Joe Cocker was born May 20, 1944, in Sheffield, England as John Robert Cocker and grew up in a working class home. Cocker quit school at the age of 16 and it looked like he would begin a career as a gas fitter for the East Midlands Gas Board. With the help of his older brother Victor he sang and played drums in two of his groups before he ended up in Vance Arnold and the Avengers. He became a featured singer for the band and opened for the Hollies and Manfred Mann before forming the early Grease Band with songwriting partner and bass player Chris Stainton. The Grease Band was named after an American jazz slang term that meant the same thing as “soul.” After two years of gigging in Northern England clubs, they recorded the Lennon/McCartney song “With a Little Help from My Friends” which reached #1 on UK radio in 1968. Then after the Beatles’ public approval of his version, it became Cocker’s theme song. This resulted in his appearance at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969 which featured him in the Academy Award-winning documentary that was released the next year.
After skyrocketing to stardom and becoming one of the best male blues rock singers in the world he formed Mad Dogs and Englishmen with Leon Russell and then plunged into the oblivion of alcohol and heroin addiction for a period. Unlike his female counterpart, Janis Joplin, he overcame his addiction and went on to have a successful career with a string of hits and performed until his death resulting from lung cancer on December 22, 2014.
Blues Rock Review lists its top 10 Joe Cocker songs.
10. “Delta Lady”
“Delta Lady” was written by Leon Russell who Cocker hooked up with after the Grease Band broke up. They formed Mad Dogs and Englishmen after the release of his second studio album titled Joe Cocker. The song itself was about Russell’s then girlfriend Rita Coolidge and is a full-blown bone crunching “cry of love” performance by Cocker. It includes a rocking out semi gospel arrangement with the background singers and Cocker doing call and response while the guitar wails.
9. “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”
Joe Cocker established himself not as a songwriter but an interpreter of songs who was able to make them so much his own that his versions were sometimes more popular than the original ones. His career took off because of his version of “A Little Help From My Friends” so why not another Beatles song. It was about an incident that took place at Paul’s house on more than one occasion when an over zealous female fan put a ladder to the house and came in though the bathroom window. It became Cocker’s highest charting single at the time when it hit the #30 spot on US radio.
8. “You Are So Beautiful”
“You Are So Beautiful” was written by Billy Preston as a tribute to his mother and he had a connection to the Beatles. Preston first connected with them in 1962 and appeared on Let It Be, the last album that they released in 1970. Cocker’s version of the song is an exploration of romantic love as was Sam Moore’s of “Sam and Dave.” It came out on the 1974 album I Couldn’t Stand the Rain and it reached number 5 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and became Cocker’s biggest solo hit on the charts.
7. “Unchain My Heart”
The Unchain My Heart album was Cocker’s 11th studio album and was released in 1987. The title song was written by Bobby Sharp and first recorded by Ray Charles in 1961 and became his signature song. The album itself produced two successful singles with the title song returning Cocker to the radio’s Top 40. A second song, “A Woman Loves a Man” was used in the film Bull Durham and then “Unchain My Heart” was used for a Miller Lite commercial.
6. “Up Where We Belong”
When Joe Cocker recorded “Up Where We Belong” in a duet with Jennifer Warnes it was for the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman. Music critics considered it a misstep for Cocker since it was a ballad and he built his career performing blues drenched rock. However, the song hit the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy Award, Academy Award, and Golden Globe Award which kick started Cocker’s career.
5. “You Can Leave Your Hat On”
Joe Cocker’s 10th studio album released in 1986 was simply named Cocker and it featured “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” The song reached the #35 spot on Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks. It was originally written by satirical humor singer/songwriter Randy Newman who wrote the song in the late 1960s but didn’t release it until 1972. Prior to Cocker’s, there were earlier versions by Etta James and “Three Dog Night” and a later one by Tom Jones but Cocker’s became the most enduring after it was used in the strip scene in 9 ½ Weeks.
4. “When the Night Comes”
“When the Night Comes” was written by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams who even appears on the album when the song became Cocker’s last Top 40 radio hit. It appeared on One Night of Sin, his 12th studio album that was released in 1989. Cocker’s gravely screaming voice is in prime shape and is coupled with amazing musicianship. Between Jeff Levine’s dexterous keyboards and Phil Grande’s amazing guitar work the song totally rocks.
3. “Feelin’ Alright”
“Feelin’ Alright” appears on With a Little Help From My Friends and was written by Dave Mason when he was a member of “Traffic” for their debut album. Traffic’s version didn’t fare too well but the version that Cocker recorded ended up making it on the charts twice. First in 1969 and then on the Billboard 100 at #33 in 1972. Cocker’s version rocked harder and was more upbeat since Mason’s version was more melancholy and his ruminations about his leaving the band.
2. “High Time We Went”
“High Time We Went” is one of the few songs that is an original composition written by Cocker and keyboardist Chris Stainton. It appeared on his 3rd album Something to Say released in 1972 and is one of those autobiographical songs about being on the road. The lyrics tell the story, “Well, it’s 5 o’clock in the morning, feel just like the end of a mule.”
1. “With A Little Help From My Friends”
Joe Cocker gathered a cult following from relentlessly touring Northern England for a couple of years. Then he recorded the Lennon/McCartney song “With A Little Help From My Friends” from the Beatles’ 1967 psychedelic rock album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was recorded with Jimmy Page on lead guitar and in November 1968 and reached #1 on the UK charts. It became his signature song after it was publicly endorsed by the Beatles themselves. He appeared at Woodstock the next year and his performance was monumental and it was captured on film for the Academy Award winning documentary.