Cocker, known for his rasping voice, rose to fame with his cover of the Beatles song With a Little Help from My Friends, which went to No 1 in 1968.
A longtime US resident, he lived on a ranch in Colorado with his second wife, Pam. His death, aged 70, was confirmed by Barrie Marshall, his agent for more than 30 years, who said Cocker was “without a doubt the greatest rock/soul voice ever to come out of Britain – and remained the same man throughout his life. Hugely talented, a true star, but a kind and humble man who loved to perform. Anyone who ever saw him live will never forget him.”
He hit number one in the U.K. in November 1968 with his version of the Beatles' "A Little Help from My Friends." His career really took off after he sang that song at Woodstock in August 1969. A second British hit came with a version of Leon Russell's "Delta Lady" in the fall of 1969 (by then, Russell was Cocker's musical director) and both of his albums, With a Little Help from My Friends (April 1969) and Joe Cocker! (November 1969), went gold in America. In 1970, his cover of the Box Tops hit "The Letter" became his first U.S. Top Ten. Cocker's first peak of success came when Russell organized the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour of 1970, featuring Cocker and over 40 others and resulting in a third gold album and a concert film. Subsequent efforts were less popular, and problems with alcohol (both on- and off-stage) reduced Cocker's once-powerful voice to a croaking rasp.
Sir Paul McCartney led the tributes to the musician who had covered so many of the Beatles’ tracks in his long career, and said he was for ever grateful to Cocker for turning With a Little Help from My Friends into a soul anthem.
“It’s really sad to hear about Joe’s passing,” he said. “He was a lovely northern lad who I loved a lot and, like many people, I loved his singing. I knew him through the years as a good mate and I was so sad to hear that he had been ill and really sad to hear today that he had passed away. He was a great guy, a lovely guy who brought so much to the world and we’ll all miss him.”
The sentiment was echoed by the Beatles’ drummer, Ringo Starr, who wrote: “Goodbye and God bless to Joe Cocker from one of his friends peace and love. R.”
In a testament to Cocker’s widespread influence, other musicians from singer Ronan Keating to American rapper Lupe Fiasco and British rock band the Darkness also took to social media to pay their respects. Singer Bryan Adams said: “RIP my good friend, you were one of the best rock singers EVER.”
Cocker’s performance of With a Little Help from My Friends at the 1969 Woodstock festival in New York is still considered by many as one of the great moments in rock performance history and was later described by him as “like an eclipse”.
He released his second album, Joe Cocker!, in the same year, featuring covers of songs originally performed by artists such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Paul McCartney and George Harrison, impressed with his talent, allowed him to cover two Beatles tracks on the album.
In 1970, he embarked on a mammoth tour of America under the guise of his new band, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which included pianist Leonard Russell and singer Rita Coolidge. Despite performing alongside musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and releasing several successful cover songs, including his take on the Box Tops’ The Letter, which became his first US top 10 hit, Cocker began to struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, and returned to Sheffield in 1971.
Speaking years later about his experiences on tour, Cocker said: “There was no rehab back in those days. Drugs were readily available, and I dived in head first … It took me years to get straight. When I first became successful, I was a beer-drinker from Sheffield. Then I was thrown into the world of American rock.”
After almost a decade of releasing several albums that mostly received only a tepid response, Cocker married Pam, his second wife, in 1978, whom he credited with helping him escape the downward spiral. Cocker staged a successful comeback in the 1980s that saw his 1983 duet with Jennifer Warnes, Up Where We Belong, earn him a Grammy and an Academy award for best original song as the theme to the film An Officer and A Gentleman. Cocker was then nominated for a Brit award for best British male in 1993, and in 2007 he received an OBE for his contribution to music.
He continued to record albums until 2012, when his final album, Fire It Up, was released, reaching number 17 in the UK charts. He played a 20-date tour across Europe last year. His last concert was in Hammersmith in June this year.
Sony Music said in a statement: “John Robert Cocker, known to family, friends, his community and fans around the world as Joe Cocker, passed away on 22 December 2014 after a hard-fought battle with small-cell lung cancer … His international success as a blues/rock singer began in 1964 and continues till this day.”
Rock songwriter and musician Peter Frampton said: “So sad to hear of Joe Cocker’s passing. You Are So Beautiful is both Joe and Nicky Hopkins piano at their very best. Gonna play it now RIP.”
Singer-songwriter Frank Turner tweeted: “Wow. Sad to hear of Joe Cocker’s passing. Incredible singer.”
Irish pop star Ronan Keating wrote: “So sad to hear of Joe Cocker passing. What a brilliant and unique voice. Peace.”
British comedian Ricky Gervais also paid tribute, saying: “RIP the mighty Joe Cocker.”
Cocker is survived by his wife, Pam, his stepdaughter, Zoey Schroeder, and two grandchildren, Eva and Simon Schroeder.
Joe Cocker in Review
The last time I saw Joe Cocker it was, coincidentally, with Eric Clapton. It was at the Birmingham NEC sometime in the 1990s. Also on the bill was ZZ Top and Nine Below Zero. I'd never seen the last two before so it was a new experience and a great one. I was waiting for Clapton to hit the stage and not looking forward to sitting through a Joe Cocker set. What a surprise I had waiting for me.
Joe came on the stage, all quiet and no fanfare, with Clapton's band behind him. He then proceeded to take us through his songbook, with some of the finest blues singing I've ever heard. When Clapton finally got into his own set, we sat through an anti-climax.
The link we've selected for this review mirrors what I've just described. Joe's backing band is stellar, by any yardstick, but the singer takes charge and they are playing for him. Worried Life Blues is a Clapton staple but I think that he would bow to the master on this performance. Enjoy. WilfRaydo
Video of “Worried Life Blues” with Eric Clapton; Ronnie Wood; Ian Stewart; Bill Wyman & Charlie Watts – Madison Square Gardens – A.R.M.S. Concert 1983