Joe Cocker is one of the few singers whose voice could be measured on the Richter scale but retain as many tonal shifts with his gravel track voice as a long, winding country road. He might not necessarily be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll vocalist of his era, but he’s certainly in the top one.
Spasmodically shifting about on stage like a man holding an invisible jackhammer, Cocker enamoured audiences with his unerring power and brilliant bravura. He applied this shattering style to many covers in his day but very few can match the masterful way he blitzed through the waltzing Beatles classic With a Little Help From My Friends’.
His performance picked up where Ringo Starr’s original vocal take left off and completely transformed the track. In fact, Cocker simply blew the original out of the water like a hurricane shifting a leaf. With thunderous guitar work by Jimmy Page in the mix, Cocker and his stellar cohort of musicians made the original seem slightly maudlin with their blitzkrieg of unerring rock ‘n’ roll attitude and perfect musicianship that adds an air of irony to the line: “I’ll try not to sing out of key.”
Paul McCartney was even in awe of Cocker’s adrenalised version of the Sgt. Peppers classic. “I remember [Cocker] and Denny Cordell coming round to the studio in Saville Row and playing me what they’d recorded,” McCartney recalled in an interview with Billboard.
Adding: “It was just mind-blowing. [He] totally turned the song into a soul anthem and I was forever grateful for him for doing that.” Later reflecting: “I knew him through the years as a good mate and I was so sad to hear that he had been ill and really sad to hear today that he had passed away. He was a great guy, a lovely guy who brought so much to the world and we’ll all miss him.”
Cocker’s reimagining of The Beatles classic so soon after its original release was a mark of his bravery as a musician as well as his skill. After all, such a daring act was akin to making a few alterations to the Mona Lisa and doing it with the carefree air of a toddler left unattended with a felt tip and somehow succeeding in transfiguring it to the next level.
This is indicative of Cocker’s approach to music. As he once said himself: “I have one message for young musicians around the world: Stay true to your heart, believe in yourself, and work hard.” You can check out the isolated product of that belief and hard work below.