Reviewed on this page:
With A Little Help From My Friends - joe cocker! - Mad Dogs & Englishmen -
Something To Say - I Can Stand A Little Rain -
Live In L.A.
A British rock/R & B singer who's been a solo act from the start, Joe Cocker isn't a top-rank artist by any means. He writes very little of his own material, plays no instruments, and finds himself completely at the mercy of whatever producer and backing musicians he lands with. Over the years he's had sporadic success, without a solid hit album since 1970.
Despite this, Cocker deserves credit for his gravelley, soulful, and distinctive singing - his phrasing and stage antics were lifted straight from Ray Charles, but he always managed to put his own stamp on the proceedings. Furthermore, he was closely tied in to the late-60s British rock scene, and during that period he brought together a lot of its best elements to produce a few fine records.
A note on sidemen: Cocker is most closely associated with Leon Russell in many people's minds, and in fact Russell was largely responsible for Cocker's two biggest records (joe cocker! and Mad Dogs). However, his most loyal collaborator over the years has been keyboardist and occasional songwriter Chris Stainton. Other than that, there's little consistency to Cocker's backing band, which on most records includes a dozen or more performers.
There's at least one Joe Cocker fan site. Also, Sony Music maintains a convenient little Joe Cocker discography and has put up a bunch of .wav and .au samples; and there's also a somewhat incomplete, but more detailed discography that's connected with a big Woodstock site. (JA)
With A Little Help From My Friends (1969)
If you don't really know Cocker, start here - Mad Dogs And Englishmen is more famous, but this is far more concise and crafted. Despite the frequent use of female choruses and a much more commercial approach, here Cocker is pleasantly close to Janis Joplin's late, boogie-woogie sound. He leads off with a cover of "Feeling Alright" that puts Traffic's original to shame, and includes some other first-rate covers as well (title track - although nobody beats the Beatles at their own game; "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" - ditto for the Animals).
The originals form a distinct minority and aren't too memorable, although they do rock ("Marjorine"; "Sandpaper Cadillac"), and the heavy-duty star power that Cocker managed to scrape together doesn't make much of a difference: Jimmy Page soloing on the title track and "Bye Bye Blackbird," and strumming on a couple other tunes, and Steve Winwood noodling around a bit. But it's still an enjoyable 40 minutes.
Co-produced by Leon Russell and Denny Cordell. Stainton mostly handles bass, but Carol Kaye is on "Feeling Alright"; Matthew Fisher (organ) and B. J. Wilson (drums) were borrowed from Procol Harum; Henry McCullough (guitar) later joined Wings, if only briefly; there's also Tommy Eyre (keyboards). (JA)
For my money, practically anyone could beat the Animals at their own game -- Santa Esmeralda did a much better version of "Misunderstood" than they ever did. (DBW)
joe cocker! (1969)
This was a bigger hit than the last record, and the next one climbed even higher. But this time the only big-name collaborator is co-producer/boogie-woogie pianist Leon Russell - and he gave Cocker exactly one great hit: the classic "Delta Lady," which shortly afterwards appeared on Russell's star-studded, eponymous debut album. There are also decent covers of the Beatles' "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window," countrified with pedal steel guitar like much of the record, and "Something," with the obligate female chorus singing all the "attracts me like no other woman" lyrics.
Both tracks are amusing, but slowed down almost beyond recognition.
In fact, most of the record has the same laid-back, soulful, crooning sound, characterized by ballads like "Hello Little Friend." It's quite removed from the acid rock approach of Cocker's debut, and it's even less imaginative. There are plenty of covers like Dylan's "Dear Landlord" and Leonard Cohen's "Bird On The Wire" (a sort of watered-down "Bring It On Home To Me"), but only one Cocker-Chris Stainton composition (the old-timey "That's Your Business Now," like a humorless "Rocky Raccoon") and a second Leon Russell tune. "Bathroom Window" was Cocker's first Top 40 hit, but a marginal one. (JA)
Mad Dogs & Englishmen (1970)
A live double LP that was the soundtrack of a successful concert film. The huge band included Russell (who plays piano and lead guitar, and co-produced with Cordell); Stainton; a chorus including Rita Coolidge (she takes the lead on the boring ballad "Superstar"); the Price/Keys horn section; and multiple percussionists, including Jim Keltner and the Radle/Gordon rhythm section. The band had just been slapped together a couple weeks before recording, and although they were well-rehearsed anyway, the chaos shows through: their lazy, good-timey R & B-izing is sometimes tedious or even trite. Still, this is sing-along, clap-along fun that might lift your spirits.
