Joe Cocker earned the respect of Ray Charles. That in itself could be the singer’s epitaph. It tells you most of what you need to know about Cocker, who died of lung cancer Monday at the age of 70.
But it doesn’t tell you everything.
To really get the full story on Cocker, one needs to take in his performance of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help from My Friends” in the “Woodstock” film; to listen to him in his pre-stardom days taking Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” straight to the most profound of churches; to have experienced the hair-raising thrill of hearing the man simply explode into the chorus of the Box Tops soul-pop gem “The Letter”; to feel the gooseflesh rising as Cocker leads the band into the defiantly sultry strut of “Feelin’ Alright.”
This is, indisputably, as close as blue-eyed soul ever got to the majesty of Charles’ game-changing 1959 rave-up “What’d I Say.” That Cocker, a Caucasian Brit, danced so close to the flame of American soul and R&B is a testament both to the depth of his soulfulness as a singer and to the transcendent properties of the greatest of great music.
Charles was Cocker’s idol, of course, and he celebrated that fact every time he stood twitching in front of the microphone stand, legs akimbo and arms flailing frantically, as if the music was eating him from the inside out.
It was almost beside the point the tunes that Cocker – who was an interpreter of songs written by others, not so much a songwriter himself – chose to cover. Whether he was tackling a standard like “Bye Bye Blackbird,” pouring himself like particularly potent bourbon into the rock glass that is the Nina Simone-associated “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” or burning up half the world’s supply of pathos during Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful,” Cocker didn’t just sing tunes – he crawled inside them, performed an exorcism, and recorded the results. He could even make lesser fare like the inherently maudlin “Up Where We Belong” sound like a paean to the indomitability of the human spirit.
I never saw Cocker during his “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” heyday, which was well before my time. By the time I caught up with him, his commercial star had largely faded, though he was still a strong concert draw. He delivered the goods on an overproduced late-’80s take on Charles’ “Unchain My Heart,” and had a hit with Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On” from the Mickey Rourke/Kim Basinger creep-fest “9½ Weeks,” and it was during this period that I first encountered the man in the concert setting. Cocker appeared to be a humble and affable person, grateful for the opportunity to sing for an appreciative audience. He looked like someone’s particularly hip and charismatic uncle until he opened his mouth and started to sing, at which point he would be transformed into a man deeply familiar with the merciless hell hounds Robert Johnson sang about.
I saw Cocker every time I had the opportunity to do so from that point forward. Though he never really showed artistic growth and continued to plow the same furrow he’d been plowing from the beginning, it didn’t matter. When the gravelly and soulful majesty of the man’s voice kicked in, it knocked me to my knees, every time.
Though he was technically an inferior singer to Ol’ Blue Eyes, Cocker was my Frank Sinatra – a singer who could melt your heart with his phrasing and inflection, and an absolute master of his domain. He didn’t have a traditionally pretty voice – he had a voice that was naturally beautiful without any makeup on. The kind of voice you could trust to tell you the truth.
That he’s not yet been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an absolute travesty. Cocker should be remembered as one of the most soulful singers in the history of rock music.