Who is England’s greatest soul singer? Because his greatest work was over 30 years ago and he has drifted off into largely undistinguished MOR, it is easy to forget the answer to the question is Joe Cocker.
With his spastic motions and barbed wire bellow, Cocker is a ripe target for parody (recall John Belushi’s SNL homage), but through sheer talent and passion he emerged as one of the great stylists of rock history and England’s greatest-ever soul singer, worthy of comparison to his idol, Ray Charles.
Since Cocker is not primarily a songwriter, his career has ridden up and down depending upon the quality of his material and his compatibility with a long line of producers. Cocker’s peak was late ’60s-early ’70s when he recorded four albums (With a Little Help From My Friends, Joe Cocker!, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Joe Cocker) with the great producer Denny Cordell, the highlights are indelibly imprinted on rock history: Cocker’s version of Dave Mason”s “Feelin’ Alright,” a version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” with Jimmy page on lead guitar, “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” Leon Russell”s “Delta Lady,” classic live versions of “The Letter” and Cry Me a River” with the huge Mad Dogs band assembled by Russell.
Also fine are more recent hits “You Are So Beautiful,” and the Cocker-Jennifer Warnes duet from An Officer and a Gentleman, “Up Where We Belong,” which is smarmy but affecting.