There aren’t many people that can get away with imitating a seizure on stage. Joe Cocker didn’t just get away with it, he turned it into an art form. Before Woodstock, he’d enjoyed some mild success. After it, his fame skyrocketed. His physical intensity, his spasmodic movements, and his gravelly voice captured the public imagination and held it for the next four decades. Cocker passed away in 2014 at the age of 70, but not before he’d gifted us with a truly immense body of work. With so many iconic songs to draw on, choosing the 10 best Joe Cocker songs of all time is no easy task. Never one to run from a challenge, we’ve scoured his songbook and chosen our favorite moments. This is the result.
10. Delta Lady
Cocker’s MO was to take a song made famous by someone else and put his own distinct stamp on it. In 1969, he did exactly that with Leon Russell’s ‘Delta Lady.’ Whereas Russell’s version was upbeat and raucous, Cocker’s was searingly soulful. It might not have had the energy of the original, but who could resist Cocker’s plaintive cry for love?
9. When the Night Comes
The gauzy production values of the 80s and the over-reliance on synths and drum loops weren’t a good match for Cocker’s distinctive soul voice. It wasn’t that they overwhelmed it (what could?), it was more that they jarred against it in a way that made for uncomfortable listening. Still, he managed to pull it out of the bag with this late 80s spectacular. Taken from the 1989 album, ‘One Night of Sin,’ ‘When the Night Comes’ found some decent songwriters in the likes of Diane Warren, Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams. The sound was sleek and modern, but Cocker’s sandpaper-worn vocals added enough gravitas to keep things earthy.
8. Midnight Rider
As billboard.com notes, Midnight Rider was one of Cocker’s biggest Billboard 100 hits. A high chart position doesn’t always equate to a decent song, but in this case, it really does. Released in 1972 with support from the Chris Stainton Band, ‘Midnight Rider’ is a jazz-inflected, blues-infused piece that puts Cocker’s vocal prowess on full display.
7. She Came in Through the Bathroom Window
‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window’ may not have been Cocker’s best Beatles cover (no prizes for guessing what that is), but it’s still a superb song. Strangely, it didn’t chart at all in the UK, but in the US, it stormed to number 30, giving Cocker his highest-charting single of the time.
6. You Can Leave Your Hat On
Randy Newman knew how to write ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On,’ but he didn’t know how to sing it, something he admitted years later when he told performingsongwriter.com the song was, “too low for me to sing it. I can’t rock it too hard, which maybe I should have.” One man who knew only too well how to sing it low and rock it hard was Joe Cocker. His arrangement takes the song in a very different direction to Newman’s original, but it loses none of its appeal in the process.
5. The Letter
If anyone could match Alex Chiltern for gruffness, it was Joe Cocker. In 1969, he did exactly that when he recorded a cover version of The Box Tops’ ‘The Letter.’ As societyofrock.com writes, his version of the mid 60s classic was rawer and darker than the original, and utterly phenomenal. Unsurprisingly, it broke the top ten in the US, giving Cocker one of his most commercially successful singles up till that point.
4. Don’t Let Me Be Understood
You don’t take on a Nina Simone song unless you know what you’re doing. The Animals did, and even to this day, their 1965 rendering of ‘Don’t Let Me Be Understood’ is widely considered to be the definitive cover. But only to those who haven’t heard Joe Cocker’s version. Whereas the Animals delivered what ultimateclassicrock.com describes as ‘an edgy tribute for put-upon adolescence,’ Cocker gave us something much rawer, much earthier, and much more adult. It may be a very different beast to the Animal’s version, but it’s no poorer for it.
3. You Are So Beautiful
In 1974, Cocker scored a top 5 hit with ‘You Are So Beautiful.’ In anyone else’s hands, it could have been a sickly sweet, easily forgettable love song. In Cocker’s, it was a rare treat. Heart stoppingly fragile and almost painfully exquisite, it was proof that Cocker could deliver a tender ballad just as well as a bluesy rocker.
2. Feelin’ Alright
When Traffic sang Feelin’ Alright? they sang it as a question. Theirs was a mid-tempo, ruminative song with some great melodies but a distinct lack of authority. Joe Cocker changed that. He took away the punctuation, turned a question into a statement, and delivered one of the funkiest little numbers he ever turned his hand to. Assertive and deeply groovy, it broke the charts not once but twice, first in 1969 and then again in 1972.
1. With a Little Help From My Friends
When Joe Cocker stood up on stage at Woodstock and broke into ‘With a Little Help From My Friends,’ everyone stopped what they were doing, stood up, and paid attention. With his wild man of the mountain appearance, his tie-dye shirt, and his air guitar, he might not have looked like a rock star, but boy, did he sound like one. What had been a goofy, throwaway ditty in the Beatles’ hands was a deep, bluesy, volcanic eruption in Cocker’s. Raw, seismically powerful, packed with pathos, and delivered with a hound dog yell that could stop the tide, it was nothing short of revolutionary. The studio version was no less sensational. If Cocker was looking to prove that one, relatively unknown artist could take on the might of the Fab Four and win, he succeeded. The single peaked at number one in the UK, and, unsurprisingly, has served as Cocker’s most famous and acclaimed effort ever since.