It usually doesn't take Joe Cocker more than a simple run-through with a pianist to know if a song resonates with him.
Take his new disc, "Heart & Soul" (Next Door Records). His original idea was to put his own stamp on songs he loved from the 1960s. As ideas were tossed around, the disc wound up including songs from R.E.M. and U2 as well as Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin.
Cocker admits the idea of recording soul classics was daunting. How do you add anything to a classic like Franklin's "Chain of Fools"? Simply by putting a little of yourself in it, according to Cocker.
"I still try to give them a new integrity, although that sounds academic, or a new feel," he says. "I can usually tell if a song's going to work -- it was a bit tricky doing some of these songs, because they were so established in the first place."
"Heart & Soul" might be his first all-covers disc, but Cocker made his mark recording other people's music. The Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends" and "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window" and Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright" were among his biggest hits.
Many careers were established at Woodstock, and Cocker's was among them thanks to an incendiary version of "With a Little Help From My Friends" that established him in the states. Cocker had no idea of the gig's significance at the time.
Unlike many of the artists tied to the Woodstock festival, Cocker wasn't tightly bound to the nostalgia of the festival, which emerged only years after it took place. He continued to place hits in subsequent decades, with two of his biggest -- "Up Where We Belong," a duet with Jennifer Warnes hitting No. 1 in 1982 and "When the Night Comes" peaking at No. 11 in 1990 -- happening when other Woodstock alums were relegated to a new form of the oldies circuit.
With a vocal style that the word "intense" doesn't do justice, the 60-year-old Cocker has managed to learn how to maintain his voice while on the road promoting his album with a 45-show tour.
"I just try to lay low on show day," he says. "I've learned how to use my voice better. Over the years, I've learned how to still deliver without tearing up my throat."