Joe Cocker and the Grease Band were ending a performance they gave recently at the Whiskey in Los Angeles. As they went into their explosive version of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” a nubile young admirer, apparently driven wild by Cocker’s amazing voice and insane spastic contortions, stationed herself on her back between Cocker’s legs and, reaching up, began to work the Cocker cock with considerable fervor. Moments later Joe delivered the scream of his career.
Which is not to say that everyone will react with such frenzy to this latest and perhaps greatest British bearer of the Ray Charles tradition, but that Cocker’s first album, a gem, should cause an awful lot of excitement. Despite the fact that he’s a twenty-four year-old product of Sheffield, England, Cocker’s voice is that of a middle-aged Southern black man — and the quality of his voice enables him to transcend (as does Ray Charles on his coke commercials) the lyrics and the traditional happy associations of such originally sprightly tunes as “Bye Bye Blackbird,” turning them into astonishing, compelling expressions of pain and desperation.
That Cocker is a Charles imitator is beyond argument — at various places on his album he even receives vocal backing from former Raelettes. But Cocker has assimilated the Charles influence to the point where his feeling for what he is singing cannot really be questioned And, in answer to the question of why someone should listen to Cocker when there is Charles to listen to — how many times in recent years has the latter applied himself to such exceptional modern material as Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright?” or such contemporary Dylan as “I Shall Be Released” (of which Cocker does the most evocative, moving version I’ve yet heard)?
Denny Cordell, late of Procol Harum fame, deserves a feverish round of applause for producing this album, in spite of such momentary lapses as stealing almost intact Havens’ arrangement of “Just Like A Woman” and letting Jimmy Page nearly capsize “Bye Bye Blackbird” with a completely inappropriate solo. Cordell was so determined to come up with a perfect album (and the album is nearly perfect) that he spent over a year and a small fortune getting everything just so. For instance, he’s reportedly got ten excellent takes of “Released” in a can somewhere, having decided that none of the takes — done by Al Kooper and Aynsley Dunbar among others — were quite good enough. Cordell’s success in fusing a consistently marvelous backing unit out of America’s premier studio soul singers and England’s most famous rock musicians and delicate egos cannot be exaggerated.
Besides such material as the Dylan, Mason and Beatle stuff there are three originals written by Cocker and Grease Band keyboard man Chris Stainton: “Marjorine” (a Stainton puppet show score to which Joe added words), “A Change in Louise,” and “Sandpaper Cadillac,” all of which are brilliant rock tunes. It’s a triumph all around. And the thought of Cocker’s next album, which will include new Harrison and McCartney songs and a lot more Grease Band originals, is an exceptionally pleasant one.