John Robert "Joe" Cocker, OBE (born 20 May 1944) is an English rock/blues singer who came to popularity in the 1960s, and is most known for his gritty voice, his idiosyncratic arm movements while performing and his cover versions of popular songs, particularly those of The Beatles. He is the recipient of several awards, including a 1983 Grammy Award for his song "Up Where We Belong", a duet which he performed with Jennifer Warnes.
Cocker was born on 20 May, 1944 at 38 Tasker Road, Crookes, Sheffield. He is the youngest son of a civil servant, Harold Cocker, and Madge Cocker. According to different family stories, Cocker received his nickname of Joe either from playing a childhood game called "Cowboy Joe" or from a neighbourhood window cleaner named Joe. Cocker's main musical influences growing up were Ray Charles and Lonnie Donegan. Cocker's first experience singing in public was at age 12 when his elder brother Victor invited him on stage to sing during a gig of his skiffle group. In 1960, along with three friends, Cocker formed his first group, the Cavaliers. For the group's first performance at a youth club, they were required to pay the price of admission before entering. The Cavaliers eventually broke up after a year and Cocker left school to become an apprentice gas fitter while he pursued a career in music.
Early career (1961-1966)
In 1961, under the stage name Vance Arnold, Cocker continued his career with a new group, Vance Arnold and the Avengers. The name was a combination of Vince Everett, Elvis Presley's character in Jailhouse Rock, (which Cocker misheard as Vance) and country singer Eddy Arnold. The group mostly played in the pubs of Sheffield, performing covers of Chuck Berry and Ray Charles songs. In 1963 they booked their first significant gig when they supported The Rolling Stones at Sheffield City Hall. In 1964 Cocker signed a recording contract as a solo act with Decca Records and released his first single, a cover of The Beatles' "I'll Cry Instead" with Jimmy Page playing backup guitar. Despite extensive promotion from Decca lauding his youth and working class roots, the record was a flop and his recording contract with Decca lapsed at the end of 1964. After Cocker recorded the single, he dropped his stage name and formed a new group, Joe Cocker's Big Blues.
The Grease Band (1966-1969)
In 1966, after a year-long hiatus from music, Cocker teamed up with Chris Stainton, who he had met several years before, to form The Grease Band. The Grease Band was named after Cocker read an interview with jazz musician Jimmy Smith, where Smith described another musician as "having a lot of grease". Like the Avengers, Cocker's group mostly played in pubs in and around Sheffield. The Grease Band came to the attention of Denny Cordell, the producer of Procol Harum, The Moody Blues and Georgie Fame. Minus the Grease Band, Cocker recorded a single for Cordell in a London studio, "Marjorine". He then moved to London with Chris Stainton and the Grease Band was dissolved. Cordell set Cocker up with a residency at The Marquee Club in London and a "new" Grease Band was formed with keyboardist Tommy Eyre and Chris Stainton.
After minor success in the U.S. with the single "Marjorine", he entered the big time with a groundbreaking rearrangement of "With a Little Help from My Friends", another Beatles cover. The recording features lead guitar from Jimmy Page, drumming by BJ Wilson, backing vocals from Sue and Sunny and Steve Winwood on piano. The single made the Top Ten on the British charts, remained there for thirteen weeks and eventually reached number one on 9 November, 1968. It also reached number 68 on the US charts.
The new touring lineup of Cocker's Grease Band featured Henry McCullough on lead guitar]; he would go on to briefly play with McCartney's Wings. After touring the UK with the Who in autumn 1968 and Gene Pitney and Marmalade in early Winter 1969, the Grease Band embarked on their first tour of the US in spring 1969. His album With A Little Help from my Friends was released soon after his arrival and made number 35 on the American charts, eventually going Gold.
Joe Cocker at Woodstock (1969)
During his US tour, Cocker played at several large festivals, including the Newport Rock Festival and the Denver Pop Festival. In August, Denny Cordell heard about the planned concert in Woodstock, New York and convinced organiser Artie Kornfeld to book Cocker and the Grease Band for the Woodstock Festival. The group had to be flown into the festival by helicopter due to the large crowds. They performed several songs, including "Delta Lady", "Something's Comin' On", "Let's Go Get Stoned", "I Shall Be Released", and "With a Little Help from My Friends", before torrential rain disrupted their set. Cocker would later say that the experience was "like an eclipse... it was a very special day."
