Joe Cocker: The 'Hard Knock' Life Of A Singular Singer

Feb 4, 2012
Originally published on November 1, 2017 8:42 am

Joe Cocker has one of the most recognizable voices in rock — anyone who's heard his version of "With a Little Help From My Friends" can attest to that. The British singer has been belting out hits for more than 40 years, the biggest of which include "Feelin' Alright," "Up Where We Belong" and "You Can Leave Your Hat On."

But with all that success also came some hard times. Cocker has struggled with drugs, alcohol and financial debt, all of which he's discussed openly.

"I was about 26 years old, and I kind of felt indestructible," Cocker says, recalling the 1970 tour that spawned his famous live album Mad Dogs & Englishmen. "By the early '70s, the drugs and the booze took their toll. ... It was a long road back. A lot of times when you're young and carefree, you don't realize, when you tip over the edge, how difficult it is to climb back in."

Here, Joe Cocker speaks with NPR's Rachel Martin about his new album, Hard Knocks.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

British singer Joe Cocker has one of the greatest and most recognizable voices in rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS")

JOE COCKER: (Singing) I get by with a little help from my friends. Oh, yes, I'm going to keep trying now. With a little help from my friends. Keeping on trying with my friends. Now a little help from my friends. Whoa...

MARTIN: Joe Cocker has belted out songs for more than 40 years. Some of his biggest hits include "Feelin' Alright," "Up Where We Belong" and "You Can Leave your Hat On." But with all that success also came some hard times. Joe Cocker's struggled with drugs and alcohol, financial debt, all of which he's been open about. So, it's not a surprise that a man who has taken his fair share of hard knocks in life would name his new album just that: "Hard Knocks." Joe Cocker joins me from Colorado Public Radio. Mr. Cocker, thanks so much and welcome to the program.

COCKER: Hi, Rachel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm doing fine, thank you. When did you know that you could sing? Who was the person who said, Joe Cocker, you got something going on there?

COCKER: Yeah, Rachel. It's a bit strange because, you know, there was no "Idol" show back then, you know. Rock and roll came into my life when I was about 12, 13, when Little Richard and Chuck Berry had just started hitting the shores of England. I sang with my brother at a skiffle band, as they called them back then.

MARTIN: I don't know what a skiffle band is.

COCKER: Well, it was when people couldn't afford instruments after the war and they started - you had a washboard and a tea chest upright bass and just a few acoustic guitars. I had a very high voice, and then suddenly my voice overnight did what voices do and found a new level. I worked in the pubs around Sheffield, England.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD KNOCKS")

MARTIN: OK. Let's take a listen to a track from the new album. This is the title track actually called "Hard Knocks."

COCKER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD KNOCKS")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD KNOCKS")

MARTIN: Your performance style over the years has become part of your public persona. And there's no way to describe it. It's physical. Let's just say it's a very physical performance style.

COCKER: Yeah. Well, for a choice of expression, they used to get all these things in the papers. It would say he has these spastic movements, you know. So, when I first read that, I was like, good God, is that how he comes over, 'cause I don't play piano or guitar. I feel the music being channeled through my body. I would just sort of do these motions, like Ray Charles kind of motions or air guitar. It was nothing forced. When I suddenly had it put it front of me like that, that's how they viewed it, I found myself being a bit more inhibited for quite a while about doing that stuff.

MARTIN: I think it's fair to say that you are one of the greatest interpreters of songs. What is the key to making a song your own?

COCKER: Well, sometimes it works. And, you know, I've done other times where I tried doing songs that I didn't really think happened. I did a version of "Whiter Shade of Pale" one time that when you listen to it, you probably say, well, that's Joe Cocker singing a Procol Harum song. But like when you hear me doing "Little Help from My Friends," you know it's a whole different thing completely. When I did "Unchain My Heart," the Ray Charles (humming), we completely changed the rhythm and gave it a different attack. And it made it like a new song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNCHAIN MY HEART")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNCHAIN MY HEART")

MARTIN: I want to get back into the new album with another track. I want to play a track called "Unforgiven." Let's take a listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGIVEN")

MARTIN: I want to ask you about your sense of place, because you are from a particular place and you live in a very different place now. You grew up in the north of England in Sheffield, which is a very different place than the American West in Colorado where you live now. Why Colorado? Why rural Colorado?

COCKER: There's lot of winter you have to live with. But I don't mind. I kind of really love that the - in fact, I embrace the winter these days.

MARTIN: How do you spend your winter days?

COCKER: Well, the best thing to do is get a big house. If you're going to have a cabin fever, have a big cabin, you know. I walk on a regular basis. I've got a couple of dogs. The house tucks right into the mountains. I literally feel I've become a mountain man over these years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGIVEN")

MARTIN: I wonder when you're by yourself when you're alone is there a particular song that you have sung at some point in your career that comes to you that you end up singing to yourself?

COCKER: "You Are So Beautiful" I think is probably the, you know, the strongest tune I ever did in just the simplicity in it. It was originally a gospel song, and Billy Preston rewrote the lyrics that made it a bit - I don't know what he was thinking of making more of a love song. But originally it was a song to Jesus. There's a little thing at the end goes (singing) to me. You know the note?

MARTIN: I know it, yeah.

COCKER: Which when I sang it in the studio, I remember everyone pricking up their ears - the whole studio, the staff, the engineers. And, you know, it kind of woke up something in me, that softer side that I have going for me. It comes into my mind a lot, that tune. It's just such a lovely melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL")

MARTIN: Joe Cocker joined me from Colorado Public Radio in Denver, Colorado. Mr. Cocker, thank you. It was pleasure.

COCKER: Hey, Rachel. Thank you, my dear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL")

MARTIN: To hear more songs from Joe Cocker's new album, "Hard Knocks," go to NPRMusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL")

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.