With a little (more) help...
The news that Joe Cocker is almost certain to play one of this year's major football stadium gigs must be news to quicken the hearts of anyone who's held their breath through the rocky and disappointing years since Cocker broke on the British R & B scene in the late Sixties with his single "Marjorine".
To say that the career of Joe Cocker has been both exciting and heartbreaking for both the man and his audience would only touch on the true facts. He's worked his way through a handful of managers, a few record companies, a whole army of musicians and, if reports can be believed, some very severe drug problems only to come up again, on his feet and ready to fight, in 1975.
Here we are then, some seven years after breaking on the unsuspecting public like a thunder bolt the King of rasping rock/blues/R & B vocals is working again. Who'd have believed it, Sheffield gas fitter to one of the greatest and jealously sought after artists in the world overnight? It's all true though, and although Joe's seen the lights as bright as anyone he's also managed to skim the bottom and feel pain too.
But, with the good news that his single "I Can Stand A Little Rain" (from the album of the same name) made its mark with some impact on the U.S. charts — and got a little push here — plus the fact he's got himself a new manager, Reg Lock, and another working band, makes all his loyal fans, on both sides of the Atlantic, cross their fingers and wish that the old Cocker happy days could be with us again.
The "I Can Stand A Little Rain" sessions were a painfully slow affair, producer and horn player Jim Price carefully piecing together sessions gathered from over a year to bring out the final product, a fine album, both sad and heart warming, showing that guts and self respect hadn't slipped away too far.
Price took a few knocks after the album's release from those who felt it had been over-produced but to those who care — obviously like Price himself — it was a very delicate handling of a fragile and much bruised artist, a man who didn't really want the problems of touring and recording but who's in-bred brilliance wouldn't let him rest.
Since 'Rain' it's been learnt that enough material came from those sessions to almost fill another single album but it seems certain that Cocker will go back and record some more stuff for the next release. The album might not be too long in surfacing and the news that Joe's band is ready to hit the road again cements the rumours that we may just see some real Cocker on stage.
All too often the man's failed to produce the outstanding control and feeling he captures on vinyl when the live occasions arrived. Some of the time it's been bad luck, other times Joe's been a sad parody of himself, cavorting aimlessly about on stage, out of touch with his band and on some nights apparently with the world at large.
But this is all a hell of a long way from "A Little Help From My Friends" which really catapulted Joe out of small club work into the heady atmosphere of big tours and equally hefty pay packets. Joe worked himself up with one hell of an outfit, the Grease Band, to many people the best section that Cocker's ever had behind him.
On this debut album though Joe walked in great company — Jimmy Page, Steve Winwood, Henry McCullough (later to get back with Joe when the Grease Band split away) Procol Harum's Matthew Fisher and B.J. Wilson, it was a great success, not for the star studded 'session' list but because of that inescapable Cocker genius.
Britain had found itself a singer of the highest calibre, a man that could stand up in the best company and win. But, rather than cosset the unique man, Britain let the Americans steal him from under their noses, and build him into the overnight sensation he deserved to be.
The relationship Joe had with Chris Stainton and McCullough was to last a long time through his career but even by Joe's second album "Joe Cocker" the American influences were beginning to bite. The Greasers — Stainton, McCullough, Alan Spenner and Bruce Rowlands — were included but the likes of Clarence White, Leon Russell, Sneaky Pete et cetera were creeping in.
Joe Cocker Superstar was in the making and with this acceptance came the strain that ploughed in the easy-going likeable man from Sheffield from then on. He was easy game for the vultures that fill the dark corners of the rock and roll business, always ready to help with spiked advice, a little dope to ease the strain or anything that gains them admittance to the company of that year's model T artist.
Things got worse, Joe became more confused and on the eve of an American tour that would rip the guts out of America the Grease Band broke away from Cocker. This followed his massive success at Woodstock and at a time when the good/bad night unpredictability of their chemistry looked like it might settle down. Joe was in a fix and the name of Leon Russell was suggested as a possible way out.
