Joe Cocker: Love Cockers All

The great soul singer gets by, and then some, with a little help from his friends on the road

Photo of Joe Cocker, circa 1970. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Long before Joe Cocker and his Mad Dogs and Englishmen had begun their procession to the stage, the Fillmore West was a ballroom filled with talk about what a knockout evening it was going to be, with both Van Morrison and Joe Cocker on the bill. Now, as the 42-member troupe carved out places for themselves on the large platform, the talk was about how crowded it was, about the fire hazards, about Bill Graham's uniformed rent-a-thugs rousting people from cramped aisles. Even locked on the floor behind a huge concrete post, you couldn't lie down without a flashlight coming down on you, and a barked command to "Sit up, sit up!" At one break, one cat shouted at Graham, who was on stage, "Hey, Graham, there's still standing room in the bathroom!" and got an ovation from that sector of the ballroom.

And, on stage, Graham was on his king-of-the-mountain riff again, raging and pushing people off the stage, pushing them like dominoes that ended up piled against the walls. Bill Graham/jam session time again.

But when Cocker and Leon Russell and their traveling soul commune swooped into the first song, even Graham was diminished, a pencil-thin flash-light beam to Cocker's writhing presence bathed in spotlights. He was top of the bill. And even if it took fighting through the arms and legs of stoned neighbors to get up, 3000 (or however many there were) persons got up to hail this white Manchester king of soul when he'd finally finished his set.

Joe Cocker, outstanding among the sea of faces and instruments and clapping hands, sometimes mild and meek among the wildness, had arrived. And Graham, who can always be counted on to come to his business senses, had him at the larger Winterland the next two nights. Cocker Power, as Joe's family calls it.

But just a year ago — –less than a year ago– — you didn't go to no ballroom to see no Joe Cocker.

A blast from the past: It's June, 1969, and the Fillmore West is, typically, crowded. The Byrds, after all, are in town, and they're billed with the up-and-coming PG&E. And third on the bill is this cat with the funny name who'd had this top 40 hit, "With a Little Help From My Friends," this singer named Joe Cocker. The first stories about him– — in the British trades– — had surprised me. I'd thought he was black, a man just lucky enough to latch onto a Beatle tune and make it work.

And when the Byrds had finished their set– — mostly a workmanlike medley of old album tunes and a number of countryish songs (They were into "Wheels of Fire" and "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" at that time) — –at midnight, at least half the crowd straggled up and split. That left Joe Cocker, bottom of the bill, with maybe 500 spectators.

But he had it all down. Just like a soul revue, the Grease Band came out first and warmed up. Wispy Chris Stainton, old buddy, on organ and ready to shift to piano; Henry McCullogh, ghostly pale, with dark eyes, on guitar; Alan Spenner, chubbier, naughtier looking, on bass, and Bruce Rowlands on drums. A couple of catchy tunes, yes, but the reaction was, Who's this Cocker think he is, getting the stage set for him, man?

Then Joe came on, eyes dazed, chunky in an orange T-shirt and bells, medium-long hair resembling a well-used SOS soap pad. He picked up a styrofoam cup, drank, and, with a whipping motion from his right hand, spun the Grease Band into frenetic motion and proceeded to show that he could do it all alone.

It didn't matter that people discussing his first LP would invariably talk about the use of Stevie Winwood and Jimmy Page and Matthew Fisher to help grace and sell the album; it didn't matter that the critics seemed engrossed by the Ray Charles influence in Cocker's voice and phrasings; and it didn't matter that so many spent so much ink discussing his spastic stage style. Nothing mattered then as nothing matters now.

Or, as his producer Denny Cordell says today: "Joe is a strange guy; he has no ambitions at all. He just likes to rock and roll, and he has no dreams about how he could do it, because he could rock and roll any way he wants to."

That June night last year, Joe kept his right foot planted and contorted everything else, bare hands playing lead guitar licks while McCullough picked out the notes; rolled up T-shirted fat boy's arms fluttering around playing themselves, then breaking at the wrist to allow the fingers to glide up to the high notes of his invisible electric organ, then crash, and both elbows swoop down to turn the body into a baton, stopping the band. Then a half motion pitcher's windup, and Stainton glides in again, and all through this, Cocker is dreamily laying out this sandpaper/soul voice, distorting words, "What do I do when my love airs away," or, months before Abbey Road, "Something in the way she moves ... 'tracks me like no otha lover ..."

And my god, the light show! With that foot planted and the rest of the body lost in smokey space, Cocker is some kind of a pub-fighter surfer, swirls of blue and green sailing behind his flowing visage. Rippling undercurrents of music by the tight Grease Band, little flashes like McCullough and Spenner singing falsetto to cover the parts sung by Madelene Bell and Su and Sunny Wheetman on the first album.

