Woodstock Performers: Joe Cocker
Joe Cocker wasn't exactly a household name before Woodstock. That was about to change.
This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Jefferson Airplane had finally wrapped up the Day 2 lineup at about 8:45 a.m., and Joe was the first official artist on Day 3's roster. After Joe Cocker would come another Joe, Country Joe & The Fish.
Who Was Joe Cocker?
Though Cocker had been performing off and on for years, he was relatively unknown outside of Sheffield, England. In 1966, Cocker finally achieved some measure of success in the broader UK with a single called "Marjorie," co-written with Cocker's fellow Grease Band member Chris Stainton, who would be Cocker's bandmate and collaborator for years to come. Somehow, the song even became a minor hit in the US.
In 1968, Cocker put together a fresh touring lineup for the Grease Band. Comprised of his good mate Stainton (keyboards, backing vocals), he added Henry McCullough (guitar, backing vocals), Alan Spenner (bass, backing vocals) and Bruce Rowland (drums). They opened for The Who during a tour in the fall of 1968, and then crossed the pond in early 1969 for their first tour of the US. It was during their successful US tour that their producer, Denny Cordell, heard about Woodstock, and had the Grease Band's manager convince Woodstock organizer Artie Kornfeld to book them for the festival.
Cocker's debut album With a Little Help from My Friends was released in May 1969 just after he arrived in the US with the Grease Band. This is Cocker at his best. The album's tracks feature a veritable who's who of studio musicians, including Tony Visconti, Albert Lee, Steve Winwood, B.J. Wilson and Jimmy Page. The album spent 37 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart, peaking at #35 on July 26, 1969.
The Woodstock booking was perfect timing.
"What would you think if i sang out of tune,
would you stand up and walk out on me?
lend me your ears and i'll sing you a song
and i'll try not to sing out of key..."
Joe Cocker's Woodstock
The first official act to take the stage on Day 3 was Joe Cocker and the Grease Band.
The Grease Band kicked things off at 2:00 p.m. without Cocker, with instrumental versions of Traffic's "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring" and "40,000 Headmen." Even by Sunday, things were still pretty chaotic at the festival site, and Cocker arrived by helicopter to take the stage, as so many other artists had done. He joined the band onstage and launched into a cover of Dylan's "Dear Landlord," followed by another tune written with Stainton, "Something's Coming On." He then brought the mood down a bit with "Do I Still Figure in Your Life," a beautiful bluesy ballad from his recently-released debut album.
Next up was another Traffic song, "Feelin' Alright." You only have to hear Cocker deliver this song, in his own inimitable fashion (except perhaps by John Belushi), to understand why he was destined to be a huge star.
Joe Cocker Performing "Feelin' Alright" at Woodstock (audio only)
Cocker then moved on to cover another Dylan song, this time "Just Like a Woman." Reception from the understandably sleepy crowd was polite, but he still didn't have them. He was about to fix that with a song the audience seemed to take as a call to action, "Let's Go Get Stoned," based on Ray Charles' 1966 cover. Another Ray Charles cover followed this, “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and another Dylan cover, “I Shall Be Released.” He was into the final stretch, and followed with “Hitchcock Railway” and the mellow “Something To Say.”
It was time to give them something to really remember him by. Cocker closed the set with an almost eight-minute version of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” alternately crooning, spasming and screaming his way through this beloved Beatles tune. His performance became an instant classic, and he owned the song like nobody else ever did again.
Joe Cocker Performing "With a Little Help from My Friends" at Woodstock
Cocker never got to perform an encore to his 85-minute set, though the by now delirious crowd was shouting for more. Ominous dark clouds had gathered to the west, and the wind started to pick up. One of the stage announcers, John Morris, was yelling at folks to get away from the lighting towers, in case one of the heavy lamps came down. Within minutes, the sky opened up and let loose a vicious, driving rain, turning Woodstock back into one gigantic mud pit. That proved to be the last straw for a large number of festival-goers, and an exodus had started by 4:00 pm.
Life After Woodstock
After Woodstock, Cocker and the Grease Band toured incessantly, appearing at Isle of Wight and on TV shows on both sides of the pond. In November 1969, Cocker's second studio LP Joe Cocker was released. Based on the strength of his cover of "With A Little Help From My Friends," Paul McCartney and George Harrison had given Cocker permission to record "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window" and "Something" for his new LP. The album reached the #11 spot on the US charts, based largely on Cocker's appearance at Woodstock. Tired from the road, Cocker disbanded the Grease Band.
The hiatus was short-lived however. In order to fulfill contractual obligations for an already-booked 1970 US tour, Cocker put together a new band. Tapping his good friend Leon Russell to join the menagerie that included three drummers and backing vocalists (Rita Coolidge being one of them), both the band and the tour took the moniker Mad Dogs & Englishmen. They played an exhausting 48 cities and recorded a live album before winding down the tour in May 1970. The cover of the Box Tops' hit "The Letter," which appeared on the live album, became Cocker's first US Top Ten hit.
After time away from performing, Cocker ventured out again with a band that his old buddy Chris Stainton had put together. They toured the US, Europe, and then returned to the US again in the fall of 1972. The LP culled from these performances and some studio work, called Joe Cocker, was Cocker's third album and contained the hit single "High Time We Went." After the US dates, Cocker and the band went off to Australia, where he and six of his entourage were busted for marijuana possession. The following day in Melbourne, assault charges were laid after an argument got out of hand and turned into a brawl. The Aussies had had enough of their guest and gave Cocker 48-hours to leave the country.
Worn out and depressed, Cocker started using heroin. Luckily, he managed to kick the habit after only being a user for a short while, but he continued to drink heavily. He went through several serious bouts with depression, during which his alcohol abuse became even worse. He was a fighter, and always came back. People loved him, no matter what his demons were. He had another hit in 1974 with “You Are So Beautiful,” which reached the #11 spot on US charts, and again in 1982, when his duet with Jennifer Warnes, “Up Where We Belong,” reached the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 list. A heavy smoker from a very young age, Cocker died from lung cancer on December 22, 2014.
The other members of the Grease Band all remained in the music business after Woodstock. They often ended up working together again as they joined bands or worked as backing musicians for Paul McCartney, Spooky Tooth, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and Fairport Convention. Stainton in particular worked with Cocker numerous times over the years, and has also worked extensively with Eric Clapton, appearing as recently as 2016 on Clapton's 20th studio album, I Still Do.
Drummer Bruce Rowland continues to work as a music composer. Bassist Alan Spenner passed away in 1991 after suffering a heart attack and guitarist Henry McCulloch died in 2016 following a stroke.
Five Musical Facts
- In 1964, while with his group Vince Arnold and the Avengers, Cocker recorded a cover of “I’ll Cry Instead” by The Beatles. A young session player by the name of Jimmy Page played guitar on the song.
- Richie Havens had also performed "With A Little Help From My Friends" during his set on opening Day. He became known not only for opening the festival, but for giving it one of its anthems, the song "Freedom."
- Janis Joplin and Grace Slick remained at the festival site right until the end, watching from Joe Cocker's van as Jimi Hendrix close the event on Monday morning.
- Cocker's version of "With a Little Help from My Friends" became the opening theme for the TV show The Wonder Years.
- On September 11, 2015 Chris Stainton performed a tribute/reunion concert with the Tedeschi Trucks Band in honor of the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. Tour alumni who performed in the tribute concert included Leon Russell and Rita Coolidge. Jojo Pennebaker (son of D.A. Pennebaker of Monterey Pop and Woodstock Diary fame) filmed the event and a documentary is planned.
© 2019 Kaili Bisson