Although Joe Cocker co-wrote many songs, mostly with long-time keyboard cohort Chris Stainton, it was his interpretive skills that, rightly, took him to the heights. Despite his ramshackle manner, he was a deeply informed student of song, as evidenced by his extremely wide range of source material, which covered most of the bases of popular and also eclectic songwriting.
His signature songs, ” A Little Help From My Friends” and “You Are So Beautiful” by Lennon & McCartney and Billy Preston, respectively, are among the best-known cover songs in modern musical history, and along with his duet with Jennifer Warnes, the ubiquitous “Up Where We Belong” (Will Jennings, Jack Nitzche, Buffy Saint Marie ), are probably the most recognizable pillars of his reputation, but in his long career, there were so many writers who benefited from his way with a song.
Up front about his adoration for Ray Charles, he was visibly moved on a TV program when Ray complemented him on being a star pupil ” He may have begun taking it from me, but what you hear now is all Joe Cocker-it’s his soul you’re hearin’ “.
He inhabited a song as completely as did Ray Charles, which is as fitting a tribute as he would ever have wanted, being the humble man he was.
Watching the SNL anniversary show, with the Belushi clips, brought to mind an encounter I had with him in NYC, before the Not Ready For Primetime Players burst into our consciousness. I was in Manhattan with a business partner, pitching some new r’n’b product to the labels, and one evening we dropped by a modest comedy club that was featuring a revue by the name of “The National Lampoon Show.” Many of the future SNL troupe were in the cast, including Gilda Radner, as I recall, but the shining light, already, was Belushi……until he broke out the Cocker bit, to which I took offence, Joe being an acquaintance of mine and a good lad.
It was an informal place, with no backstage to speak of, so, emboldened by certain substances, I wandered back to take issue with the Cocker bit. I button-holed him, and as soon as I started in he said ” Is that accent for real?” and immediately assumed a credible Fab Four voice as I berated him for what I considered, at the time, a cruel parody of Joe.
“No! No! You got it wrong….I love Joe Cocker. That’s why I do the bit!”
We had a drink and he went back for the second show. I hung around, as my biz partner was away for an early night. Another drink was had, the way you do, after the second show, and he and I strolled out into the Manhattan night.
We ended up in a bar somewhere in the West Village until the wee hours, in most stimulating and stimulated conversation lubricated by nectar and the occasional Peruvian moment. Mostly the conversation was about music. He was extremely knowledgeable, and liked that I was a Liverpool guy who’d moved to the American south to realize my dream of doing r’n’b and rock ‘n’roll in the cradle of the form. When we reeled out in companionable disarray, he made sure I got a taxi back to my hotel, and that was that.
When I first watched SNL, it was like…I know that fella…then a couple of shows in, he did the Cocker bit for the first time on national TV, and the rest, as they say, was history. I never ran into him again and never tried to connect through channels.
It was a one-off, a wonderful, cool one-off, when he was on the brink of so many things, good and bad. I hadn’t thought about that night in years, but last night’s show brought the memory back.
RIP, Belushi. RIP, Cocker…..yiz were made for each other!
“Joe came to Nashville with The Crusaders to sing on a couple of songs for an album they were recording. This was Joe’s first foray back into music after his self-imposed hiatus, and he, the band, and Will Jennings, lyricist extraordinaire, were in our midst for several weeks. The big hang-out in those days was Close Quarters, a/k/a the rock ‘n’ roll hotel, which actually was a boutique hotel, but the bar and lounge were ground zero for the local record people and for the visitors, too. Joe and Will were actually staying up the street at Spence Manor, which was even more exclusive, while The Crusaders were ensconced in The Quarters. For many a night, after their sessions, they all held court in the conversation pit, around a roaring fire, and I made a point of being a regular, as I was anyway, only living around the corner myself. I’d run into Joe a time or two, back when he was still living and working around Sheffield, but I couldn’t say we’d been even passing acquaintances, yet he was happy to have another northern lad to chat to, so we got quite matey. Very late on the night the album was finished, after the celebratory intake had done its work, Joe decided that he had to have a full English breakfast …
Spence Manor prided itself on the fact that they could get their guests anything they wanted, at any hour, so Joe asked me to come back and do the ordering, as he was somewhat compromised, and Will wouldn’t know what to ask for. Armed with a fresh bottle of Scotch, we took the short walk to The Spence, and arrived in Joe’s suite at about four-thirty (that’s a.m.).
I figured I should call my wife to let her know I was OK, as this looked like it might take a while. I no sooner had a very sleepy Patti on the line, when Joe commandeered the phone … “Ello, missus, I’ve kidnapped your husband, ‘cause I’ve got to have an English breakfast and I need him to order it from these folk … y’don’t mind, do you? Aye, good, well thanks then.” Handing the phone back, he said, “Yer alreet, son,” and addressed the bottle while I got busy with the concierge.
