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Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

Raspy-voiced ‘cover’ star falls silent

Date published: December 24, 2014Publication: Times Of India, The Link to original article
Tags: Joe Cocker

What was unique about him was not just his gritty voice, raspy and rough as gravel. Watching him perform was an unforgettable experience. He would gesticulate with the idiosyncratic intensity of a demented person. His body would move spasmodically. Each yell of his appeared to be ripping apart not only his parched throat but his whole being. In between the screams he spewed out were exquisite strains of sheer melody — therein lay his talent and genius.

He didn't compose his own songs. Nor did he write their lyrics. He became famous singing others' songs. Yet, ironically, his so-called 'cover' versions were on occasions more popular than the originals. In 1968, when his rendition of a Beatles song — "With A Little Help From My Friends" — hit the top of the charts in the UK, Paul McCartney described his version as not merely "mind-blowing" but fulsomely added that he was "forever grateful" to him for having transformed the sing-along rock number into a "soul anthem".

That was indeed the genius of John Robert 'Joe' Cocker, who started his professional life as a gas-fitter from the industrial town of Sheffield in north England and went on to become one of the world's most popular rock and blues singers, the colour of whose skin was not dark. In fact, the Beatles were said to be so happy with the popularity of Cocker's version of their song which he performed at the Woodstock festival in 1969, that McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison reportedly encouraged him to record his versions of more Beatles' songs like "Something" and "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window".

He also popularised "Cry Me A River" and "Feelin' Alright" by Dave Mason and Billy Preston's "You Are So Beautiful". The duet he sang with Jenifer Warnes, "Up Where We Belong" for the film "An Officer and a Gentleman" won a Grammy award. As one who started his musical career singing songs of Chuck Berry and Ray Charles and a supporting performer at concerts by the Rolling Stones in the early 1960s, Cocker played with some of the leading musicians of his time. For instance, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin played lead guitar on his renditions of Beatles' songs.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Cocker was hardly radical in his views. He played for British Prime Minister Ted Heath, US President George W Bush and received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth. His wit made him christen his band after the title of a Noel Coward song "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and the ranch where he lived the last years of his life in Colorado in the US was named "Mad Dog".

But like his peers from the 1960s, his frequent alcoholic binges and consumption of marijuana eventually contributed to the lung cancer that consumed him.

Yet he was also a survivor, performing until a year ago, after having hit the road for more than four decades. He leaves for posterity 23 studio albums and 17 others, including live performances and compilations. Yes, he got by with a little help from his friends who all miss him dearly.

Date posted: September 1, 2015Last modified: September 1, 2015Posted byEeshaan Tiwary