’, you’ll recognise that intro instantly. Cocker’s 1972 track became a staple sample for hip-hop producers, and the piano hook and horns have been sampled in tracks by the likes of Kool Keith’s Ultramagnetic MCs, EPMD and later Moby, but probably most famously on Tupac and Dr Dre’s immortal ‘California Love’.
Being parodied by John Belushi: ‘Feelin’ Alright’
The great John Belushi, star of ‘Animal House’ and ‘The Blues Brothers’, was a serious Joe Cocker fan. His impression of the singer’s distinctive voice and physical tics helped make his name as a young comic and aided him in landing roles on National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live. In just the third episode of SNL, Belushi was allowed to perform his version of Cocker doing ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. The following year, Belushi and Cocker performed together, dressed identically for a run-through of ‘Feelin’ Alright’. “I always found it quite amusing,” Cocker said later, “But you have to understand I was a bit of a wreck at the time he was doing all that stuff… I thought vocally, he did quite a clever job with it.”
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The biggest American hit: ‘Up Where We Belong’
Recorded for the closing scene of the 1982 film ‘An Officer And A Gentleman’, Cocker’s duet with Jennifer Warnes gave them a platinum hit as well as earning the pair an Oscar, a Grammy, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. Not a bad haul, but more importantly it also earned them the highest honour in popular culture: being parodied in an episode of The Simpsons, as Homer carries Marge out of the power plant and calls out that he’s going to the “backseat of my car with the woman I love, and I won’t be back for ten minutes!”
The stripper’s anthem: ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’
Cocker’s second big 80s movie soundtrack hit came courtesy of 1986 drama ‘9½ Weeks’, and presumably wasn’t harmed by being indelibly linked in audiences’ minds with the sight of Kim Basinger’s striptease for Mickey Rourke. The song was originally written by Randy Newman and would later be covered again by Tom Jones for ‘The Full Monty’ – but it was Cocker’s version, full of charm, seduction and just a hint of cheek, that made it an anthem.