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JOE COCKER: THE A&M YEARS, 1968-1976
The Raging English Soul Singer Made His Biggest Mark
While Recording for the Laid-back Hollywood Label

By Bud Scoppa (A&M, 1973-78)

We lost a unique artist when Joe Cocker died of lung cancer on Dec. 22 at the age of 70. Let’s put this great loss, and the man’s considerable achievements, in perspective.

Between the years 1968 and 1976, Cocker recorded his first seven albums, all released on A&M, in an uncommonly fruitful marriage of art and commerce. These recordings were composed of a wonderfully diverse array of songs drawn from the entire spectrum of popular music—songs he proceeded to possess and reshape according to his singular vision while still capturing their essences. With that body of work, Cocker established himself as the pre-eminent interpretative singer of that era and as one of rock’s true originals.



Few vocalists past or present have approached Cocker’s dramatic reach, which encompasses roiling ferocity (his own "Woman to Woman"), syncopated soulfulness (the standard "Cry Me a River"), thematic acuity (Randy Newman’s "I Think It’s Going to Rain Today") and heartbreaking tenderness (Billy Preston’s "You Are So Beautiful"). His work during this period possessed such gut-wrenching immediacy that it seems almost beside the point to describe it as "artful"; when he sang, Cocker lacerated his own heart and soul with the urgency of a rock & roll Van Gogh. Quite simply, Joe Cocker damaged himself in service to the songs he sang...

America was introduced to Cocker by way of The Ed Sullivan Show, ironically enough. In every other respect this 1969 performance looked like any standard TV production number of the era—a swarm of dancers frugging in a tightly choreographed routine around a riser re-served for the featured performer. But instead of Eydie Gorme or Trini Lopez, viewers were startled to see a wild-haired, unkempt young man whose flailing arms suggested a petite mal and whose ultra-gritty voice made Wilson Pickett sound like Gary Puckett in comparison. The tune was the bouncy but anxious "Feelin’ Alright" ("...I’m not feelin’ so good myself") from Dave Mason’s Traffic period; in Cocker’s hands, though, it was utterly transformed into a vision of raging paranoia. I can recall wondering whether the singer was in control of the song or the song had possessed the singer—he seemed to be struggling desperately to escape from some voodoo curse. In just a few minutes, Joe Cocker had transformed a standard variety show into a televised psychodrama. It was a fitting beginning.

In the early days, Cocker was often thought to be a black singer by radio listeners—with good reason. Like so many others of his generation, this native of industrial town Sheffield, England, had grown up listening to American blues and soul records. But unlike his countrymen, Cocker’s assimilation of this influence was total; in his voice you could hear the unholy torment of Robert Johnson and the mystic sanctimony of Mahalia Jackson. Impossibly, this humble former plumber’s apprentice had managed to tap the deep, rich vein of black American music so thoroughly that he possessed it as fully as Al Green and Marvin Gaye, his soul-singer contemporaries. A mutation, perhaps, but no less genuine for its unlikeliness.

Working with a variety of producers (Denny Cordell, Leon Russell, Jim Price, Rob Fraboni) and musicians (including his own Grease Band and the all-star Mad Dogs & Englishmen aggregation), Cocker plumbed his own depths through the songs of such writers as Lennon-McCartney, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Billy Preston and John Sebastian. Whatever the song, he managed to find its secret core and fuse it with his own, uniting and simultaneously expressing the seemingly polar attitudes of gentle romanticism and raging intensity. The resulting piece of work was less a musical performance than a hair-raising catharsis. I defy anyone to listen to the final cracked syllables of "You Are So Beautiful" or the gutted "heartache to heartache!" shriek in "Woman to Woman" without being moved by their utter authenticity. Joe Cocker wasn’t kidding. Artistic expression doesn’t get any more firsthand than this.



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