Joe Cocker playing air guitar in Hallandale Beach, Florida, in 2003
Joe Cocker performing "drunk as a skunk" at the National Stadium, Dublin
What I remember about Joe was that he scared me at first glance. You've seen him in Woodstock, with that spastic stance that makes you wonder, "'What's up with this guy?"
I later realized that the contortions were actually the music literally running through his barrel chested body. He became the music, singing along with it in a gravelly voice that rose up from the depths with a soul power that would not be denied.
There were lots of white Englishmen who sounded Black during that first British invasion--a revelation to us Black folks at the time. The then very young Stevie Winwood singing "I'm A Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin'" had fooled us completely.
But Cocker, also once known as the "Sheffield Soul Shouter," sounded Black and like too many cigarettes on too many wild nights fueled by too many double shots of whisky. And that's very close to the way he actually lived with his "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" on early tours.
I know this because a friend married into his merry band and tagged along on those tours. They were a crazy crew that probably could only have existed in the 60s and 70s--a tie-dyed, traveling commune of talented musicians and the women and other hangers on who loved them.
I'm amazed they managed to make any music at all, given the stories she told. My friend actually scaled the outside of a Holiday Inn, from which she had been banned, to get to her music man. Who then felt he had to propose.
But those heady years didn't last long. Many of us lost track of Cocker until the haunting "You Are So Beautiful" sent him to the top of the charts again in 1975, reminding us how much we'd missed that ravaged voice.
He wasn't the wild haired whirling dervish of yore, but that gritty voice was unmistakable and the gyrations intact. Didn't matter that he couldn't quite hit that high note at the end most of the time. It made the song more memorable. And moving.
Later, his "Up Where We Belong," a love anthem for the ages, was tapped for An Officer and a Gentleman, the Richard Gere classic. It took him straight to the top of the charts in 1982. And his discography boasts 22 studio albums, all told.
The tribute tweets are flying by, as always. And I find it particularly ironic that it may be lung cancer that stole him from us. But I also know that the power of his voice will continue to astonish and delight.
He scared me, yes, the first time I saw him. But then, he stole my breath. And today, as we mourn, I realize yet again what a singular Soul Shouter he was.
Photo credits: Joe Cocker 2003 and 1980, Wikipedia. Caption quote from photographer Eddie Mallin