Joe Cocker Gets By

With a little help from his friends

Joe Cocker, 1977. Credit: Evening Standard/Getty

Royce Hall, UCLA. Joe Cocker was about to do his first L.A. show since a nightmare of a night at the Roxy four years ago. At that time, Cocker, thrown for too many losses in his career, showed the press and rock elite just what too much alcohol could do. As he'd done at numerous concerts that year, he got sick onstage, slurred whatever lyrics he could remember, and, sitting down, refused to perform his biggest hit, "With a Little Help From My Friends."

Now he was back, behind his strongest album in years. But during the wait between sets at UCLA, the audience, mostly students, cheered when the sound system blasted out the LP Cars, and one wondered how a Sixties relic like Cocker would do. After a half-hour, a man in the audience got impatient. "What's his problem?" he asked, then guessed. "He's probably totally fucked-up." He stood up to leave: he also had tickets for the Foreigner concert that night.

It was his loss. The rest of us witnessed something many in music circles have been hoping to see for years: the return of a healthy, totally unfucked-up Joe Cocker.

A few bars into the show, however, it looked like we might be in for a rerun of the bad old days. By the time Cocker wandered onto the stage, the band was already busily performing "Cry Me a River." He clutched a bottle of beer in one hand and scratched his Mad Dog hair with the other, seeming oblivious to the roar of a greeting he was getting. Then, right on the mark, he took hold of the microphone and the song at the same instant, immediately revealing a revitalized voice. It was gruff as always, but now — as he couldn't in the tours of '74 and '76 — Cocker could sing whole words without his voice cracking, reach high notes and ladle ballads with a honey smoothness.

Throughout the set, he walked around the mike uncertainly. His choreography consisted of trying to stay upright. But though he strayed from his songs as they ended, he was right there on top of things when the next number started.

This being a promotional tour, the set was heavy on tunes from the new album, Luxury You Can Afford. As with all Cocker records, that means a number of songs that seem to have been written for him, like "Whiter Shade of Pale," with the line "I was feeling kind of seasick, but the crowd called out for more," and Bob Dylan's "Watching the River Flow."

The audience offered several standing ovations and seemed particularly moved by the confessional ballads, such as "Guilty" and "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress." They called out for more so strongly that Cocker did five encore numbers, including a lovely "You Are So Beautiful," the song he sang with such pain on Saturday Night Live in late 1976 in a performance that laid out Cocker's not-ready-for-prime-time condition in front of a national television audience.

A few nights after his UCLA show, Cocker sat at a friend's house in San Francisco and looked back on the last several years. "Quite a lot of it was a blur, just living in Los Angeles and going through a lot of everlasting havoc, and I'd tend to booze it out, block it out with ale." But these days, he said, "I don't like to get too wiped before I play."

Cocker put away most of a six-pack of Heineken dark beer during our talk before a show at the Old Waldorf that night. (The beer, he said, simply keeps his whistle wet.) Despite the drinking, he seemed sober. No matter what he may look like on- or offstage — even in conversation his arms flap around and he constantly picks at his hair as if searching for a nagging fly — Cocker's in control.

He recalled descriptions of himself from various old magazine articles and told about recent runins with Gary Busey, Albert Grossman and John Belushi. (And yes, Cocker was momentarily confused about just who he was hearing the first time he saw Belushi's raging, beer-swilling impression of him on Saturday Night Live. "I thought John was lip-syncing it, just for a few bars….")

Now, talking about his career, Cocker said he was wary of management and believed "the best way I could be managed would be to have a panel of people who were interested in the music and my welfare or whatever, to have a board of directors so it could never be down to one guy…." 

By the time he appeared on Saturday Night Live, Cocker had gone through numerous expensive extrications from numerous managers and had begun talking with Michael Lang about being represented by him. Lang, one of the producers of the Woodstock festival, had never managed an artist. "I think he's a great and unique talent," Lang said. "It was a bummer to see him go through what he went through. When I met him, it seemed like if things could work for him once, he could come out of it."

After an abortive attempt at reuniting Cocker with his first producer, Denny Cordell, Lang got Cocker out of his contract with his original label, A&M Records. "They loved Joe, but they knew him too well. They were too set," Lang said. Helped little by Cocker's erratic tours, Stingray, the last A&M album (aside from a collection of hits), sold 300,000. At Elektra/Asylum, Chairman of the Board Joe Smith and President Steve Wax decided to sign him. "It was a tough signing," said Lang. "It was not the most popular move for a record company president to make. There was a lot of talk that he was wiped out."

Joe Smith admitted that there were "mixed feelings" about Cocker. "Some people were up for it, some thought it was a futile kind of singing, " he said. "But we felt he could make it back."

Lang had put a band — including pianist Nicky Hopkins and old friend/sax player Bobby Keys — behind Cocker for a dryout-tryout six-week tour of Australia in the summer of '77. Later, there were quick, unpublicized gigs in South America and in the States. Cocker was regaining his strength, and there were  — video and audio — to prove it.

"We saw that he was performing, and not falling down," said Smith. "It seemed he had pulled himself together. Now it was just a question of putting it on record." And of helping Cocker repay reportedly hundreds of thousands in debts to A&M, former managers and others. "It was a large financial shot," said Smith.

But he figured Cocker could join the ranks of Sixties stars who had gone through problems and proved that they could come back —such as Eric Clapton, Dave Mason, the Rolling Stones and the Bee Gees. "Joe was so electric and dynamic. We thought if he could be eighty or ninety percent of that, we had a good chance." Luxury You Can Afford, Smith said, had sold 400,000 copies already, with the first single, "Fun Time," written for Cocker by the LP's producer, Allen Toussaint, just moving up the charts.

Toussaint, the veteran R&B producer based in New Orleans, claimed ignorance of Cocker's difficulties in the studio. "I always liked the way Joe sounded," he said. "I was amazed early. I was a fan of black-eyed blues."

Cocker has told stories about himself in the recording studio: how, for an I Can Stand a Little Rain session, he listened to a Richard Tee piano performance, succumbed to bliss and bourbon and conked out, waking up to find three tracks completed without him. With Toussaint, there was no passing out.

"It was ideal," said the producer. "Vocally he handled things very well." As for Cocker's contributions to the music, "he suggested things — in a subtle way. He's not pushy." And Toussaint said he didn't mind Elektra/Asylum asking for last-minute additions of more potentially commercial material (like "I Heard It through the Grapevine," "I Know" and "Whiter Shade of Pale"). "Everyone was acting on behalf of the album," he said.

Cocker himself was less than enthusiastic about changing the album he'd handed in. "Steve Wax said, 'We want you to record something like "Hold On I'm Coming" or "Midnight Hour,"' and I sort of got sophisticated and said, 'I must remind you, I come from a soul-school elite!'"

But, as he told me eight years ago when I first met him, on the Mad Dogs tour, and again four years later when he was at the bottom, business always takes second place to the music.

"It's always music," he said. "If you love music, it's always swirling round in your head. So if I didn't sing for five years it would hurt me more than anyone."