Graded on a Curve:
Joe Cocker,
Joe Cocker!

If you’re going to write a piece about the late, great Joe Cocker, or so it seems to me, that piece should be every bit as spastic and twitching all over the place as the feller himself. When he was singing that is. I don’t know as Joe walked the streets gesticulating and twitching and wringing his hands and all. If he did, God bless him.

Anyway, I tried to write a spastic and twitching review of 1969’s Joe Cocker! but gave up after sentence one, because the man did it better than I could ever do. He was possessed by genius, and told those who would exorcise said genius to piss off. A voice as gravelly and soulful and great as his came with a cost, and if that cost was that he twist himself into pretzel-like contortions ever time he sang, so be it.

The early Cocker was a genius of such magnitude that his idea of a great gig was coming on stage, vomiting on the front row, and passing out. A real showman, our Joe. But if his gravel-grinding voice was a gift from Heaven, it need be said that it was not the only reason Joe Cocker! is an indispensible piece of vinyl as you should turn red with shame for not owning.

No, Joe Cocker! is a classic due in part to the pure dead brilliant performances of the people behind the voice, namely his backing outfit the Grease Band, to say nothing of Leon Russell, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Clarence White, and a veritable heavenly choir of backing vocalists including Rita Coolidge, Merry Clayton, Bonnie Bramlett, and Shirley Matthews, amongst others. I take my hat off in particular to Chris Stainton, the fella as played piano in the Grease Band. His every performance is hair-raising, and he makes the LP worth owning all by his own self.

Cocker always specialized in improving on other people’s originals, and on Joe Cocker! he did that in spades. He only cowrote one tune (“That’s Your Business Now”) but who needs to write songs when you’ve got the brass to cherry pick from the likes of Lennon-McCartney, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, George Harrison, and Leonard Cohen?

He pisses all over Bob Dylan’s very solemn “Dear Landlord” by notching up the tempo, and if that’s a sacrilege I’m a big fan of sacreligion, which I’m not sure is a real word. Kleinow dresses the tune up with his trusty pedal steel guitar, and Henry McCullough’s guitar is not to be sneezed at either. Cocker also gives us the definitive version of Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” which builds and builds until you either weep or swoon. He also bequeaths us a wonderful version of Lloyd “Mr. Personality” Price’s 1952 hit “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” which is more than swell thanks to McCullough and Stainton, both of whom sound every bit as inspired by the Holy Spirit as Cocker himself. And I love the way it segues “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” which the Grease Band and Company country fry up real nice.

My personal favorite on the album is “Hitchcock Railway,” which percolates along at a nice clip thanks to Stainton’s frantic piano and the funky percussion of the great Milt Holland. Cocker rants and raves, McCullough dishes up a great guitar solo, and the backing vocalists throw down real perty, and if this one doesn’t make you scream and shout I feel sorry for you, my friend. I’m also a big fan of “That’s Your Business Now,” on which Stainton plays some masterful carnival piano and Cocker sounds eerily like—and I know this is hard to imagine—a mildly excited Randy Newman. As for “Delta Lady,” once again Cocker improves on the Leon Russell original by shouting out the choruses over the lovely voices of his backing vocalists.

I could go on to say something about Cocker’s superb takes on Harrison’s “Something,” Russell’s “Hello, Little Friend,” and John Sebastian’s “Darling Be Home Soon.” But I won’t. The point to be made here is that Cocker’s interpretive gifts could not be over-estimated. Robert Christgau rightly defined Cocker’s genius by saying he “literally forced us to rehear” the already immortal songs he saw fit to cover. And he did this best on his first LP and on Joe Cocker!, both from the Year of Our Lord 1969.

Why, the only thing keeping Joe Cocker! from my top 10 list of greatest LPs is that it doesn’t have “Feelin’ Alright” on it. From his astounding performance at Woodstock to the brilliant performances documented on his 1970 double-live LP Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Cocker bestrode the sphere of rock’n’roll like a colossus. Whether he was twitching, gesticulating, or turning himself into a human pretzel, Cocker re-astounded the astounding, and if that ain’t genius I don’t know genius from a hole in the ground.


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