JOE COCKER New (old) songs keep him on the road
At 60, Cocker is no relic. He's had hits decades after his Woodstock stint.
By RAY HOGAN
It usually doesn't take Joe Cocker more than a simple run through with a pianist to know if a song resonates with him.
Take his new disc "Heart & amp; Soul" (Next Door Records). His original idea was to put his own stamp on songs he loved from the 1960s. As ideas were tossed around, the disc wound up including songs from R.E.M. and U2 as well as Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin.
In fact, the disc's first single is U2's "One," which originally was released by the Irish rock band in 1991. Additional tracks include Gaye's "What's Going On," Ben E. King's "I (Who Have Nothing)," and James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely," each featuring Cocker's patented growl, which always works best when he sounds like he's on the edge of losing a melody.
He admits the idea of recording soul classics was daunting. How do you add anything to a classic like Franklin's "Chain of Fools"? Simply by putting a little of yourself in it, according to Cocker.
"I still try to give them a new integrity, although that sounds academic, or a new feel," he says. "I can usually tell if a song's going to work -- it was a bit tricky doing some of these songs because they were so established in the first place."
"Heart & amp; Soul" might be his first all-covers disc, but Cocker made his mark recording other people's music. The Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends" and "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window" and Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright" were among his biggest hits.
Born in Sheffield, England, Cocker started his career during the blues boom of the 1960s, which hit his country harder than it did the United States, where the music originated.
"I still haven't figured it out," Cocker admits. "We were all into covering Chuck Berry. I don't know why but it was something that was totally natural. It was something that woke us all up as the foundation of the rock 'n' roll records we had in the 1950s." He also says the looseness of the music was an element that fit his madman singing style well. "We didn't have guitar tuners and the beat would roll about, which is something I've always liked," he says.
Many careers were established at Woodstock, and Cocker's was among them thanks to an incendiary version of "With a Little Help From My Friends" that established him in the states. Cocker had no idea of the gig's significance at the time. "We had done a few other big shows leading up to it but over the years I figured out that people identify with it," he says.
Unlike many of the artists tied to the Woodstock festival, Cocker wasn't tightly bound to the nostalgia of the festival, which emerged only years after it took place. He continued to place hits in subsequent decades, with two of his biggest -- "Up Where We Belong," a duet with Jennifer Warnes hitting No. 1 in 1982 and "When the Night Comes" peaking at No. 11 in 1990 -- happening when other Woodstock alums were relegated to a new form of the oldies circuit.
His current tour is almost half way through its run of 45 shows, with overseas dates being planned. At 60, Cocker values his down time but also relishes the pace of a major tour when it's under way. "It's going really well so far, it's always a bit strange when you get the machine up and running," he says. "We're committed for a full year. It's nice to keep working." With a vocal style that the word "intense" doesn't do justice, Cocker has managed over the year to learn how to maintain his voice while on the road.
"I just try to lay low on show day," he says. "I've learned how to use my voice better. Over the years, I've learned how to still deliver without tearing up my throat."