TMZ reports that Joe Cocker, the English blues-rock singer with the intense howl and the distinctive stage presence, died of lung disease today while at home in Colorado. Cocker was 70.
Cocker was born in the British city of Sheffield — also the home of another famous Cocker, Pulp frontman Jarvis. (They’re not related, but Jarvis’ father Mac used to lie and say that he was Joe’s brother when he was an Australian radio DJ.) Born John Robert Cocker, Joe got his start as a 16-year-old leader of a band called the Cavaliers. He’d spend his teens and early twenties performing under various names (he was Vance Arnold for a while) and leading various groups: Vance Arnold And The Avengers, Joe Cocker’s Big Blues, the Grease Band. Despite a short-lived Decca Records deal in 1964, Cocker wouldn’t break through until 1968, when his Grease Band covered the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” as a wild, sincere, throaty blues-rocker.
Cocker’s version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” would be his signature song for his entire career. He famously performed it at Woodstock and got a highlight spot in the Woodstock documentary, and years later, it would serve as the theme song for The Wonder Years. In the years that followed, Cocker would score more hits with more covers: Leon Russell’s “Delta Lady,” Julie London’s “Cry Me A River,” the Box-Tops’ “The Letter.” His version of Billy Preston and Dennis Wilson’s “You Are So Beautiful” was a massive international hit in 1974, but he didn’t score his greatest chart success until he topped American charts in 1982, when his Jennifer Warnes duet “Up Where We Belong” served as the main theme for the movie An Officer And A Gentleman.
Cocker remained a goofily genial pop-culture presence throughout his life, never taking himself too seriously. He performed on Saturday Night Live while John Belushi stood right next to him, imitating his spasmodic stage presence. He recorded an early-’80s reggae-pop album at Compass Point studios with Sly & Robbie backing him up. He performed at Woodstock ’94. He kept steadily performing until very recently, and Fire It Up, his final album, came out in 2012.
Below, watch a few of Cocker’s performances.