TIME remembrance

Why Joe Cocker Sang the Blues

Joe Cocker
Jack Robinson—Getty Images Portrait of British rock singer Joe Cocker, Nov. 21, 1969

"Blues are in the back of everybody's mind," he told TIME in 1970

Joe Cocker, the Grammy-winning British blues singer, died Monday at the age of 70, leaving behind a legacy that included dozens of albums.

But back when he was just getting started, the singer’s exuberant stage presence was so extreme that he once joked to TIME that Ed Sullivan tried to hide him with back-up dancers so as not to alienate viewers.

Despite those attempts to keep his talent under wraps, by the time the magazine profiled him in April of 1970, he had made a splash at Woodstock. The world had noticed that he “knows just when to shout, just when to pout, just when to let a phrase die with a low, sad whimper,” the magazine reported.

Here’s how Josh Tyrangiel described that Woodstock performance decades later in TIME:

Joe Cocker was the real king of Woodstock. We think of him now as a series of tics and growls, but his seven-minute version of “With a Little Help from My Friends” begins in complete control, slowly building until halfway through, when his sweet-voiced backup singers ask, “Do you need anybody?” Cocker responds … well, it’s hard to describe exactly what he howls. But there’s no happier sound. And no matter how long people get together to listen to music, there won’t be another moment when singer, song and audience merge so completely. For a few days, a generation of people got high with their friends. It sounds like a small thing, until you hear it.

In 1970, TIME noted that it might seem strange for a Brit to sing the blues, Cocker explained why it wasn’t so weird after all:

Cocker is his real last name, but “Joe” is assumed. He was born John, and that, for some reason, just would not do. Before changing his given name, he worked by day as a pipefitter in his native Sheffield, 140 miles north of London, singing in the local pubs by night. For a while, he billed himself as Vance Arnold. The next year he changed his name again and hit the top-50 charts with a single called Marjorine, then reached the top ten with A Little Help from My Friends. Most of the time since, he has spent in the U.S. “At least in America people want to change things,” says Joe.

When things cannot be changed right off, though, the blues can be a big help. Like a lot of other white blues singers today—Joplin, Johnny Winter, John Mayall—Cocker occasionally encounters resentment that he, a white man, should dare to sing the black man’s music. His reply to that is that the blues is now so important a music that it transcends racial boundaries. “Blues are in the back of everybody’s mind,” he says. “Everybody needs an outlet, ’cause no matter what you’ve got in possessions, you’re still up against the wall.”

Read the full 1970 profile here, in the TIME Vault: Which One Is Joe?

Read Josh Tyrangiel on Cocker and the baby boomers’ biggest weekend: Woodstock: How Does It Sound 40 Years Later?

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