Fillmore West never felt so good. Just 500 of us scattered around the floor in front of the stage, a fan (A fan!) blowing a gentle breeze down from the high ceiling while Cocker surfed and washed and rapped stoney little raps. 500 people discovering something truly incredible. We leapt up to an ovation for the band, forced Joe back for an encore, jumped up and down while he sang that last song, and pretty much forgot what the Byrds had done– — something about a medley of old album tunes ...

It was no fluke. Later that week, A&M records did a press party for him, putting him in one of the most wretched places one could find in San Francisco– — Arthur's discotheque –— blinking colored lights and knee high, drink-sized tables all lined up neat like personal mini-bars. Cats in fresh Sebring hairdos and women in high heels and tinted round glasses and Top 40/mod clothing. And Cocker didn't care. He rocked and rolled and stoned that cliqueish gathering, got them standing up and swiveling in their bright coats, putting down their drinks to clap hands.

One just hoped that Joe'd make it big– — and soon– — so that he could avoid the prisons that can be set up for artists by the narrow, mindless forces of press agentry. Of course, the media, convinced, helped to release Joe. They started talking about him and playing his records. Through their inebriated, Max Factor enthusiasm, they'd caught on to some of Cocker's gospel. They, too, had made a discovery.

Cocker is a quiet man. Just as he doesn't write a whole lot of songs, he doesn't talk much, absorbed more by questions than by any answer he might give. "I don't know what I'm trying to do, really," he said the first time we met. "Things just sort of evolve."

Back in Manchester, and around London, Joe had been trying music since 1963, playing the pubs by night for the pipefitters he worked alongside by day. He was called Vance Arnold, and his band was "The Avengers."

Joe was into Ray Charles by then, having found Charles' Yes Indeed! album when he was 14. ("It was a cosmic buzz; I thought it was another Little Richard at first.") And he was into the very physical stage style. "Back home, it used to achieve a communication thing," he said. "It also keeps things together more." But where last year he turned one woman spectator in a Hollywood club into a groupie, her hands slithering up towards his crotch while he sang above it all, back in Sheffield and Manchester, among the men, the style brought him mostly empty beer bottles heaved up by irate laborers.

"Well, I don't blame people for being cynical about it," he said, shrugging away any further discussion. Asking Cocker about his movements is like asking any head about the length of his hair. The righteous answer is obvious; no answer can ever satisfy those that don't seek satisfaction.

Back then, Cocker caught onto the Beatles, and, for Decca, recorded "I'll Cry Instead" as a single. It was the earliest — –and worst– — Joe Cocker record ever. It earned him $1.21 in royalties and a dissolution of the Decca contract, but it also hooked him up with Jimmy Page, back then also on Decca, and with Winwood, a teenager scouting his way through Island Records.

With a Little Help From My Friends was no contrived supersession, no great plot to make it by using Dylan and Beatle and Traffic songs. "Page had just finished with the Yardbirds, so he was free," Cocker said, "and Winwood– — he wanted to play on the whole next album before Blind Faith came along."

Winwood played bass on "Dear Landlord" in the second LP. "He just wanted to play. He's such a tasty musician; he just rolled along. Every take he played was different ... but so good."

As for his choice of songs — –before Leon Russell popped onto the scene– — Joe had said: "Over the last year I started liking less and less. About the only people who are still buzzing me are Dylan and the Beatles."

Cocker has never needed either charging or re-charging jobs, but Leon Russell has played a huge role in establishing Cocker as an almost American product. He was never really at home at home. "A lot of people in Britain are suspicious of me," he had said. "There's this big boom in soul music, and the fact is, I'm white. Also I'm not teenybopper, and like on TV there all you have is Tops of the Pops, and the new records are all the things I hate, like Tommy Roe. England hasn't buzzed me for a long time."

Last year, he discovered Leon Russell, long time LA musician by way of Oklahoma who wrote a tune called "Delta Lady" that Cocker and his producer Denny Cordell liked. They recorded the tune at Russell's studio/home, and Russell became part of the crew, helping to produce the second album, Joe Cocker! in Los Angeles.

Now, Leon Russell is head of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and what a scene:

A full horn section made up of musicians who'd just split from Delaney and Bonnie and Friends; Chris Stainton, surviving the split-up of the Grease Band and staying on; Russell himself on guitar and piano; two drummers; bongo and conga drums, and a chorus of men and women numbering between six and eleven, all of them capable of solo spots. –

Plus their various families– — old ladies, a child or two, and a spotted dog that looks like a squished-in dachshund. All together, about 21 in the band and another 21 in the family, and, all together, they travel from town to town in private plane, a Martin 202, 4-prop.