Russell was by then a very respected musician among the session elite, he could lay his hands on a small army of impeccable players and in fact that's just what happened. Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon, Bobby Keys, Jim Price, Stainton, Carl Radle, Don Preston, a ten piece choir and Leon were ready to do battle on the road with Joe.
Trouble is, the news that leaked out after the incredible Mad Dogs and Englishmen super tour suggested that Joe was constantly being upstaged by various members of his team and after the strain on both body and mind Cocker ended the spectacular a broken man. Fights broke out as to where Cocker's end of the money had gone and manager Dee Anthony looked on his way out.
The tour yielded a double album that sold like hot cakes and a film that went part of the way to show that some of the rumours might have been near the truth. Anyways, Joe fought to loosen the grip of Dee Anthony — his final grip costing an alleged quarter million dollars for Joe to break free of — and decided that if this was the rock and roll life he wasn't having more of the same thing for a good while.
Trouble dogged Cocker all the way and the ridiculous situation arose where here was an almost priceless object that just didn't want to know any more. After Mad Dogs Joe could command massive fees for tours and in the region of 6500 dollars for an average evening's work according to his former agent Frank Barcelona. Joe could have been one of the highest paid artists around, at one point it's certain that he was perhaps the most popular male vocalist in the States.
There came a fourth album "Something To Say" which ironically featured ex-Greaser Allan Spenner, Stainton and Jim Keltner — a cross section of his British and American line-ups — and a new manager Nigel Thomas. Denny Cordell was still there, the man who'd had a hand in the production of all Cocker's albums but none was to suspect that soon he would split from Stainton, Cordell and Thomas in one foul swoop.
The long lay-off hadn't helped Joe any and the tour that promised to rebuild the old Cocker powers didn't come good.
The incident in Australia further upset the mild mannered Cocker and another long time away from the business was just around the corner. The rumours filtered up again and when Joe reappeared with news of another setup, Cock'N'Bull— McCullough, Mick Weaver, Buffalo Gelber, Jimmy Karstein — even his hardest followers shook their heads in disbelief.
It didn't work either, of course, and the only really concrete thing to come of that union was the groundwork for "I Can Stand A Little Rain". The band was to disintegrate, Henry coming home to Britain to form-an ill-fated band with Scottish vocal ace Frankie Miller and Joe staying put in the mountains of America.
Even a Cocker at less than full RPM is more than a match for most of the world's so called singers, "Rain" more than proved that fact and where the old Cocker power and gravel delivery were lacking a new-found depth and emotion filled the spaces — it wasn't classic Cocker in the time honoured tradition but yet it's proved to be more than classic in its own way since its release last year.
The album was almost Joe himself, some of the songs could have been written about his tragic life, nowhere better illustrated than in Allen Toussaint's touching "Performance"
"As they watch you fall down to your knees,
They don't know that you're praying to please,
They don't see the little angel at your back with a star,
The only one who knows exactly what you are"*
Cocker, like so many other outstanding Britons, was snatched to America's bountiful bosom before his own countryfolk really knew what they had under their noses. It worked well for some, but the rise, the adulation or just perhaps the shit that flies in the rock and roll circus ring was too much for him to stomach. He got hurt and went into his shell, hard to tell if the retreat followed the drugs or the other way around but whatever the case Joe wasn't tough enough to take it.
So, if there's anyone who cares enough about one of the best, if not the best singer that's come into the rock and roll spotlight, it's time to show Cocker that there's a public out there and waiting for him. Not waiting for him to stagger in and puke on stage or fall flat on his face but an audience that remembers and still cares.
Genius is too good to waste, and who's to say that Joe Cocker isn't one of the few brilliant artists to be thrown up in the last ten to twenty years?
* © Warner Tamelane Pub. Corp., and Marsaint Music Inc. (BMI)