Joe Cocker, like few other performers before or since, could physically embody a song, his contortions echoing the range of emotions he conveyed with his voice – from anguish to longing to a pure love.
His gravelly renditions of everything from blues to pop tunes took us on guttural journeys, nearly as exhausting – and satisfying – for the listener as for Cocker himself.
But most all, the British singer, who died this week at age 70, possessed a voice that could growl and claw its way into the soul.
Cocker, who started performing in pubs as a teenager, turned the jaunty “With a Little Help From My Friends” into an epic cry for assistance – producing the only Beatles cover as iconic as the original version. He made the song a highlight of his Woodstock set, and later would memorably add a layer of naughty fun to the bands’ “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.”
Cocker transformed “You are So Beautiful” into a wrenching love song, and lifted “Up Where We Belong,” with Jennifer Warnes, far beyond pop treacle. He proved at his best, though, channeling Ray Charles in his take on “Unchain My Heart,” and bringing a similar, throaty R&B urgency to the Box Tops’ pop hit, “The Letter.”
The singer, who cut a disheveled figure for much of his career, drew notice, admiration and parodies for his stage antics – including from John Belushi, a fan who famously joined him coil-for-coil, roar-for-roar on “Feelin’ Alright” on “Saturday Night Live” in 1976.
Those of us fortunate enough to have seen him perform live know that Joe Cocker was the real thing – a mad dog and Englishman who could breathe raspy life into any song he chose to twist and turn into his own.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.