In the latest blow to a music world already shaken by the sudden deaths of some indelible icons, the passing of Joe Cocker today caps a difficult year of unexpected losses. Cocker, age 70, died today of cancer at his home.
Cocker provided rock with one of its most passionate performances when he took the stage at the landmark Woodstock Festival clad in tie-dye, gyrating like a mad man wailing resolutely. That famous posture helped sustain his career for the next 45 years, scoring the occasional hit while veering to the middle of the road. And that gravelly voice remained his constant, whether in the company of his group, the Grease Band, helming the sprawling communal combo dubbed Mad Dogs and Englishmen, or partnering with singer Jennifer Warnes on his biggest hit of all, "Up Where We Belong" for An Officer and a Gentleman.
Like many an iconic rocker, Cocker had his vices, most having to do with a penchant for drugs and alcohol. Eventually, his sales started to slump and his headliner status brought him only diminished returns. At his last South Florida appearance at the Hard Rock, he effectively retraced his hits, but without the verve and vitality that his early efforts had engendered.
Still Cocker managed to stay true to his original intents, portraying himself as a journeyman musician determined to never abandon his original inspirations. "A lot of people have asked me over the years why the north of England was so prone to R&B," Cocker told New Times shortly before that local concert appearance. "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."
In that conversation, it was also clear he never lost sight of his workingman roots. He came across as a genuinely humble individual, always willing to share credit with others. That became evident when asked why he chose to cover other people's material and, in that particular way, share the spotlight with those who wrote the songs.
"I've never been much of a songwriter, so there are keystone songs that have become very special for me," he offered, expressing that humility. "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."
It was with a little help from his friends -- a list of notables that included various Beatles, Rolling Stones, and superstars such as Jimmy Page, Leon Russell and Steve Winwood -- that Cocker recorded his earliest albums and set out on the road to stardom.
It was still though, that unshakable, flailing image, manifested at Woodstock and largely intact even in his later years, that made him so instantly identifiable. He looked like a man in the grip of convulsions, his arms flung about herky-jerky, legs bowed as if he might topple over any second.
"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."
Sadly, that rhythm that guided him throughout his life has come to an end. Yet, no doubt his remarkable image will live on, and the music that it accompanied will almost certainly as well.
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