BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
The music world lost one of its most distinctive voices with last week’s passing of British singer Joe Cocker. Cocker’s death at age 70 was not totally unexpected. A hard liver, he had been diagnosed with lung cancer many years ago; a body that had been ravaged by cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, including heroin, for decades.
He was also famous for his wild onstage spastic gyrations which were mimicked by comedian John Belushi in a memorable 1976 “Saturday Night Live” episode duet by the pair. His ravaged voice conveyed tremendous emotion, though. Just think of the last note of his 1974 hit “You Are So Beautiful” that he struggles to hit.
Cocker’s peak was arguably the massive 1970 “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour coordinated by band leader Leon Russell. The tour hit 48 cities, resulting in a memorable live album and film. Despite this success, Cocker’s mental and physical problems soon became exacerbated by drugs and alcohol.
However, the singer, who was awarded an OBE by the Queen of England three years ago, leaves behind a great legacy of classic recorded interpretations of songs such as “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “Feelin’ Allright,” “The Letter,” “Cry Me A River” and the Grammy-awarded duet with Jennifer Warnes, “Up Where We Belong.”
One of those performances was his recording of John Sebastian’s great song, “Darling Be Home Soon.” Sebastian who also performed at the famous 1969 Woodstock music festival, fondly remembers seeing and meeting Cocker there, and other times afterwards.
EXAMINER: What do remember most about Joe’s Woodstock performance?
SEBASTIAN: It was really a wonderful show. The crowd was having an awful lot of fun. I don’t know if it was such a proper setting to evaluate someone. Those were very challenging times and challenging circumstances to try to do a musical set. There were no proper stage monitors back then. It’s that simple, but the audience was really digging Joe. He had a very tight band, which in some ways was a welcome relief from the period norm, which had a lot of very loose style bands.
EXAMINER: Did you speak with him at all at the event?
SEBASTIAN: I’d never met him before, but we had some time to talk to each other. You know, Joe was not known for being a real verbal character, but I just figured, “He’s an English bloke, I’m gonna tease him.” So, I went up to him and said, “Oh, man, I can see that you got that tie-die (t-shirt) in San Francisco where they’re doing that Procean Die. Man, it’ll be washed out by later this afternoon!” He started laughing because he was looking at this pretty traumatic set of clothes I had on.
EXAMINER: Besides his incredible voice, Cocker was known for his wild spastic onstage contortions.
SEBASTIAN: What I was getting from him, was a kind of impression of Ray Charles that this guy had come up with, from banging around English bars and pubs. He really idolized Ray, and I understood that sort of spasmodic thing. It was just part of his delivery and made it that much more dramatic. I think that even in his first years of performing, he was already a hard drinking carousing guy, but he was also really sweet. There was a tremendous sweetness about him.
EXAMINER: Both of you were reunited in 1994 at the Woodstock 25th anniversary commemorative shows.
SEBASTIAN: Yes, and we wound up together in trailer without any kind of accommodations. It was almost like a truck bed with a box on top. We were looking out at this collapsing rock festival together for about 20 minutes, and he turns to me and says, “Weird, huh!” That was our whole conversation, but that was Joe; a man of few words.
EXAMINER: Besides the two Woodstock appearances, are there any ones that really stand out in your memory?
SEBASTIAN: The ones with Leon Russell and the whole “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” crew were really incredible, but I also saw him at a very low point. It was around 1980 at the Troubador in Los Angeles. He was really disoriented onstage, whether it was from drink or drugs. At one point he looked out at the crowd and said, “Are any of my friends out there?” To me it was, “Ah, poor Joe.” I felt so sorry for him, but you know just a few years later he was back on top with the hit he had with Jennifer Warnes. He was back in action.
EXAMINER: What did you think of his rendition of your song, “Darling Be Home Soon?”
SEBASTIAN: I thought it was absolutely great, but Jennifer Hall once said to me, “You know, these guys should pay a little closer to the way the tunes are written,” because his version has a few little turns that weren’t picked up on. That was also true of Susan Tedeschi’s version, but hers was also great.
EXAMINER: In looking over the list of great performers who were on the original Woodstock bill, Joe sadly is now one of over twenty, like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, and Levon Helm who are no longer with us
SEBASTIAN: I prefer to look at the other one that lists people like myself who are still here. (Huge laugh.) That’s the one I want to keep track of!