Mad Dog, The Englishman

For music fans who came of age in the ’80s, Joe Cocker will forever be tied to his two biggest hits, 1974’s “You Are So Beautiful” and 1982’s “Up Where We Belong,” tender pop masterpieces, sparse instrumentation supplementing epically romantic lyrics and Cocker’s irresistibly rough-and-tumble voice.

Both songs are now pop-culture icons in addition to chart-topping hits; few American weddings have commenced without a father-daughter dance to “You Are So Beautiful,” while “Up Where We Belong” rocketed to No. 1 chart status after soundtracking the climactic scene in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” when Richard Gere, impeccably dressed in his Navy whites, literally sweeps Debra Winger off her feet.

But Cocker hasn’t always been every baby-boomer’s favorite crooner. He first tried his hand at a musical career under the stage name Vance Arnold, performing Ray Charles and Chuck Berry covers in his native Sheffield, England. Decca Records attempted to sell the listening public on Arnold’s working-class roots, but the conceit didn’t fly. So Cocker dropped the pseudonym, plied the bluesy pub-rock trade with The Grease Band for a few years and eventually found his footing in 1969 as a full-throated powerhouse with a now-legendary cover of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

The single, recorded with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, became an international hit, whipping the crowds gathered on the final day of the Woodstock Festival into a frenzy on Aug. 17, 1969. Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon were even impressed with the rendition, calling Cocker down to their Apple Studios and granting him permission to record similarly soulful interpretations of “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Something.” Cocker had hits with Leon Russell’s “Delta Lady” (’69) and The Box Tops’ “The Letter” (’71).

Even though Cocker built a career covering other musicians’ material, his unpredictable reputation was all his. In the early ’70s, his 30-member Mad Dogs & Englishmen backing band toured the world and partied nonstop; in 1972, Cocker and six other bandmates were arrested by Australian authorities for marijuana possession and assault. Alcohol and heroin addictions followed, which Cocker eventually kicked by 2000. But several bad business deals dogged him for decades, at one point leaving him millions of dollars in debt to several record labels.

Onstage, however, is where Cocker shines. He’s been alternately celebrated and skewered for his uncontrollable, spastic arm flailing on stage, which is part and parcel of his famously contorted facial tics and legendary air-guitar performances. In countless interviews, Cocker admits he’s been self-conscious of his physical behavior for years. But when he sang “Feelin’ Alright” on “Saturday Night Live” in 1978, he played right along with John Belushi impersonating him to devastating effect, right down to offering the hard-living singer an onstage can of beer.

“You Are So Beautiful” and “Up Where We Belong,” then, mellowed Cocker’s image into that of a lovably quirky soul-shouter with legit classic-rock bona fides. “Up Where We Belong” won the rare Grammy/Golden Globe/Academy Award trifecta, and Cocker’s newfound softer side scored gigs at George H.W. Bush’s inauguration in 1989 and Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. In 2007, the working-class bloke even earned an Order of the British Empire medal.

Even with all those honors, Cocker has scored only two Billboard Top 10 albums out of 30-plus releases; his greatest hits and live records routinely sell far more than their studio-based counterparts. And with few original compositions to rake in the royalty payments, Cocker remains a reliably successful live draw, touring the world with the energy of a performer half his age while still living up to his reputation as a spontaneous interpreter of the great American and British Songbooks.

“I try and reinvent [my hits] every time I go out,” Cocker told SoundSpike in 2009. “The nature of my material is R&B, so my phrasing doesn’t have to be locked in to one set motion.”

When not on the road, Cocker leads a quiet life in rural Colorado with his wife Pam Baker; the couple runs the Cocker Kids’ Foundation, donating nearly a million dollars over the last 15 years to area education, recreation, arts and athletics. And even though he now lives on the Mad Dog Ranch, complete with a 17,000-square-foot English castle, Cocker’s last album, “Hard Knocks,” represents a stark summation of the peaks and valleys of his career.

“I’ve spent more time on the streets than being educated,” he said in press for the record. And in an NPR interview last February, Cocker opened up even more about his difficult path to stardom. “By the early ’70s, the drugs and the booze [had taken] their toll,” he said. “It was a long road back. A lot of times when you’re young and carefree, you don’t realize when you tip over the edge how difficult it is to climb back in.”

Nick McG

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