Bob Dylan, with his voice that David Bowie famously described as sounding like “sand and glue” might not be what you’d call a classically excellent singer, but he does have character and soul and that counts for a lot. As Robbie Robertson of The Band would opine when he embarked with Dylan on the infamous electric ‘Judas’ tour: “When I started playing with Bob, I didn’t know how so much vocal power could come out of this frail man. He was so thin. He was singing louder and stronger than James Brown. We were in a battlefield on that tour, and you had to fight back.”
Although Dylan may well have amped up his vocal arsenal for that riotous musical excursion, there was one singer on the circuit that simply nobody could compete with. As Dylan said himself when he was asked to name the greatest singer of his generation: “Oh, let me see, Joe Cocker, I suppose, Graham Nash can sing. Van Morrison’s fantastic and so is Stevie Wonder, but of all of them, Joe’s the greatest.”
The Sheffield singer had a voice that could stir honey into tea through the walls of a fortified bomb shelter. When performing live, he spasmed his way across the stage like a human jackhammer, as though the summoning force of his voice was causing contractions and the audience looking on were left with slicked-back hair and not a care to speak of. If performance is about whisking folks away from the cares of the world, then Cocker left you engrossed to such an extent that you barely had cause to even wonder whether he was any good—unlike most performances, that seemed to be a simple unspoken certainty.
Over the years, Cocker would lend his own unique rasping vocals to the work of Dylan many times over. At Woodstock 1969, the ‘Mad Dog’ singer performed a cover of ‘I Shall Be Released’ that left the swaying masses temporarily immobilised and when he joined the legendary Leon Russell (for the truly underrated Mad Dogs and Englishmen record), they stirred up a stunning rendition of ‘Girl From the North Country’ that could knock the socks off of Gandhi.
The most apposite link between the two musicians comes from the individuality of their styles. As Cocker once said: “I have one message for young musicians around the world: Stay true to your heart, believe in yourself, and work hard.” Dylan’s prolific espousal of his own singular view throughout his back catalogue seemed to define that exact same message. Together Cocker and Dylan represent the true expressive nature of counterculture as they turned the tables on convention and rattled the rafters as they did so.
You can check out Cocker’s stunning cover of ‘I Shall Be Released’ live at Woodstock below.