Joe Cocker regarded musical genres the same way he did musical notes: as mere suggestions.
Over the course of a career that spanned a half-century – ending Monday, when he died at age 70 at his home in Colorado – the English singer blurred the lines separating rock, soul, country and blues, pulling deeply from each to create a sound as stylistically expansive as it was specifically rooted in one man’s outsized emotion.
And he did it in a voice that famously maintained only a casual relationship with pitch.
To listen to Cocker’s renditions of the Band’s “The Weight,” one of the many hits by other artists that he put his indelible stamp on, is to hear a singer remaking a melody in real time, an interpreter veering off script in search of more meaning than what’s on the page.
You’d call it sloppy, Cocker’s all-over-the-place growl, if he hadn’t put so much obvious effort into it – and if he hadn’t managed to find his way back nearly every time.
Watch his reputation-making performance of “With a Little Help From My Friends” at the Woodstock festival in 1969 (as captured in Michael Wadleigh’s documentary).
Cocker starts out faithfully, tracing the Beatles’ sturdy tune even as he roughs it up a bit with the grain in his voice. Before long, though, he’s way out on his own, hair matted to his forehead, the seat of his trousers visibly dampened with sweat.
In his hands, the music has left its origins and become something else: not a character sketch but an unembarrassed howl of need.
With apologies to Ringo Starr, the song has belonged to Cocker ever since – and only partly because his version reached a pop-culture saturation point as the theme song to TV’s “The Wonder Years.”
One reason Cocker’s singing rings in our ears is because, like Frank Sinatra or Aretha Franklin, he never shied from tackling well-known material.
“Mad Dogs & Englishman,” his landmark 1970 live album, opens with Cocker’s rendition of “Honky Tonk Women,” a No. 1 hit for the Rolling Stones just one year before. The record also contains versions of the Beatles’ “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” the torch song “Cry Me a River” (presented as a galloping soul-rock jam) and Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” – hardly obscurities that Cocker could’ve possibly passed off as his own.
Yet the familiarity of the repertoire ensures we pay attention to what Cocker does with the feeling of these songs, the self-abasement in Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” and the panicked desperation in “The Letter,” originally sung by another gravelly voiced R&B lover, Alex Chilton of the Box Tops.
Just as Cocker drew inspiration from singers before him (most notably Ray Charles), younger artists reflect Cocker’s influence. It’s hard to imagine Ray LaMontagne’s thoughtful-lumberjack act, for instance, in a world without Cocker’s mid-’70s take on “You Are So Beautiful.”
His open-minded attitude toward genre lives on as well in the mix-and-match sensibility of today’s televised singing shows, where Cocker’s trademark bellow echoes year after year.
That eagerness to adapt led to some softening of Cocker’s sound in the ’80s; it also led, of course, to one of the singer’s biggest hits: “Up Where We Belong,” his Grammy-winning duet with Jennifer Warnes that also won an Academy Award with its appearance in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
Listen to the song today and you find yourself wondering how much difficulty Cocker had restraining himself to such a genteel production. But he never completely lost his taste for the tough stuff.
Though Cocker’s recent work garnered only a fraction of the attention he received decades ago, some of it taps into the same freewheeling intensity, as in the gritty title track from his 2010 album “Hard Knocks.”
“Didn’t take nothing that I didn’t need,” Cocker sings, “ ’cause they didn’t offer classes in what I wanna be.”
He figured it out anyway.
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