John Robert Cocker was born in Sheffield, in 1944. He was the youngest son of a civil servant but left school early to become an apprentice gas fitter with the East Midlands Gas Board. He joined his first group the Cavaliers in 1959. Two years later Vance Arnold (Joe Cocker) and the Avengers had moved from drums to vocals. He carried on working as an apprentice gas fitter by day but slowly established his reputation as a singer in the local pubs and clubs. Vance Arnold and The Avengers was a well respected R&B outfit. They released regional singles and toured locally with the Hollies and the Rolling Stones. Such was their local popularity when they appeared at the Sheffield City Hall they got top billing with the Rolling Stones as their support.
Joe loved the voice of Ray Charles and emulated his quivering vocal style. His onstage antics, playing ‘air guitar’ made the band all the more popular. Decca signed Joe in 1964 and the company released “I'll Cry Instead,” which met little critical acclaim and failed to break into the charts. The band continued to tour and worked with Manfred Mann but it was in France on a tour of the American bases Joe established himself a firm favourite with the black audiences because they loved the groups’ music.
By the time they got back to Sheffield, musical tastes had changed and the Joe Cocker’ Big Blues soon broke up. Joe fell out of the way of performing and went back to his day job for about a year. In 1966 he met piano player, Chris Stainton (Spokey Tooth and Eric Clapton Band) and the pair formed, The Grease Band with Henry McCullough (guitar -Wings), Bruce Rowland (drums - Fairport Convention) and and Alan Spenner (bass - Roxy Music). The band evolved from Joe Cocker’s Big Blues. No sooner had they started to build up a local following when they were invited to become the resident group at London’s Marquee. Denny Cordell became their manager and decided to release ‘Marjorine’ (written by Chris) which became a minor hit in the UK and raised a few heads in the US. The session musicians for the final recording read like a proverbial whose who, with Stevie Winwood (Spencer Davis Group and Traffic), Jimmy Page (Led Zepplin), Albert Lee (Head, hands and feet), Tony Visconti (record producer and performer), Mike Kelly, BJ Wilson (Procol Harem), Matthew Fisher (Procol Harem), Clem Cattini (session drummer), Madeline Bell (Blue Mink), Sue (Glover) and Sunny (Leslie) (Brotherhood of Man) and the Grease Band, all contributed.
The recorded material included another Beatles’ cover which was released in 1968. With a little help from my friends became a number one hit in the UK and introduced Joe to an International audience. They appeared at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 and gave outstanding performances winning millions of fans.
Not long after Joe and the Grease Band appeared on American Television (The Ed Sullivan Show) singing Traffic's "Feelin' Alright." Leon Russell, wrote "Delta Lady" and co-produced the hit single during which time Joe and he became good friends.
The Grease Band felt a bit left out and they parted company with their lead singer in 1970. Soon after Leon Russell organised the Mad Dogs tour. She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, another Beatles cover, gave Joe his hat trick of hit singles but as his career took off in the US his popularity in the UK faltered.
After the split Alan Spenner, Hugh McCullough and Bruce Rowland joined the session band for 'Jesus Christ Superstar,’ before briefly working with Spooky Tooth. They reformed the Grease Band in 1975 with Neil Hubbard (Juicy Lucy) and recorded one acclaimed album. They also toured the States but eventually called it a day in 1981. More US success followed for Joe Cocker with "Cry Me a River" and "Feelin' Alright" (written by Dave Mason), then a cover of the Box Tops' hit "The Letter", gave Joe his first U.S. Top Ten hit.
At the height of his commercial success he set out on a mammoth tour of the US which was to prove disastrous. The 48 city tour in 56 days met with rapturous reception but behind the scenes the menagerie of musicians, managers, roadies, wives, girlfriends, hangers on, children, a spotted dog plus a film crew was chaotic. Joe continued to party and ignore the financial warnings of excess and consequently did less well than anticipated. Joe was left exhausted and broke. In 1972, he took the tour to Australia. On stage Joe Cocker was often too drunk to remember the lyrics and could barely hold down food. In Adelaide he and he and six of his entourage were arrested for possession of marijuana. Joe was deported but the huge public outcry which ensued forced a legalisation of marijuana debate. At the height of his troubles, Joe Cocker enjoyed one of the biggest hits of his career with "You Are So Beautiful" (1975), which was written by Billy Preston.
Privately, throughout the rest of the decade Joe continued to wrestle with his own problems of drug and alcohol abuse. The surprise of 1982 was an international hit which was the theme tune to the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. The song was a duet with Jennifer Warnes and “Up Where We Belong” put the Sheffield Shouter back on top.
Throughout the nineties Joe continued as a solo performer appearing at high profile festivals and on tour. In 1991 he and his wife moved to Colorado and Joe continued to record and tour. In 2014 Joe Cocker passed away on 22 December.
Worth a listen
Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes
Up Where We Belong (1982)
With a little help from my friends (1968)
She came in through the bathroom window (1969)
Delta Lady (1970)
I can stand a little rain (1974)
You are so beautiful (1975)
You Can Leave Your Hat On (1986)
Unchain my heart (1987)
When the Night Comes (1990)
Have a little faith (1994)
Could You Be Loved (1998)
Come together (2007)