Much like Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker underachieved after an impressive start to his career, albeit for altogether different reasons (exhaustion and drugs as opposed to leggy blondes and a big head). However, his first three albums belong in any rock and soul collection, as this album is equal parts both, with a slightly psychedelic sound that features guitar parts from Jimmy Page, church-y organ or upbeat piano played by the likes of Steve Winwood and collaborator Chris Stainton, prominent gospel-tinged female backing vocals, and of course Cocker's own inimitably hoarse voice, which is improbably powerful given the frog he just swallowed. Although Cocker tries his hand at songwriting, co-penning three songs (two with Stainton), all of which are pretty good but none of which are highlights, he's really more of an interpreter of other people's songs than a creator of them (and therein lies another major difference with Stewart, who could create his own classics as well as interpret them). Of course, the song that everybody associates with this album - indeed, with Cocker's entire career - is his complete transformation of The Beatles' "With A Little Help From My Friends," which had been a huge hit at Woodstock (indeed, his performance of it there made him an instant star even before this album was released, helped in no small part due to his memorably spastic stage movements, which became much imitated, most famously by John Belushi years later on Saturday Night Live) and later served as the theme song to the excellent T.V. show The Wonder Years. Anyway, Cocker had a knack for remaking other people's songs as his own, and none more so than this classic, which features memorable riffs from Page, those churchy-keys/female backing vocals I previously mentioned, and most of all Cocker's completely over-the-top vocal performance, replete with one of the most spine-tingling screams ever put on record. Elsewhere, his groovy take on Traffic's "Feelin' Alright" is similarly definitive if far more low-key, and surprisingly enough he even improves on The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" though it's the song's slow, sexy mood that makes it such a standout. As such, much credit should go to the Grease Band and other assorted session musicians who give Cocker the just-right backing he needs to shine. But give Cocker credit as well; he rarely plays it safe on these cover songs, but instead often drastically rearranges them ("With A Little Help From My Friends" had been a minor "Ringo song," after all). When he does play it close to the vest, as on his update of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," the result is well done but a bit disappointing (The Band’s version will always be the best), and as such I prefer more adventurous attempts like his lovely update of Dylan's "Just Like A Woman." Looking at the rest of the track listing, I'd name "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "Do I Still Figure In Your Life?" (a couple of slow, soulful ballads with singable choruses) as other highlights (the former song also has a niftly little Jimmy Page guitar solo), while "Marjorine," which is almost waltz-like and is comparatively light in tone, would likely get my nod as the most distinctive song among Cocker's originals (also including “Change In Louise” and “Sandpaper Cadillac”). Still, like I said before, Cocker is at his best when reinventing other people's songs, and some of these covers are superb, while the rest of this fine debut simply offers consistent quality.
Joe Cocker! (A&M ’70) Rating: B+
Although some people seem to think that this is the definitive Joe Cocker album (5 stars in the 1983 Rolling Stone Record Guide, and indeed the album title itself would seem to indicate as much), I find it a slight step down from the debut, though it likewise is a fine album in its own right. The main difference here is that the best cover songs are really good rather than being completely revelatory, with his take on Leonard Cohen's "Bird On A Wire" arguably being the biggest improvement. Elsewhere, he again tackles Bob Dylan (a more rocking version of John Wesley Harding's "Dear Landlord" that's a nice update) and The Beatles (a very good romp through a standalone version of "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window," which became a minor hit, and a good but not completely necessary cover of George Harrison's perfect-to-begin-with "Something"), while a good if too short Lloyd Price cover ("Lawdy Miss Clawdy," whose best moment aside from its stinging blues guitar parts is actually its perfect segue into "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window") and a Lovin' Spoonful ("Darling Be Home Soon," another highly enjoyable effort that like “Something” has a more pronounced soul influence; this is also another one where I prefer the gentler original) number are also included. Most of these songs are more straightforward and therefore less interesting than the covers on the previous album, and though Cocker again puts in a performance that makes you take note that he was once one of the premiere singers of his era, the material simply isn't as memorable on the whole. There are some other notable songs, however, in the form of "Hitchcock Railway" (credited to Donald "Duck" Dunn and Tony McCashen), an energetic gospel soul/rock song, and especially "Delta Lady," written by producer and de-facto musical director Leon Russell, who also also recorded it and who supplies the swampy blues pop sound both here and elsewhere (like on the last album female gospel backing vocals are again prominent throughout). Russell also wrote the less memorable "Hello, Little Friend," while Cocker/Stainton again teamed up to write "That's Your Business," which is minor but has an appealing ragtime sound. That's the lone Cocker original here, but again Cocker was more an interpreter than a songwriter, and this album has its fair share of standout covers (the best ones to me are "Delta Lady," "Bird On A Wire,” "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window," and "Darling Be Home Soon") on which I’m easily able to appreciate the Grease Band's loose, lively vibe and Cocker's impassioned singing performances.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen (A&M ’71) Rating: A-
Riding the crest of two highly successful albums, Joe Cocker undertook a massively ambitious tour called Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which was recorded and filmed for posterity. And though Cocker was billed as the star, in truth this album belongs as much to Leon Russell and his mighty band, which included eleven instrumentalists and nine female backup singers! Russell, Bobby Jones (whoever he is), and Rita Coolidge even get a singing spotlight, while the gospel backing vocals and the band's loose 'n loud accompaniment drown Cocker out on more than one occasion. The sheer number of people onstage gave the tour a circus-like atmosphere, and Cocker strains to keep pace with the chaotic big band attack (propelled by Russell's piano, Stainton's organ, Jim Keltner's drums, members of Delaney and Bonnie's band who were also in Derek and the Dominos, and a busload of brassy horns) going on behind him. Cocker does dominate the slow ballads, though, including a 12-minute soul medley ("I'll Drown In My Own Tears," "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," and "I've Been Loving You Too Long") and a rendition of "Bird On A Wire" that even makes his original version seem lively. Don't tell Cocker that a white man can't sing the blues, as his ragged voice is an excellent instrument for conveying desperate, sorrowful emotions. This is exhibited to excellent effect on "Cry Me A River," while other highlights include an exciting horn-fuelled take on The Box Tops' "The Letter" (a significant hit), a cover of Ray Charles' "Let's Go Get Stoned" (where he finally pays direct tribute to his prime influence), and beefed up renditions of signature songs such as "Feelin' Alright" and "Delta Lady." On the downside, the frenetic pace does grow wearying after awhile, some of the songs are stretched out too long, and the band forces Cocker to rush his delivery on several songs, such as on their cover of The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women." Perhaps some more practice would've made a difference in tightening up some of the band's messier moments, but even with the album's flaws it must be said that the energy and excitement of these performances are contagious, making for a very enjoyable listening experience on the whole. Questions: Where the hell is "With A Little Help From My Friends?" Why is Mad Dogs and Englishmen still being sold as a double album even though its contents could fit onto a single cd? Note: Regarding my initial Rod Stewart comparison, it should be noted that Joe (like Rod) certainly had success after his initial run, including some of his biggest commercial hits. However, I do think that he peaked early and would therefore recommend starting with these three albums before proceeding more cautiously onto his later work.
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