THUNDER BAY – ENTERTAINMENT – It was Abraham Quaidoo, my College roommate from Ghana, who initially shared who Joe Cocker was with me while we studied in the USA. Abraham’s collection of Afro-American, blues and gospel provided the audio effects he liked mixing colours at his easel.
Abraham grooved to Muddy Waters. B.B. King. Ray Charles. His weekly walkabouts meant he ‘d likely discover another bluesy black voice at a nearby campus shop. In the years we shared classes together and wanting to savour something special Abraham would inevitably shuffle across our hall while handing you an album. Underscoring the moment, “Hey man. This cat is good. It will lift you. Play it, soon.”
With that tone setting a pattern it was on on one of those treks Abraham returned offering me an introduction to Joe Cocker. My first reaction hearing Cocker’s voice was that he must be Southern blues singer or a countryman of Abraham’s from West Africa.
“But, he is neither,” Abraham smiled in delivering a quick bio. “Cocker is English,” my colleague was educating me. “He’s from Sheffield. You know where the silver forks and knives are made. He was a pipe fitter. Now sings with what they call the Grease Band.”
With that we started checking on Cocker’s new band. It wasn’t long after we were watching, listening to Cocker at a place called the Depot. A converted former Greyhound bus depot re-modelled into tiers accommodating a memorable sold out concert.
Cocker along with his forever early band member Chris Stainton, on guitar and organ, pumped out everything from Cocker’s hit single re-doing the Box Tops’ The Letter to their version of Canada’s Leonard Cohen’s Bird On A Wire. Travelling the northern frontier states Cocker mixed in The North Country Fair by Bob Dylan. He also auditioned his classic Delta Lady. Did Ray Charles’ Cry Me A River.
And to add ‘incredibly unforgettable’ to the measure of heights the Grease Band was scaling, Cocker was just so, well, so…Joe Cocker.
He set the stage. Mentioning how joyously responsive a sea of fans had been listening to him, in a pasture outdoors, on a rain slogged weekend doing the upcoming version of the Beatles’ A Little Help From My Friends.
“It was at place called Woodstock, New York,” Cocker grinned. Our crowd stood. Applauded. Got right into what we knew was soon to be majestic cascading of sound mixing the elements of Cocker’s reeling soulful, impassioned raspy voice with Stainton on organ. Mixing and meshing with guitars, horns and drums. A chorus of voices he called The Orioles.
It was so vibrant. So unequivocally Cocker. Seemed the roof and ceiling temporarily flew away as he would later sing those lyrics doing Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale.
This week, former Beatle Ringo Starr hearing of Joe Cocker’s passing said Cocker could “Interpret the songs of others…like no other. They soon became Cocker’s own.” What a fine reflection.
In 1969 while travelling Ireland the Irish kept saying to me about Cocker’s music, “it’s Joe’s ver-shun (version) we love. He’s brilliant.”
From those early gigs on stage where Cocker performed early in his career he would become one of those artists whose albums accompanied our family wherever we went. My wife said on a trip to Hawaii it was a Cocker song she first heard in Honolulu.
One summer in Seattle a colleague phoned to where I was at the University say, “We’ve got Mr. Joe Cocker on…singing Feeling Alright. We’ll have the BBQ waiting your arrival later.”
No matter where we went a Cocker ‘ver-shun’ of something else. Something new would echo out. He compiled over forty albums. Did soundtracks for films. Did concerts around the world.
It was his forte–as durable and long lasting as the cutlery made in Sheffield–to always be as resilient and re-defining in his performances as almost anyone.
So as we found ourselves in Europe, or, in cities like Victoria, B.C., or other places along the Pacific from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco on farther south to Monterrey and Santa Cruz there was another slice of one Joe Cocker’s most recent productions being aired.
Yet, one of the finest ever settings we ever saw Joe Cocker was right here at our own Community Auditorium. The place was rocking from start to finish. Cocker had travelled from Winnipeg to our town. There were those who drove there, the, drove back here to catch him.
And when he paused briefly to set the mood for one of his iconic ballads, we knew where he was coming from with the first words, “YOU are…so…beautiful…to me…”
There wasn’t a dry eye in our Aud when Joe bowed at the conclusion. He’d moved the hearts and souls of so many. “You’ll see…in the way he lifts you,” a my roommate Abraham would predict. And, that he did.
As the Auditorium gathering kept on applauding, then receiving another curtain call from Cocker, my colleague Gary Phillips leaned to my wife and I and said, “Well…is that not a classic night with Joe Cocker?”
Seems Cocker’s life in music will be celebrated, now, with an International persuasion.
In upcoming days his faithful, and those who booked time to see him belt out his inimitable deliveries in song, will likely roll back everything from his gutsy, rapidly moving song Hitchcock Railway.
To Cocker, plaintively, eulogizing the plight of a gravelly-toned troubadour whose life
was truly forged, bonding in rock ‘ n blues singing: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.