Sometimes musicians aren’t the wide-reaching songsmiths you would hope they could be. Stevie Ray Vaughan was one hell of a guitar player, arguably one of the best ever, but could he match the songwriting knowledge of The Rolling Stones own riffmaster, Keith Richards? Not a chance. The same can certainly be said for the smoothest voice in Sheffield, the wondrous Joe Cocker.
Cocker wasn’t a songwriter by trade. Where other artists can flourish with a pen in their hand, transferring their personal expression into universal anthems and back again, Cocker remained largely mute in the arena. But, when you gave the late, great Sheffield born singer a microphone and a decent song to sing, my word, was he captivating. In fact, I’d go as far as to say he may well be the finest covered of songs there ever was. Below, we’ve got seven of his finest moments doing just that as he picks up the music of The Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald and others to make great songs shine brighter than ever before.
For many people, Joe Cocker may well be most recognisable as the voice that sang the Golden Years theme tune, and it’s a fitting demonstration of his talent. The eighties TV show was warm and imbued with a golden shine that confirmed comfort was only ever a huge meatloaf and glass of milk away. Likewise, whenever Joe Cocker took the stage, he produced a morphine-like swell of acceptance that would swell and wash over his audience, sedating them with his imperious vocal performances and holding their hands as he took them to musical heaven.
Cocker became a sensation following his remarkable performance at Woodstock, more on that later, and continually toured and released records throughout his career. But how can an artist who has never really written his own work become such a hit during a moment in time when creative integrity was at its most desired? If there is one thing Cocker was, it was a sincere and authentic cover artist, he pushed his voice into their songs with genuine appreciation and adoration, and he conveyed it all to his audience. There’s great value in them too.
Sometimes these second-hand versions are the reason we start appreciating certain songs that we previously dismissed. Covers come with their own share of creative intelligence as they require one’s own interpretation of the song. It’s rather a challenge to experiment with an existing and well-known piece of music that could bring a backlash upon its failure. Luckily, when in the hands of Cocker, rarely did such failures come to fruition.
Below, we’ve picked out seven of our favourites to rmeind you just how impressive Joe Cocker was.
Joe Cocker’s best covers:
‘With A Little Help From My Friends – The Beatles
Where else could we start but with this definitive cover of The Beatles classic ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’.
Let’s all go back to Woodstock is likely a phrase most who attended would be very glad to hear. The event changed the lives of all those who hitchhiked and plain-old-hiked to the festival site in New York, least of all Joe Cocker. His soulful performance may well have given him his entire career but he did need a little help. That’s where The Beatles come in.
The Fab Four’s song ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ was that assistance. The Beatles may well have provided Joe Cocker with the ammunition, but that still left the incredible vocalist to provide the arsenal with which to deliver the earth-shattering and definitive performance of the track.
‘I Put A Spell On You’ – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Few songs have transcended the realms of their original creator than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ classic, mood-filled song ‘I Put A Spell on You’. The track has been endlessly covered, most notably by Aretha Franklin, but somehow Cocker’s version reigns supreme.
It’s difficult to produce a cover better than the original but Cocker does this on the track and even tops Aretha too. Released in 2004 on Heart & Soul Cocker lends his buttery vocal poignancy to the smokey track and elevates the song to a whole new level of impressive imperiousness.
‘Cry Me a River’ – Ella Fitzgerald
Despite being from opposite ends of the world and the political spectrum, Joe Cocker always connected with the work of Ella Fitzgerald. Shown most prominently in this stunning cover of the song Fitzgerald made famous, ‘Cry Me A River’, released on Cocker’s 1970 album Mad Dogs & Englishman.
Originally written by Arthur Hamilton for Fitzgerald, the song took on brand new steam when Cocker picked up the track. The joyful juxtaposition of the singers adds some level of intrigue but it is Cocker’s command of his instrument that really captures our attention.
‘I’m Your Man’ – Leonard Cohen
Recorded as part of Cocker’s 1989 record One Night of Sin, he stays true to the title with his filthy cover of Leonard Cohen’s magnetic song ‘I’m Your Man’. While the original was imbued with the fragility of life that Cohen always put into his work, Cocker approaches this cover with a slinky lead line and his naturally confident vocals.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the cover. While Cohen’s certainly possesses more emotional delicacy, adding a level of subtext that a pure singer like Cocker can’t achieve, the Sheffield man provides countless reasons to pick up the record.
‘Everybody Hurts’ – R.E.M.
One of the finest band of the nineties, R.E.M. redefined what a pop song was with their notoriously weepy track ‘Everybody Hurts’. The song has taken on a mythical status over the decades, gathering admirers of its beautifully sad construction. But, under the guidance of Cocker, the song is given another rich level of emotion.
Released in 2004 as part of Cocker’s Heart & Soul LP, Cocker takes the tune into a dusky dive bar and adds his whisky-soaked vocal to an already brutally honest song. The greatest moment of the song sees Cocker connect with his work on an intense level, allowing his usually steadfast vocals to wobble under the weight of his expression. It’s gorgeous.
‘I Shall Be Released’ – Bob Dylan
Like every other artist of his generation, Joe Cocker was wildly inspired by Bob Dylan. The freewheelin’ troubadour inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of bands to start making music in a brand new way, delivering songs straight from the heart and into the charts. It may sound like a simple premise in 2021, but in the sixties, it was revolutionary. Cocker finally had some words to match his pure vocals.
‘I Shall Be Released’ is one of Dylan’s finest tracks, and it clearly captured Cocker as he provided a searing cover of the track on his 1969 album With A Little Help From My Friends. Simple in its replication, Cocker adds organs and a backing vocalist to bring the gospel tone of the track to the fore, allowing his ascendency to musical heaven to get the best send-off possible.
‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ – Bill Withers
When you picture someone trying to take on the Bill Withers’ classic it can be really hard to imagine anyone coming anywhere close to the original’s powerful disposition. But, in 1995, Joe Cocker had an increidble crack at it. Providing a deep and rich melancholy that is missing form the original.
Few people can match the late, great Bill Withers vocally but Joe Cocker was certainly oen of them. He attacks every song he sings with a supreme confidence in his talent and a wild vocal strategy that is rarely disappointing. On ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ he shines once more.