Charismatic Singer Joe Cocker Dies At 70

Dec 22, 2014
Originally published on November 1, 2017 11:43 am

Joe Cocker died Monday at his home in Crawford, Colo., after what his publicist described as a hard-fought battle with small-cell lung cancer. He was 70.

Cocker performed for five decades, recording 40 albums and dozens of hits. But he told NPR two years ago that "You Are So Beautiful" was his favorite.

"It was originally a gospel song, and Billy Preston rewrote the lyrics that made it more of a love song," Cocker said. "It kind of woke up something — that softer side."

Cocker's softer side was hardly in evidence early in his career. He was born in Northern England and, like The Beatles, started off playing pubs in skiffle bands. Then he blasted to the top of the U.K. charts in 1968 with a ferocious version of... a Beatles song. Cocker's performance of "With A Little Help From My Friends" at Woodstock made him a star in the U.S. His voice seemed to scrape the bottom of the ocean. Onstage, his hands were everywhere — flailing, jerking, ecstatic.

"I don't play piano or guitar," Cocker said. "I feel the music [is] channeled through my body. I would just do these motions like Ray Charles... or air guitar."

Cocker's vast reserves of energy and charisma nearly drowned him. His Mad Dogs And Englishmen tour in 1970 remains a legend of rock 'n' roll excess. Cocker toured constantly through the '70s, sometimes so drunk he would throw up on stage. Later, when he got clean, he joked it took years for the alcohol to drain from his body. When it finally did, Cocker found himself back on top of the charts with "Up Where We Belong," a 1983 duet with Jennifer Warnes.

"It's like sex without touching," Warnes says, describing singing with Joe Cocker to NPR. "Or maybe it's like jumping with him out of an airplane. You're not lip-syncing, you have no idea where he's going. You're just going and, to me, it's like extreme sports."

Joe Cocker got less extreme as he aged. He settled down in Colorado, where his hobbies turned to fly-fishing, hiking and growing tomatoes in his greenhouse.

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Singer Joe Cocker died today. The musician known for his gravelly voice and dramatic stage presence was 70. He died at his home in the Colorado Rockies, after what his publicist described as a hard-fought battle with small cell lung cancer. NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Joe Cocker performed for five decades, recorded 40 albums and dozens of hits, but he told NPR two years ago that this song was his favorite.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL TO ME")

JOE COCKER: (Singing) You are so beautiful to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COCKER: It was originally a gospel song, and Billy Preston rewrote the lyrics that made it a bit more of a love song. There's a little thing at the end that goes (singing) to me. You know, it kind of woke up something up in me - that softer side.

ULABY: Joe Cocker's softer side was hardly in evidence earlier in his career. He was born in Northern England and, like the Beatles, started off playing pubs in skiffle bands. Then, he blasted to the top of the U.K. charts in 1968 with a ferocious version of a Beatles song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS")

COCKER: (Singing) Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, its got to be somebody.

ULABY: Cocker's performance of "With A Little Help From My Friends" at Woodstock made him a star in the U.S. His voice seemed to scrape the bottom of the ocean. And on stage, his hands were everywhere, flailing, jerking, ecstatic. A music journalist called his onstage moves spastic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COCKER: When I first read that I was like, good God, is that how it comes over? Because I don't play piano or guitar, I feel the music being channeled through my body. I would just sort of do these motions like Ray Charles kind of motions or air guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BYE BYE BLACKBIRD")

COCKER: (Singing) Pack up all my cares and woes. Feeling low, here I go. I say bye, oh, blackbird, now.

ULABY: Cocker's vast reserves of energy and charisma nearly drowned him. His Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in 1970 remains a legend of rock 'n roll excess. Cocker toured constantly throughout the 1970s, sometimes so drunk he would throw up on stage. Later when he got clean, he joked it took years for the alcohol to drain from his body. When it finally did, Joe Cocker found himself back on top of the charts with a 1983 duet with Jennifer Warnes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JENNIFER WARNES: It's like sex without touching.

ULABY: That's how Warnes described singing with Joe Cocker to NPR, or maybe, she said, it's like jumping with him out of an airplane.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WARNES: You're not lip-synching. You have no idea where he's going. You're just going. And to me, it's just like this - it's like extreme sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP WHERE WE BELONG")

WARNES AND COCKER: (Singing) Love lifts us up where we belong.

ULABY: Joe Cocker got less extreme as he aged. He settled down in Colorado where his hobbies turned to fly fishing, hiking and growing tomatoes in his greenhouse. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELIN' ALRIGHT")

COCKER: (Singing) You feelin' alright. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.