Joe Cocker passed in 2014, but his legacy in the musical firmament is unshakeable because, though not a songwriter himself, his vocal stylings took certain pop classics and rendered them utterly his own. Capable of gruffly gorgeous tones and orgasmic wails as well as mild-mannered British-isms, he was often compared to Ray Charles, an assessment embraced by both men. In Charles’ autobiography Brother Ray, Cocker’s inspiration said “Man, that cat must sleep with my records. But I don’t mind. I’m flattered. I understand.” Here’s a starter list of Joe Cocker’s most effective and memorable cover songs.
Delta Lady (1969)
This one was written by the brilliant Leon Russell for Cocker’s best-selling album Mad Dogs & Englishmen. The muse for this incredibly sensual tune, however, was another pop icon, Russell’s one-time girlfriend Rita Coolidge, who adopted the name as her professional moniker. Soulful and sexy, Cocker pulls out all the stops, blending the prurient with the gospel, and adding some boogie-woogie piano for good measure. Hippie chicks have been doing their blissful backward swim dance to it ever since.
Feelin’ Alright (1969)
Cocker’s seminal version took Dave Mason’s “love gone wrong” song, removed the question mark from the end of the title, added lots of sardonic subtext in the vocals, and picked up the tempo. The result was a much bigger hit than the original, filled with sexy backup vocalists and all kinds of bluesy deliciousness. It has become a winking, spirited standard.
With a Little Help From My Friends (1969)
The Beatles were great admirers of Cocker and the feeling was mutual, no doubt solidified by this interpretation. New York Times writer Andrew Rosenthal praised Cocker’s extraordinary work on “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “I’ll Cry Instead” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” But nothing quite compares to “With a Little Help From My Friends” which was further elevated in stature when he sang a particularly soulful rendition at 1969’s Woodstock. Backed up by gospel singers, that version both cemented Cocker’s legacy and became the unofficial theme song of this musical landmark. The cherished number attracted a new generation of fans when it became the theme song of The Wonder Years in 1988. As Sir Paul himself declared it: a “soul anthem.”
Related: “Why Woodstock Still Matters (Ep.1)”
You Are So Beautiful (1974)
This much-loved tune by Billy Preston, Bruce Fisher, and probably The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson first surfaced on Preston’s 1974 LP The Kids and Me. (Amusingly, this memorable love song may have been used for countless weddings but it’s actually an ode to Preston’s mother.) Preston’s original take is churchy and spirited; Cocker’s, slower and sparer. The simple treatment worked as Cocker’s cover ended up one of his all-time biggest hits.
I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (1975)
This song by Randy Newman has been covered by many artists but never more masterfully so than by Cocker for his 1975 LP Jamaica Say You Will. Newman has always had a way with the sweet, the sour, and the deeply satiric and that’s all on display on this sad track about a homeless person encountering the uncaring masses. Cocker’s soulful tour de force almost begs for hand claps even as he layers on his own clever sarcasm and mordant beauty.
When the Night Comes (1989)
Cocker’s last Top 40 Hit, clocking in at Number Eleven, this libidinous Bryan Adams song was co-written by Jim Vallance and Diane Warren. No longer a young man when this track came out, Cocker still punctuates the chart-topper with drawn-out wails and infuses it with vocal excitement. The signature addition of his trusty backup singers just adds to a bit sparkle to the joyous sound. Dating back to MTV’s glory days, “When the Night Comes” launched with a video of beautiful noir-ish cinematography that celebrated a still-captivating Cocker: elegantly suited, a little less fidgety, and in full exalted voice.
Photo Credit: British rock/blues singer Joe Cocker at Woodstock music festival on August 1969. (Photo by STILLS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)