Monday, December 22, 2014

Joe Cocker (1944-2014)

This day was already pretty iffy. I'd spent much of yesterday worrying over my sick teenage son -- he just has a bad cold, but it's a particularly shitty one -- to (not surprisingly) realize I was coming down with the illness as well. I awoke today to a foreboding burning pain in my chest, and throbbing in my eyeballs, and congestion. Yeah, all that fun stuff. And, of course, it's been a pretty depressing week, with last Wednesday's horrifying accident down the street from me on Pacific Coast Highway. Add to all this the stress associated with my absolute busiest time of my work year, and things have not been exactly peachy as of late. And then, my phone rang.

It was Kat, letting me know that Joe Cocker had died of lung cancer at age 70. Ugggggggh! Well, there will be many well-written obituaries about Joe. I'm only here to share a couple of personal observations and interesting factoids that might offer a little perspective on this unusual musician.

1. My parents listened to Joe... a lot
My folks came from the same generation as Joe, born in the early/mid 1940s. And they were hip and cool people. They actually still are, though they're now hip, cool, and old. Anyway, around my house, there was a lot of music playing while I grew up. Beatles (of course), and lots of singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Elton John, and the like. Plenty of soul, including Aretha, Al Green, and Marvin Gaye, and some other varied stuff that ranged from Santana to Burt Bacharach to Beethoven. But two of the big albums on the playlist in my house were Joe Cocker's With a Little Help from My Friends and Mad Dogs & Englishmen. I heard every song on those now-classic albums all the time in my most formative years. I can't but think that Joe was probably a huge influence on me as a musician, as I started playing in 1972 (at age three), when he was still a young and vibrant pop star.

2. Joe was an amazing performer... but not a huge songwriter
There are some many songs associated with Joe... but he didn't write them. Like, any of them. Look at any of his most well-known hits, along with the people who actually composed the tunes:

- "Feeling Alright" (Dave Mason)
- "With a Little Help from My Friends" (John Lennon, Paul McCartney)
- "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" (John Lennon, Paul McCartney)
- "Delta Lady" (Leon Russell)
- "The Letter" (Wayne Carson Thompson)
- "You Are So Beautiful" (Billy Preston, Dennis Wilson)
- "Up Where We Belong" (Jack Nitzsche, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Will Jennings)
- "You Can Leave Your Hat On" (Randy Newman)
- "Unchain My Heart" (Bobby Sharp, Teddy Powell)

You get the idea. However, while many singers have achieved fame performing other people's songs, there's something very special about Joe. He often did completely different arrangements of the song. This was no cover artist. Listen to his version of "With a Little Help from My Friends", and compare it to the Beatles' original; it's practically an entirely different song (and many would say a superior one, including me). Most of Joe's material was like that. He took great songs, and added something you could never have anticipated from having heard the original version.

3. Who's playing that awesome wailing lead guitar on Joe's "With a Little Help..."?
Why, it's Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page! Jimmy did the session work in the studio, but the most iconic performances of this song were when Joe belted it out live, as per below.

4. Which classic TV series used Joe's version of "With a Little Help..." for its theme song?
That would be "The Wonder Years".

5. A semi-tangential factoid: Joe's version of "The Letter" was originally a one-hit wonder by a group called The Box Tops.
And the singer was a 16-year-old named Alex Chilton, who went on to front the critical favorite power pop band Big Star.

That's all I wanted to say. In a world of auto-tuned soundalikes who use "American Idol" as their standard for what singing is supposed to be like, the world will dearly miss Joe's uniquely soulful vibe.

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