You can imagine explaining the intricacies of a full English breakfast to someone who’d never heard of such a thing: “Yes, grilled tomatoes, baked beans, yes, that’s right … no, that’s fried bread, not rye bread, you heard me right, fried bread, fry it in the same pan you cook the bacon and sausage in … ,” etc. etc. Now, I wasn’t stone-cold sober myself, but eventually the task was accomplished, and by dawn’s early light we tucked into a brilliant full English … Joe was a happy man! (When I saw my wife that evening, she said, “Was I imagining it last night, or did Joe Cocker call here.” Affirmative, my dear, affirmative.)” – an excerpt from Mersey Me! A Liverpool Lad On The Loose In The Swingin’ 60’s
I trust the heavenly kitchen had the full English Brekkie ready for Joe when he arrived – complete with black pudding!
Harlan Howard , doyen of Nashville songsmiths, was very generous with his advice, certainly to the group of acolytes he dubbed the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Juveniles”, mostly the first wave of musical carpetbaggers that came to Nashville in the mid ‘70’s; Brits, Angelenos, Yankees etc., who were afforded his hospitality on a fairly regular basis. I was lucky to get one on one with him a few times, particularly when we were writing a song together to lay on Joe Cocker, who had come to town to record with The Crusaders. At Harlan’s request we met at 7.30 a.m. at his place on Radnor Lake, the earliest writing session I’ve ever agreed to, not being a morning person.
We had it wrapped by 11, he booked the studio at Tree Publishing for 2, and so we repaired to the much-missed Maude’s Courtyard near Music Row for a pre-session liquid lunch. Over those White Russians he gave me a beautiful nugget “ You know, kid, people ask me why I spend so much time in bars….hell, that’s where all the material is ! Sit in the corner with your ears wide open, and you’ll get all the songs you’ll ever need”.
Fast forward a few years…….I’m in Dublin for the opening shows of Nanci Griffiths’ “ Other Voices, Other Rooms” European tour, not as a participant, but because a bunch of my mates are part of the caravan. I’d just come from playing the annual “Blues Estafette” in Utrecht, and after a few days R and R in Amsterdam, had channel-hopped to Dublin for this much-anticipated event.
As has always been my custom when in Dublin, I jumped on the DART on Day 2, to have lunch in Howth, the gorgeous fishing town 8 miles north of the city, at the northern extreme of Dublin Bay. My hostelry of choice, The Lighthouse, an old pub high on the bluffs overlooking the harbor, the ancient cemetery, and the islet they call Ireland’s Eye. A lovely spot altogether.
At two on a salty wind-whipped day, the clientele was thin on the ground, and as I settled on a stool at the corner of the long bar, the only other customer was an old cove, obviously a local, who was seated about eight stools north of me, applying himself to a pint of the inevitable.
I had just finished a bracing walk along the cliff-top trail, and was dressed for the weather in an ankle-length grey gabardine duster and a brown felt Borsalino, so was making a sartorial statement probably a little far out for The Lighthouse. I ordered a meat pie and a pint of Smithwicks, taking my lunch in companionable silence with the old fella… I’ve always enjoyed the ornate turn of phrase that older Irishmen, especially around Dublin, are wont to display, and after I’d polished off the pie, my companion chose to break the silence in just such a manner.
“You have the look of an international man, sir”, he began. “ Well, I suppose I am”, I replied.
“ If you don’t mind me askin’, where do you hang that very fine hat ?” “Nashville”. “Nashville, Tennessee?” “ That’s the one”, I replied. “Ah, I love the country and western….would you be a musicianer yourself?” “ I would” (Y’see, I was already getting into the cadence and the slightly archaic syntax!) “But you don’t have that kind of accent, do you?”. I explained that my parents were Irish, my home town was Liverpool, and my mid-Atlantic accent after thirty years in Nashville still had more than a trace of Scouse.
“ Liverpool, is it ? The dogs in the street used to know me in Liverpool!”, he exclaimed. I’d never heard that colorful phrase before, but instantly grasped it’s meaning. I ordered up two more pints, indicating that he was welcome to join me, which he did. It transpired that he’d been in the Merchant Marine, shipping out of Liverpool to the world’s ports for many years, as had my own dad, and his knowledge of Liverpool’s geography and environs was strong enough for me to know he wasn’t just springing a line to take advantage of a gullible tourist….
We spent the balance of the afternoon chatting away and bending the elbow, and when it was time for me to return to Dublin City, we parted on the most genial of terms, although neither of us made any attempt to exchange contact information, which is how it should be, given the casual circumstances…hell, we hadn’t even exchanged first names !
On the return trip I jotted that phrase down, knowing that I’d be using it somewhere down the line, which proved to be the case.