Plus: A&M is tagging along for the entire tour, filming and taping everything that's going down. A live album is almost finished, taken from stops at Fillmore East, at Santa Monica Civic in California, and at the Dallas State Fair. The film crew trots in and out of motel rooms, shooting interviews, listening in on group meetings, talking to members about any problems that pop up, hoping to get enough out of the 52-date tour to weave together a full-length documentary on Joe Cocker.

All of this because Cocker stumbled into Los Angeles a few months ago without the Grease Band and with hopes of scotching a planned tour for a vacation. 

"I wanted to blow it out because we weren't doing anything new," Cocker said to explain the breakup of the Grease Band.

But, as Cordell explained, "Immigration said he couldn't just cancel his tour or they wouldn't let him into the musicians' union or something, and all the promoters threatened to sue, so it was a question of force."

Cocker and Stainton– — who'd been with him since his scuffling days in Sheffield– — went to Russell, and Leon made a few phone calls.

"Not only did all of them want to join," Cordell said, "but each one knew another one, and so they all came along. When the time came to see who was capable, these were the ones who were capable: All of them."

Leon's first calls went to percussionists Jim Keltner and Chuck Blackwell; then, he said, "members of the old Delaney and Bonnie band called up and said they were quitting and did we have anything?

Stories going around had Russell and Cocker pirating the Friends from under Delaney and Bonnie, spiriting them away with money offers.

"Andy told me she came in to LA Airport from Philadelphia," Cordell said, "and she saw Bonnie there. She pinned a Cocker Power button on Bonnie, and she threw it away, saying 'I've been working four fucking years to get this band together, and you have the nerve to take it away from me.'"

But the timing, Cordell said, was pure coincidence. "Sometimes coincidence is too strange to be real."

Leon, who, with Cordell, has started his own record label, Shelter (the first artist was Leon Russell with all-star session men from the Stones and Beatles), holds the band together on stage. While Cocker still conducts things with fingers and body, Leon is the magical, Mad-Hatter Mitch Miller of the troupe, arms flying out from behind the piano to guide concluding bars of a song; lurching around the stage, looking maybe like Chet Helms doing a Chuck Berry impression, long hair prancing along with him, carrying the energy on his shoulders and in his machine-gun ax, able to chop short whole passages from whole choruses with a single stroke. A powerful figure, a star-like bottom to Joe Cocker's top.

"There's no leader or arranger," he says. "The leaders leads and the follower follows. Any arrangement is based on the premise that everyone involved in this thing knows what the fuck he's doing.

Rehearsals went on five days a week, 12 hours a day, at A&M's sound studios, the site of the old Charlie Chaplin movie lot (an official Hollywood landmark).

The scene in Hollywood must be changing. Once, not long ago, it was superstars and a big fence around them, leaking out nothing more than streams of hype. With the Cocker sessions, "Everyone was welcome with open arms," Cordell said. "In fact, we picked up about 30 percent of the people at the rehearsals, and even some on the road."

As for the selection of songs, it was Leon Russell, chief among the brain-stormers, but not as a composer, arranger, conductor, or band member. "I'm a Joe Cocker fan," he said, "so I represent the Joe Cocker fans and say 'We'd like you to sing this song. Do you like this?'"

Cocker liked "Honky Tonk Women," and that now opens the set. He liked "The Weight." He liked "Cry Me a River," the song made famous by torcher Julie London some 15 years ago (a long-gestating idea inside the head of Russell, who always thought of the song in a gospel form).

And, of course, he likes "Help From My Friends," the most wretched blues of all, each tortured word squeezed out of a strain on the face or a tightening of fingers. The sad song he'd taken and made better.

Now, with Russell and what appears to be a spiritual as well as a physical family, Joe seems content, mixing in some jazz and Ray Charles and Leon Russell along with his Grease Band songs. The sound is more varied than the first two albums might suggest, and that's about the only improvement anybody around can think of right now.

But that's right now, and who's to say what's next? The band, as Cordell said, "is as permanent as today." Five dates were added to the original tour set up for Cocker and the Grease Band. "If we could add a few more every week, maybe we'd just keep on going."

That's not likely. As Joe himself said: "I don't know what I'll want to do after the tour, let alone what Leon and Chris and the others feel like. Maybe we'll keep the core and do some recording ... I don't really know yet."

The Mad Dogs and Englishmen happened, and it may never happen again, not even on film, just as Woodstock didn't really happen again, with split-screens and the focus on close-ups of the musical acts. But when the A&M film comes out and fails to re-create the family scene, Joe may be back where he was in that Woodstock film, pretty much alone. And that's the way it is– — with a family.