It’s difficult to conceive of a cover version so vividly seizing control in the public consciousness from its original recording more so than Joe Cocker’s expropriation of ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ from none other than The Beatles. Sure, there would be seemingly endless possibilities to consider: Jimi Hendrix from Bob Dylan on ‘All Along The Watchtower,’ ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklin care of Otis Redding; the ambiguous duality of ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ by both Carole King and James Taylor, and many others. But in Cocker’s radical rearrangement, amazingly arriving just over a year subsequent to its original appearance on a little album named Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, he brilliantly transformed the entire character of an already extremely famous song further than in any other instance imaginable, permanently reshaping its historical footprint (and in case you don’t believe it, consider that on the not infrequent occasions that another band covers the tune it is always the Cocker iteration that’s played).
And…why wouldn’t it be so. For, when it comes to characters have there been many (or any) more singular in both their musicianship or their showmanship than Joe Cocker? His guttural vocals sounded as if he might have gargled Tabasco and swallowed a set of maracas. Perhaps only the existence of a live rattlesnake coiled in his mouth could have explained his tortured style of diction. And his bewildering performative presence was only distinctive if you consider observing someone being overwhelmed by sweaty spasms of hypnotic convulsions – a veritable human embodiment of shake, rattle and roll – to be unique. Yet, with more than a little help from his many esteemed songwriting friends, Joe Cocker made that extremely peculiar package of attributes add up to some thoroughly mesmerizing soulful magic.
So before continuing, let’s pause to examine Cocker’s aforementioned unusual form of elocution. Try a quick listen, let’s say even just the first minute, of this, one of his biggest hits, ‘High Time We Went,’ bearing in mind a very simple test: Outside of the title, I challenge you to identify one decipherable word, just one, within the opening two verses. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
How’d you do…A couple? One? A syllable? Anything? Remember, this is a polished studio version released on a major label, not an outtake or live soundboard snippet. In any case, it seems at least fair to say that Cocker’s delivery was probably unlike that of any other rock and roll crooner, ever.
That unorthodox methodology produced a great many memorable songs throughout Joe Cocker’s 22-album career that spanned nearly 50 years, starting as a youth in his hometown of Sheffield, England until his death in 2014 at age 70. As the centerpiece of the unconventionally massive 20-person Mad Dogs and Englishmen in 1970, a goliathon benchmark of ambitious rock revue orchestration (and template for today’s greatest act, the Tedeschi Trucks Band), Cocker delivered revitalized versions of formidable chestnuts like ‘The Letter’ (The Box Tops), ‘Delta Lady’ (Leon Russell), ‘Feelin’ Alright’ (Dave Mason), as well as another noteworthy Lennon/McCartney composition ‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.’ Not long after he went on to record what may be considered his signature tune, the staggering ‘You Are So Beautiful’ (written by Billy Preston), the Grammy-winning duet with Jennifer Warnes, ‘Up Where We Belong’ (which by federal statute now requires one to picture Richard Gere sweeping Debra Winger up at the close of An Officer and a Gentleman), the titillating ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ (a Randy Newman number that also appeared in 9½ Weeks), and a simmering classic by Ray Charles – considered by most to be Cocker’s greatest musical influence – ‘Unchain My Heart.’
But it was all the way back in 1969 with ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ that Joe Cocker reached his iconic reinterpretative zenith. The spellbinding song (which featured Jimmy Page on guitar) appeared on Cocker’s debut album, also titled With a Little Help from My Friends. Then, only 4 months later, it was heard again in a truly earth-shaking performance at Woodstock. Cocker’s evidently uncontrollable thrashing and writhing on stage there seemingly became as unforgettable as the song itself. Or, it might be more accurate to say, at least it did to one person: John Belushi.
With Saturday Night Live in only its 2nd season, and Belushi the breakout star of the irrepressible Not Ready for Prime-Time Players, Joe Cocker appeared as the musical guest on October 2, 1976. However, for this performance the audience got not one Cocker but two, as Belushi, who’s deranged impersonations of Cocker had been an early-career catalyst as far back as his days with Chicago’s Second City troupe, joined the enigmatic Cocker for what, at first, seemed an impromptu and potentially awkward “duet” of ‘Feelin’ Alright.’ In matching outfits, and almost distressingly matching mannerisms, Cocker and Belushi traded raspy lines and straining shudders to a delirious result that somehow transcended parody. And, as it also turned out, it was all rehearsed. “I asked him to do it a long time before,” said Belushi, an avowed mega-fan, while for his part Cocker took absolutely no affront. “I found it quite amusing,” said Joe. “He was almost like a schoolboy, he’d come in the dressing room and just watch everything I was doing.”
As for Cocker’s trademark flailing, it was not, as some suggested, the byproduct of an illness or prevalent drug issues. By his explanation, he just had no other way to get his music out. “I guess that came with my frustration at never having played piano or guitar. It’s just a way of me trying to release a feeling. I get excited and it all comes through my body.” And fifty-plus years on, there’s still no better illustration of his frenzied twitching – as if the music was a spirit possessing him, fighting to get out – than when Cocker put on his most conspicuous exhibition of writhing splendor on the stage of Woodstock. It’s difficult to describe, but certainly something to behold. A man utterly lost in, even consumed by, his music, and in the process of remaking a Beatles classic forevermore. Paul McCartney himself later expressed his admiration for the performance, and too the recording that had just preceded it, when Cocker brought it to him for his pre-release blessing. “It was just mind blowing,” said Sir Paul. “He totally turned the song into a soul anthem, and I was forever grateful to him for doing that.”
A radically remade soul anthem for The Beatles, that is, with a little help from a flailing friend.