Directly after Woodstock, Cocker released his second album, Joe Cocker!. Impressed by his cover of "With A Little Help From my Friends", Paul McCartney and George Harrison allowed Cocker to use their songs "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" and "Something" for the album. Recorded during a break in touring in the spring and summer, the album reached number 11 on the US charts and garnered a second UK hit with the Leon Russell song, "Delta Lady".
Throughout 1969 he was featured on variety TV shows like the The Ed Sullivan Show and This Is Tom Jones. Onstage, he exhibited an idiosyncratic physical intensity, flailing his arms and playing air guitar, occasionally giving superfluous cues to his band. At the end of the year Cocker was unwilling to embark on another US tour, so he dissolved the Grease Band.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1969?70)
Despite Cocker's reluctance to venture out on the road again, an American tour had already been booked so he had to quickly form a new group in order to fulfill his contractual obligations. It proved to be a large group of more than 30 players (including three drummers, backing vocalists Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear, and pianist/bandleader Leon Russell). The new group was christened "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" by Denny Cordell after the No?l Coward song of the same name. During the ensuing Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, (later described by drummer Jim Keltner as "a big, wild party") Cocker toured 48 cities, recorded a live album, and received very positive reviews from Time and Life for his performances. However, the pace of the tour was exhausting. Russell and Cocker had personal problems and Cocker became depressed and began drinking excessively as the tour wound down in May 1970. Meanwhile, he enjoyed several chart entries in the U.S. with "Cry Me a River" and "Feelin' Alright" by Dave Mason. His cover of the Box Tops' hit "The Letter", which appeared on the live album and film, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, became his first U.S. Top Ten hit. After spending several months in Los Angeles, Cocker returned home to Sheffield where his family became increasingly concerned with his deteriorating physical and mental health.
On the road (1972?82)
In early 1972, after nearly two years away from music, Cocker went on tour with a group that Chris Stainton had formed. He opened with a performance in Madison Square Garden which was attended by about 20,000 people. After touring the US, he embarked on a European tour where he played to large audiences in Milan and Germany. He then returned to the US for another tour in autumn 1972. During these tours the group cut the songs that would be part of his newest album, Joe Cocker. A mixture of live songs and studio recordings, the album peaked at number 30 on the US charts.
In October 1972, when Cocker toured Australia, he and six members of his entourage were arrested in Adelaide by police for possession of marijuana. The next day in Melbourne, assault charges were laid after a brawl at the Commodore Chateau Hotel, and Cocker was given 48 hours to leave the country by the Australian Federal Police. This caused huge public outcry in Australia, as Cocker was a high-profile overseas artist and had a strong support base, especially amongst the baby boomers who were coming of age and able to vote for the first time. It sparked hefty debate about the use and legalisation of marijuana in Australia and gained Cocker the nickname of "the Mad Dog". Shortly after the Australian tour, Stainton retired from his music career to establish his own recording studio. After his friend's departure and estrangement from longtime producer Denny Cordell, Cocker sank into depression and began using heroin. In June 1973 he kicked the habit, but continued to drink heavily.
At the end of 1973, Cocker returned to the studio to record a new album, I Can Stand A Little Rain. The album, released in August 1974, was number 11 on the US charts and one single, a cover of Billy Preston's You Are So Beautiful, reached the number 5 slot. Despite positive reviews for the album, Cocker struggled with live performances, largely due to his problems with alcohol. In January 1975, he released a second album that had been recorded at the same time as I Can Stand a Little Rain, Jamaica Say You Will. To promote his new album, Cocker embarked on another tour of Australia, made possible by the country's new Labour government. In late 1975, he contributed vocals on a number of the tracks on Bo Diddley's The 20th Anniversary of Rock 'n' Roll all-star album. He also recorded a new album in a Kingston, Jamaica studio, Stingray. However, record sales were disappointing; the album reached only number 70 on the US charts.