Cocker scored hits here with "Cry Me A River" and a wrenchingly powerful take on "The Letter" (a #1 hit for the Box Tops in 1967). He ably-to-brilliantly re-treaded "Feelin' Alright," "Delta Lady," "Bathroom Window," etc., but he also worked up a lot of "new" stuff like "Honky Tonk Women" and yet more tributes to Dylan (a short, sloppy "Girl From The North Country") and Ray Charles ("Let's Go Get Stoned").
And although there isn't a Cocker original anywhere in sight, Russell contributed a few, including the lackluster, confusingly titled "Please Give Peace A Chance" (not the same as John Lennon's earlier tune).
Despite what sounds to me like a near-total lack of ideas, Mad Dogs shot to #2 and went gold. (JA)
Something To Say (1972)
Also known as Joe Cocker because the title appears nowhere on the cover, this was Cocker's one and only attempt to prove himself as a songwriter - all but three tunes are his, mostly co-written with Stainton.
Backed by Stainton's no-name band, he at least manages to carry over his loose, earnest big-band R & B sound.
But the album itself barely dented the album Top 40 and never went gold.
Much of it drags, even a live cover of "Do Right Woman"; there's a languid, six-minute 3/4-time blues ("St. James Infirmary Blues"); the super-dramatic, Traffic-style cover of "Midnight Rider" (a modest hit single) is probably the best entertainment, but the characteristically bombastic backing vocals and horn arrangment drown out the song's wild-eyed energy.
Cocker's own "High Time We Went" (a #2 hit) rides a pretty good, slide guitar-lubricated groove, but its gritty aimlessness sets the tone for the rest, like
"Woman To Woman," with its cool, funky, tension-building, and endlessly repeated hook, and "Black-Eyed Blues," a plodding imitation of the the Stones.
Meanwhile, "Pardon Me Sir" and "She Don't Mind" retread the same upbeat New Orleans jazz influences that Leon Russell paraded on the last record.
It's only on the title track that Cocker aims for a stately, carefully thought-out pop sound a la Carole King, and the effort is forgettable.
But at least none of this is ever as disorganized as the last record or as crass as the next record.
Produced by Cordell and Nigel Thomas.
Jim Keltner and Alan White are on drums; Jim Horn, Conrad Isidore, and Reebop all guest on "Do Right Woman."
Cocker's 1969 version of "Feeling Alright" suddenly rose high in the charts early the same year, resurfacing for reasons I'm not certain of. (JA)
I Can Stand A Little Rain (1974)
This was Cocker's last major success for a long time. It included the weepy hit single cover of "You Are So Beautiful (To Me)," written by Billy Preston and featuring Nicky Hopkins. The song broke the Top Ten and actually outsold all of his earlier singles, helping the album to do better on the charts than the previous one, although not as well as his first three.
The rest is slight balladry that almost never veers into rock 'n' roll, leaning instead on a lot of orchestration and sentimental piano accompaniment. But it's also mostly tasteful and appropriately focused on Cocker's emotive singing, with some nods to his earlier big-band R & B sound like "Put Out The Light."
Producer Jim Price is fully in control here: he wrote the title track, co-wrote Cocker's only composition ("I Get Mad"), arranged the horn section (which included Price and Jim Horn), and rounded up a huge crowd of noted session players - Ollie Brown, Merry Clayton, Cornell DuPree, David Paich, Jeff Porcaro, Chuck Rainey, Richard Tee, and especially Hopkins, who plays on half the tracks. Ray Parker and old ally Henry McCullough split the guitar work. And then there's Randy Newman, who plays piano on his "Guilty" (Harry Nilsson and Jimmy Webb are among the other writers). (JA)
Jamaica Say You Will (1975)
This was the start of a long period of semi-obscurity for Cocker; he didn't crack the Top 40 again for seven years. The title track is a widely covered Jackson Browne tune.
