Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Joe Cocker- Mad Dog and an Englishman

Sad news this week of the passing of Joe Cocker, a man with an unmistakeable voice and in my humble opinion one of the great interpreters in popular music. Cocker had the ability to take a song and transform it, whether it be into a soul anthem like he did on With a Little Help From My Friends or a torch song like Cry Me a River which he turns into a gospel style plea for retribution, wringing everything out of the damaged soul. I was a fan from an early age my Dad loved Joe especially his early stuff if you listen to some of his studio albums and his interpretations of artists like Dylan, The Beatles etc it's amazing how he took these songs and owned them, creating a new feeling and context for each one.

On His 1969 debut LP With A Little Help From My Friends tucked away at the end of side 2 is his version of the Dylan/Band classic I Shall Be Released Cocker gives an understated gospel delivery full of soul and passion, it seemed to sum up the times, in the midst of growing chaos comes a wistful elegy for peace and freedom. Cocker is backed by a stellar lineup of musicians Steve Winwood provides the haunting organ refrain, Chris Stainton vacates the keyboard chair and provides an almost jazz inspired bass line, future Spooky Tooth drummer Mike Kellie sounds eerily familiar to the legendary B.J Wilson with those crashing rolls on the tom. Also on side 2 is perhaps one of the definitive version of the Nina Simone song Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, I prefer this version ahead of the Animals version. Whilst there is a certain grittiness to the performance of Eric Burdon he doesn't hold a candle to Joe who sounds like a broken man on this song. He sounds like a man at the end of his tether pleading for understanding, the music is understated some pulsing guitar and organ give it a more melancholy feel. Grease Band guitarist Henry McCullough plays some very soulful runs after the chorus and in the fade out takes it to a new level with keyboardist Tommy Eyre as they take it in a jazz direction. To say that Joe was just an interpreter would be wrong, he co wrote three songs with Chris Stainton on the first album including the early breakthrough Marjorine.

Album number two saw Joe continuing to push his sound deeper into soul and gospel but with a slightly harder edge, especially on his version of She Came In Through The Bathroom Window. Hitchcock Railway is a song that I distinctly remember as a kid, I loved it's rhythmic flow, it had a funky groove and a rollicking piano line throughout the song. The song sounds like a rolling weaving train ride the piano starts off slowly as things begin to gather steam, not sure who is playing on this song but the classic lineup of The Grease Band has a more prominent role on this album. Another classic on this album and I think one of Dad's favourite songs is the Lovin Spoonful cover Darling Be Home Soon, the piano once again holds prominence at the start of the song, building a dramatic undertone. Joe gives a a performance that is understated but captures a certain urgency. He does a great bluesy cover of Dylan's Dear Landlord with that immortal line Oh Dear Landlord please don't put a price on my soul" this was Bob having a dig at his manager Albert Grossman who was pushing Dylan to write songs during his sabbatical in Woodstock.

Cocker's early career peak was the live album Mad Dogs and Englishmen recorded during a six week U.S tour in 1970, a tour Cocker did not want to do as he was completely exhausted from 2 years of constant work. An all star band was recruited for the tour with Leon Russell putting together a once in a lifetime rock soul orchestra featuring the likes of Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon on drums, a horn section featuring Bobby Keys and Jim Price and the brilliant Carl Radle on bass. The standout track for me is Cocker's version of the Julie London torch classic Cry Me A River which Joe turns into a magnificently deranged soul gospel number where he pleads and demands with great fervour. At times during the song he as wounded defeated ache in his voice that is quite chilling, you can feel the great pressure and exhaustion he was feeling at the time.

These are just a few of the songs that resonated with me when I was listening to Joe as a kid, his canon is wide and varied and music listeners should take the time to explore his diverse musical catalogue. One of the greats has left the stage RIP Joe Cocker.

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