In 1976, Cocker performed "Feelin' Alright" on Saturday Night Live. John Belushi joined him on stage doing his famous impersonation of Cocker's stage movements. At the time, Cocker was $800,000 in debt to A&M Records and struggling with alcoholism. Several months later, he met producer Michael Lang, who agreed to manage him on the condition that he stay sober. With a new band, Cocker embarked on a tour of New Zealand, Australia, and South America. He then recorded a new album with session work by Steve Gadd and Chuck Rainey, Luxury You Can Afford. Despite an autumn 1978 US tour to promote the album, it received mixed reviews and only sold around 300,000 copies.
In 1979, Cocker joined the "Woodstock in Europe" tour, which featured musicians like Arlo Guthrie and Richie Havens who had played at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. He also performed in New York's Central Park to an audience of 20,000 people. The concert was recorded and released as the live album, Live in New York. He also toured Europe and appeared on the German television recording ampitheathre, Rockpalast, the first of many performances on the show. In 1982, Cocker recorded a song with jazz group the Crusaders on their album Standing Tall. The song was nominated for a Grammy Award and Cocker performed it with the Crusaders at the awards ceremony. Cocker then released a new reggae-influenced album, Sheffield Steel recorded with the Compass Point All Stars, produced by Chris Blackwell and Alex Sadkin.
Later career (since 1982)
In 1982, at the behest of producer Stewart Levine, Cocker recorded the duet "Up Where We Belong" with Jennifer Warnes for the soundtrack of the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman. The song was an international hit, reaching number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and winning a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo. The duet also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song while Cocker and Warnes performed the song at the awards ceremony. Several days later, he was invited to perform "You Are So Beautiful" with Ray Charles in a television tribute to the musician. He then joined singer Ronnie Lane's 1983 tour to raise money for the London-based organisation Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis. Musicians such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Chris Stainton also participated in the tour which included a performance at Madison Square Garden. While on another tour that year, Cocker was arrested by Austrian police after refusing to perform because of inadequate sound equipment. The charges were eventually dropped and Cocker was released. Shortly after the incident, he released his ninth studio album, Civilized Man. His next album Cocker was dedicated to his mother, Madge, who died when he was recording in the studio. A track from the album, You Can Leave Your Hat On was featured in the 1986 film 9? Weeks. The album eventually went Platinum on the European charts. His 1987 album Unchain My Heart was nominated for a Grammy Award, although it did not win. One Night of Sin was also a commercial success, surpassing Unchain My Heart in sales. Throughout the 1980s, Cocker continued to tour around the world, playing to large audiences in Europe, Australia and the United States. In 1988, he performed at London's Royal Albert Hall and appeared on The Tonight Show. He also performed for President George H. W. Bush at an inauguration concert in February 1989. In 1992, his version of Bryan Adams' "Feels Like Forever" made the UK Top 40.
Cocker performing in Hallandale, Florida in 2003
Cocker performed the opening set at Woodstock '94 as one of the few alumni who played at the original Woodstock Festival in 1969. Cocker was awarded an OBE in the Queen's 2007 Birthday Honours list for services to music. To celebrate receiving his award in mid December 2007, Cocker played two concerts in London and in his home town of Sheffield.
In 2007, Cocker appeared playing minor characters in the film Across the Universe, as the lead singer on another Beatles hit, "Come Together".
In April and May 2009, Cocker conducted a mammoth North American tour in support of his latest album Hymn for My Soul. He is also planning a new studio release for 2010 that will feature a modern look at classic rhythm and blues.
In 1963, Cocker began dating Eileen Webster, also a resident of Sheffield. The couple dated intermittently for the next thirteen years, separating permanently in 1976. In 1978, Cocker moved onto a ranch owned by Jane Fonda in Santa Barbara, California. Pam Baker, a local summer camp director and fan of Cocker's music convinced the actress to rent the house to Cocker. Baker began dating Cocker and they eventually married on 11 October 1987. The couple currently reside on the Mad Dog Ranch in Crawford, Colorado.
Cocker is not related to fellow Sheffield-born musician Jarvis Cocker, despite this being a rumour (particularly in Australia, where Jarvis' father Mack Cocker was a radio DJ who allowed listeners to believe he was Cocker's brother).