Max Bell remembers the life of the man with one of the UK's greatest voices
Sad to hear that John Robert Cocker – known to all as Joe or the Sheffield Soul Shouter – has succumbed to small-cell lung cancer. It was typical of this self-effacing man that he kept news of his illness to himself for the most part. Despite having appeared on stage before thousands, notably tearing up the scenery at Woodstock where his rendition of The Beatles's With A Little Help From My Friends became his defining moment – “my eclipse” he said – Joe actually a shy and reticent man off-sage, especially during his latter sober and drug-free years. The last time I was with him, in Berlin 2013, enquiries about his general health were met with a smile and “not too bad, all things considered, touch wood” – but even two years ago he had an inkling that all was not right.
Yet here was a man who admitted: “I’m proud to have lead a life: not necessarily a good one, or a bad one, just got out there and done something. Not so bad for a lad from Crookes, Sheffield.”
After leaving school at 15, Cocker became an apprentice gas fitter like his father but dreamt of life beyond the South Riding. His hero was always Ray Charles and his early musical for a working men’s clubs mixed soul and blues with pop of the day. A Decca talent scout took him to London where he was signed by Dick Rowe in 1964, who suggested Joe cover The Beatles', and chiefly John Lennon’s, bittersweet I’ll Cry Instead. “They paid me ten shillings for that,” Cocker remembered. “The session men were [Big] Jim Sullivan and Little Jimmy Page, and they got paid more than me! When I formed The Grease Band with my mate Chris Stainton I asked Jimmy if he fancied joining us but he said ‘y’know, I think I’ve got something else in the pipeline I wanna do.’”
Cocker's big break came when he covered another Fabs tune, the ubiquitous With A Little Help From My Friends, which he ripped apart with venom, unlike his predecessor Ringo Starr. Songwriter Paul McCartney was impressed and Joe was summoned for a meeting at Apple Corps on Savile Row.
“They stuck me in a room for an hour with nothing to look at but carpet. Eventually Paul turned up. He played me the medley from Abbey Road; Golden Slumbers and Carry That Weight. I was all ears until he said ‘you can’t have ‘em. You can have this though’. He played me She Came In Through The Bathroom Window, and then made me up an acetate. I was floating on the ceiling when George Harrison walked in shortly after. He played me Old Brown Shoe. By now I was getting a bit fussy so I said ‘I can’t see myself singing that.’ George played me three other songs and seemed a bit miffed. ‘The Beatles will never use these. I’ve got this one called Something. I wrote it for Jackie Lomax and I wanted Ray Charles to sing it. You might as well have it.’ He actually played and sang it for me. I watched him pick out the chords. I was gobsmacked.”
The three gifts from pop’s Three Kings served Joe well and his 1969 Woodstock performance introduced his spasmodic dancing and Woodbine-and-whisky vocals to a US audience ready to lap up the second British Invasion. Cocker’s then-manager Dee Anthony certainly milked his cash cow and Cocker was flogged into the American tarmac. When The Grease Band folded, Cocker hooked up with Leon Russell and the Shelter People - and the Mad Dogs And Englishman project was born, with all the excess and hoopla of a travelling circus, plus a ten-strong choir of female talent including Claudia Lennear and Rita Coolidge. Yet Joe was no sophisticate and Russell would exploit his good nature, suggesting the Yorkshireman fund the tour and an imminent road movie – budget unspecified.
Joe took to his new life with a vengeance, hiding his exhaustion and the feeling he was being ripped off behind cocaine and booze.
Cocker noticed how Russell, despite his own talent, had become envious and grouchy. He started to muscle his way up the pecking order; the man who’d started out like his brother suddenly “took over the whole show, became like a slave master,” Cocker recalled. Being a decent Northern lad, Joe let it slide and went into his shell. He knew Leon was in constant pain following a recent motorcycle accident. Even so he started to get cheesed off with Leon’s insistence on pre-show communal meals, communal sex and gang-style sermons, in which the Mad Dogs held hands and praised the Lord, before proceeding to get utterly wankered. “It was a bit embarrassing,” he later admitted.
The Mad Dogs escapade lived up to its name. Wracked and ruined, Cocker returned to Sheffield where his family was so aghast at his condition they hospitalised him. He rested for a while, span his motorbike across the Snake Pass, even considered acquiring an HGV licence so he could drive a lorry for a living. Armed with his next album advance he went back to London and rented a flat in Shepherds Bush. But then it went downhill again. “I started taking heroin seriously even though I’d thought it was the big taboo.” he said. “I flirted with addiction but I couldn’t handle it on that level. It was too powerful and intense.”
It got sordid when he fell prey to the West London dealers who descended on his pad. Cocker walked the streets carrying ounces of cocaine on their behalf and was constantly worried about his next bag of smack. The dealers were vultures. Ever-disingenuous, Cocker would part with thousands of pounds for dope worth far less. “They had me by the balls.”
The next two decades were tough times. The album sales dried up but after moving into Jane Fonda's ranch in 1978 he met his second wife and things started looking up. In 1982 he had a worldwide hit, duetting with Jennifer Warnes on the OTT ballad Up Where We Belong. Thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack to the blockbusting An Officer And A Gentleman, and an accompanying Academy Award, Joe became part of the rock establishment. He got the Don Was makeover for his 1996 album Organic – take one old rock star and reinvent him – played for the first President Bush and sang at the Queen’s 2002 Party At The Palace Jubilee bash. He received an OBE in 2011 - “that would have my old man laugh,” he said.
According to his management, Cocker gave up drinking and smoking ten years ago. “So he’s healthier. Back then he wasn’t well. It was often touch-and-go getting him to his concerts. If he hadn’t stopped he wouldn’t be here now.”
And now he isn’t. RIP Honest Joe. You were a good man, and yes, you did lead a life.