by Irene Noli
The Lion of Rock Joe Cocker he left us in December of 2014, after a life in music. We remember her voice, tender and roaring together and her enormous charisma through a series of curiosities that describe her character and her career.
The Sheffield Notes
Born in the fumes of the mines of Sheffieldin the north of EnglandJoe Cocker will never forget his city, so much so as to dedicate an album to it, ‘Sheffield Steel‘. In fact, there are not a few local children who have excelled in music: Arctic Monkeys, Human League, Def Leppard, Cabaret Voltaire and many exponents of electronic music. Also Jarvis Cocker of Pulp was born here and for a long time there has been a rumor that he was related to the other Cocker… But it’s only a fake.
First time on stage
When he was 12 years his older brother allowed him to sing with his group skiffle: homemade instruments, African American influences by blues, jazz and folk music; in fact, they already figured among the myths of that English boy Ray CharlesJohn Lee Hooker Muddy WatersHowlin ‘Wolf… This passion “imported” from America unites him to ours Fornaciari sugarof which he was the model and who formed a splendid relationship with him in the eighties, to the point that Sugar wanted to dedicate the song ‘New wonderful friend’ to him.
At just 16 in the 1960 he played in his first group, The Cavaliers: they were so immature that they had to pay them the entrance to the pub to be able to perform! They lasted only a year but had the merit of starting young Joe seriously in music: he dropped out of school and worked part-time for a gas company while trying to make ends meet with other bands.
Between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones
If real success came in 1968 with his version of ‘With a Little Help from My Friends‘ – reached #1 in England – several years earlier with another of his proto-bands he had already supported Mick Jagger and comrades. THE Beatles complimented him on the very successful cover, starting a long and beautiful friendship: after his death, Paul McCartney she said she always loved him as a musician and expressed eternal gratitude for turning ‘With A Little Help’ into a Soul anthem.
…but before Led Zeppelin
It is thanks to Joe Cocker that the general public discovered the talent of Jimmy Pagefuture guitarist of Led Zeppelin. At the time still a session musician and unknown, he played in the studio for various labels as a session man. He featured on Joe Cocker’s early hits, from ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ to ‘Sandpaper Cadillac’, from ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ to ‘Marjorine’, finally getting noticed by those who mattered.
Be the Woodstock icon
His incredible performance at what is remembered as the most important festival in the history of music gave him an almost immediate international aura. In the 1969 that wild English boy was one revelation for America and the world: the general public discovered his vocal power from ‘Something Comin’ On’ to the immortal climax of ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’.
A dangerous turn
The advent of the seventies led the singer from being a solid “beer drinker” – as he himself defined himself – to exceeding without brakes in any type of experiment: during the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, which saw him turn all the United States in less than two months with a staff of 30 musicians, ours lost all inhibitions. The continuous tensions and stress led him to ease tension by abusing drugs and alcohol, so much so that he fell into paranoia and depression: back home his own family no longer recognized him, worn out as he was in body and mind; and even his voice came out modified:
“I smoked about 40 cigarettes a day. There are parts of my falsetto that never came back. Those years took a huge toll on my body.”
More Cocker than Cocker
Unforgettable parody of John Belushi. Each episode of Saturday Night Live Show included the performance of a musical guest and when it was Cocker’s turn the great comedian launched into a perfect imitation: dressed in the same way, the same physique du rôle, the same broken moves waving his arms in the air and miming style air guitar. Joe was not offended and actually complimented him. Those jolts of excitement so typical of his early performances were actually an instinctive expression of how he felt the music flowing through his body and the frustration of not having an instrument to play on stage. However, he declared that he was never able to see each other again and that he was horrified by those convulsive movements.
Small and large screens
Speaking of actors, he contributed to almost a hundred soundtracks for cinema (from ‘The Bodyguard’ to ‘Iron Man 2’) and for TV (‘Cold case’, ‘Dr. House’, ‘On listening’…). Two of his most famous songs marked the success and entry into the collective imagination of two iconic films of the 80s: ‘Up Where We Belong‘ for ‘Officer and gentleman‘ and of course his version of ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On‘ for ‘9 1/2 weeks‘.
In the eighties – via Jane Fonda who had rented one of his Californian ranches in Santa Barbara – Cocker finally met his great love: his second wife Pamela Bakerhis longtime fan.
“It was Pam who pulled me together. She made me think positively. She made me realize that people still wanted to hear me sing and that if I wanted to, I could escape that downward spiral.”
The two never left each other and led a much healthier life to the end. Cocker ended his life next to her on another ranch, Mad Dog, Colorado. Here the dissolute vices of the seventies have given way to much more natural passions, so much so that the old lion recently enjoyed growing tomatoes and taking long walks in the countryside with his dog. A true return to the land and roots, as it should be.