In honor of his 75th birthday, we look back at the late singer’s pivotal 1969
It was a late show at the Fillmore East, the first weekend of May 1969. The headlining act was the Jeff Beck Group, and on before them was Joe Cocker and the Grease Band. In her famous review of Last Tango in Paris, film critic Pauline Kael described her initial reaction when she saw Marlon Brando in an off-Broadway play: “I looked up and saw what I thought was an actor having a seizure on stage.”
Seeing Joe Cocker was like that: Everything about him was disorienting. He was unkempt, as though he’d forgotten he had to do a second set, had gotten blitzed in the interim, and then someone shook him and told him it was showtime. Or like if a grizzly bear were taught how to play bass guitar, but then his trainer snatched the instrument away from him.
You can picture Cocker in ’69 in your mind now, 50 years later, because you’ve seen so many film clips (from Woodstock, or the film Groupies), or you know John Belushi’s go-for-broke impression from Lemmings or SNL. The spasmodic explosiveness, the way different parts of his body all had their separate ideas of what the rhythm was. And that voice, a fierce yowl that could turn unexpectedly tender and reflective. That weekend in ’69, all of that was completely out of the blue. We didn’t quite know what we’d seen. But most of us promptly bought his just-released debut album, With a Little Help From My Friends.
It took a lot to stand out in that year. My friends and I had a weekly ritual; we’d meet up near Fordham Road in The Bronx, get high in Poe Park, then take the subway all the way down to the Fillmore East. In just that month, which started with the Jeff Beck Group–Joe Cocker–NRBQ show, we saw The Who, The Band, Sly & the Family Stone, Delaney & Bonnie and Led Zeppelin. It was head-spinning. It was clear, however, that what Cocker and his band were up to was its own thing, a gritty take on what people called blue-eyed soul (later, when Cocker and Leon Russell swiped a bunch of guys from Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett’s band and formed Mad Dogs and Englishmen, it became even more of an old-school soul revue). There was precedent for a white British guy being besotted by Ray Charles—Stevie Winwood and Eric Burdon spring immediately to mind—but although Cocker’s sets sometimes went smack into Charles territory (“I Don’t Need No Doctor,” “Let’s Go Get Stoned”), that’s not where most of his repertoire came from. He was a rare thing for the late ’60s: an interpretive rock singer who drew on contemporary material.
Rock artists were expected to do one of two things: write their own songs, or dip into older blues, soul, and rock’n’roll catalogs. Sometimes both, like The Who and Led Zeppelin did at their Fillmore shows. The closest anyone came to Cocker’s approach was the singer who shared the bill with them, the Jeff Beck Group’s Rod Stewart. But at that point, with Beck-Ola about to come out, the covers he did leaned more toward traditional blues (Willie Dixon, B.B. King) and Elvis Presley songs. Cocker, however, announced with his debut album’s lead-off track, Dave Mason’s “Feeling Alright” (released about six months earlier on Traffic’s second album) that he wasn’t going to be purely a revivalist. There are top-notch songs on With a Little Help From My Friends that he wrote with the Grease Band’s keyboard player Chris Stainton (“Sandpaper Cadillac,” “Change in Louise”), and the team also composed the live staple “Something’s Coming On,” but what caught everyone’s attention was the way Cocker rethought Dylan (“I Shall Be Released,” “Just Like a Woman”), stamped material as diverse as “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” rescued Honeybus’ “Do I Still Figure In Your Life” from relative obscurity, and especially how he dismantled and refurnished the Lennon–McCartney song that gave the album its title.
It’s a remarkable transformation. What was congenial and childlike about “With a Little Help From My Friends” on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was tossed aside, and what Cocker and the band do—starting with an ominous organ riff, and some piercing guitar by Jimmy Page—is slow everything down to a stately crawl (there’s a touch of Procol Harum in there, which makes sense since the group’s B.J. Wilson is on drums on this track), then build and build, Cocker not sounding friendly at all, but desperate. It was always a show-stopper live, a performance that defined Cocker when it was featured in the Woodstock movie. He wasn’t yet a big deal when he played the festival: he came on Sunday afternoon after a long night-into-morning when we’d been wiped out by The Who and Sly & the Family Stone. But he woke us all up; when he started Dylan’s “Dear Landlord,” which would appear on his second album later in ’69, it was the first time that weekend that we scrambled to get closer to the stage.
Cocker and the Grease Band made a return appearance at Fillmore East in November ’69, this time as headliners (also on the bill: Fleetwood Mac and King Crimson), promoting the album simply called Joe Cocker! (as if that punctuation was necessary: his whole shtick was an exclamation point). Album two was a genuine sequel, with a Dylan song, a tumbling version of the Beatles’ “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”—he also does Harrison’s “Something”—and well-curated covers of songs by John Sebastian (“Darling Be Home Soon”), Leonard Cohen (“Bird on the Wire”), and his new pal Leon Russell (“Delta Lady” and “Hello, Little Friend”).
It all happened so quickly, from supporting act to headliner in around nine months, with a pair of impressive albums, and who’s to say the formula couldn’t have been recycled into the ’70s? There was no danger of running out of songs. Hell, Dylan’s Basement Tapes alone would have provided him with a wealth of options. But the Grease Band fell apart, and Cocker and Russell poached some of the Bramlett’s Friends for the Mad Dogs extravaganza that barnstormed America in the spring of 1970. That was a hoot—it was a kick the way they souped up the Julie London ballad “Cry Me a River,” and Cocker had to gargle his way through the line “told me love was too plebian”; it’s undecipherable—but it couldn’t be sustained. Still, 50 years ago this month, Joe Cocker was on the brink, and it was a thrill to watch.