I have a copy of this and I find it pretty forgettable, much in the same L.A. soft rock vein as the last album. (JA)
Live In L.A. (1976)
A delayed cash-in release that documents Cocker's 1972 tour.
Oddly, it's a bit more focused and accessible than the vastly more famous Mad Dogs, helped by the respectable backing band that Stainton and Price threw together: the horn section is filled out by both Jim Horn and Bobby Keys, Stainton's boogie-woogie work is entertaining ("Dear Landlord"), and on two tracks they get surprisingly loose and loud electrified steel guitar solos out of guest Glen Campbell (the rollicking New Orleans march "Early In The Mornin'," and a sprawling version of "Love The One You're With").
Cocker's own songwriting is so weak that "High Time We Went" is the only original, but his super-bluesy vocals are strong ("St. James Infirmary"), the band seems sharp and well-practiced on his concert staples ("High Time"; "Midnight Rider"; "Hitchcock Railway," a key track from joe cocker! that recalls Eric Clapton's early solo records), and fans will feel gratified that four of the eight tunes are new covers - the best is Ashford and Simpson's stately, bittersweet "Didn't You Know You Have To Cry Sometime."
And the only real bummer is an endless, repetitive take of Ray Charles' gratingly earnest gospel tune "What Kind Of Man Are You."
Not a gem and not the easiest record to find, but if you can get a cheap copy, you won't really regret it.
Produced by Nigel Thomas; the band is Neil Hubbard (guitar), Alan Spenner (bass), Felix Falcon (conga), a loud and insistent backing vocal trio of Viola Wills, Virginia Ayers, and Beverly Gardner, and Jimmy Karstein, Conrad Isidore, and Jim Keltner all alternating on drums. (JA)
Luxury You Can Afford (1978)
Covers here include "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and "Whiter Shade Of Pale," and guests include Rick Danko of the Band. (JA)
Sheffield Steel (1982)
Cocker was going through a minor comeback at this point: the same year he scored a surprise #1 hit with the single "Up Where We Belong" (a duet with Jennifer Warnes). He'd never topped the charts before, but the song's not on the album: instead, the single here is "Talking Back To The Night," the title track of Steve Winwood's contemporaneous LP. Of the other titles, Dylan's "Seven Days" also was covered by Ron Wood. Recorded in the Bahamas, the lineup here is a little unusual: the core band includes omnipresent reggae session players Mikey Chung and Sly and Robbie, and guests include Adrian Belew and Jimmy Cliff. (JA)
Civilized Man (1984)
There's a slew of famous studio musicians here, including Randy Brecker, Paulhino da Costa, Jim Horn, Steve Lukather, and Greg Phillinganes - Cocker usually had to settle for less. (JA)
Not quite such high-powered backing talent this time, although Elton John's early 80s guitarist Ritchie Zito was heavily involved. And I don't recognize any of the song titles. (JA)
Unchain My Heart (1987)
This was cut with Cocker's regular, overpopulous backing band - the personnel stabilized a bit starting at this point. I believe that the title track was a moderately successful single; it was originally a Top 10 hit for Ray Charles in 1962. (JA)
One Night Of Sin (1989)
Cocker had a major hit here with the lead-in track "When The Night Comes." The band consists of Cocker regulars such as Chris Stainton, who returns for the first time in years. (JA)
Joe Cocker Live (1990)
The track listing runs through all the predictable hits except "Delta Lady," including his recent A-sides; and a couple of new studio recordings are also thrown in. Chris Stainton is back again; Earl Slick and the Memphis Horns also appear. (JA)
Night Calls (1992)
Prince's "Five Women" is on this one. Covers include "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" and "Can't Find My Way Home." In addition to Stainton, Jim Keltner, Danny Kortchmar, and Ian McLagan all appear. (JA)
Have A Little Faith (1994)
This is full of covers, like everything else Cocker does, purportedly including a reggae-ified "Summer In The City" (!). The band includes Chris Stainton, like usual. (JA)
Let's go get stoned...