It's one of the most indelible images in rock 'n' roll, that of Joe Cocker, clad in tie dye, twitching and gyrating onstage at Woodstock, singing with that whiskey-soaked voice that became his stock in trade. For most, it proved an auspicious introduction to a rough-and-tumble young singer from the north of England who had an uncanny ability to interpret well-known material and make it all his own.
In the years to come, Cocker would remain a persistent presence, whether standing at the helm of his own Grease band, sharing the stage with the sprawling communal aggregate christened as Mad Dogs and Englishmen, or straddling the middle of the road with his biggest hit of all, "Up Where We Belong," the soaring ballad he shared with Jennifer Warnes.
We spoke with the musician about everything from his frustrated stage moves to the clever vocals of John Belushi when impersonating him. Ensconced at his Mad Dog Ranch, in Crawford, Colorado, located in the remote reaches of the Colorado Rockies, Cocker turned out to be surprisingly down-to-earth, willing to open up about his history, and as gracious and engaging as any musician I've ever encountered.
On his singing style: "A lot of people have asked me over the years why the north of England was so prone to R&B. It was odd, but most of the bands out of Sheffield and Newcastle never wrote songs. We'd cover Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ray Charles, of course... And so we all started singing like black blues singers. It just evolved. I always think of myself as a white soul singer, for lack of a better term."
On the origination of his stage moves: "I never played organ or piano or guitar, so it was more out of frustration and me just trying to impersonate in a way. I did it subconsciously. People mistook for me being ill, like I had palsy. I'm not nearly so demonstrative now, but I still have my own way of feeling the rhythm.
On his ability to interpret other people's material: "I've never been much of a songwriter, so there are keystone songs that have become very special for me. People would always say, 'Joe, you're doing too many covers.' But when you don't write, you don't have any choice. Still, I did get a bit of fame for doing it. It all came about with a little help from my friends."
On his recollections of Woodstock: "We were on before it turned into a mud festival. The rains hadn't started coming down yet. I vividly remember looking into this sea of people, and it was beyond calculation. I had already played to 50,000 people earlier that year at the Atlanta Pop Festival, so I had some idea what it was like to play to a huge crowd. I flew in on a helicopter, and I remember saying to the pilot, 'What's all that stuff on the horizon?' And he said, 'That's where you're going to play.' It was an ocean of people.
"When we landed by the side of the stage, my band was already there and wired up and ready to go. It was pretty early in the day, as I recall, and the crowd was all doing other things until we did 'Let's All Get Stoned,' the old Ray Charles number, and that kind of woke everybody up a bit. If you look at the film, we did a pretty good job with 'A Little Help From My Friends.' People say, 'Well, you look a bit gazongo,' but it was like a gospel thing where you'd get so caught up in it, it's like swooning in the church."
On John Belushi's famous impression of him: "I always found it quite amusing. But you have to understand I was a bit of a wreck at the time he was doing all that stuff. I didn't watch much television, so I wasn't aware of it until some guy said, 'There's this guy doing an awful impersonation of you. Sue him.' I thought vocally, he did quite a clever job with it. It put a print on me that kind of stuck to this day. He [Belushi] was quite shy really whenever we did any gigs together. He was almost like a schoolboy. He'd come in the dressing room, just watch everything I was doing."
On sharing the stage and a song ("Feelin' Alright") with Dave Mason: "Whenever I see him, I tell him, 'I've helped make you a few bucks over the years off that one, haven't I?' But I'm afraid both of us have put on a bit of weight, and so whenever he comes onstage with me, it becomes a bit of a belly banging."
Joe Cocker with Dave Mason. 8 p.m., September 28 and 29 at Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Visit ticketmaster.com.
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