A class production…
Released through Eagle Rock Entertainment on 23 June 2017 and reviewed by Paul H Birch
“Joe and elegance always had a bit of a dispute”, Victor Cocker notes nonchalantly of his younger brother early on in this new DVD about the singer’s career, and the rabid wolverine glaring out of our screens with footage taken during Woodstock or the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour documentary can do nothing to refute such matters.
That Joe Cocker is heard in voiceover from old interviews and rarely seen direct talking on camera may disappoint some, but I doubt it would reveal as much about what made the man tick than those who do appear. However, I do get the impression that up to the point he became famous in the USA he was a different man to the one he became thereafter, both the good and the bad sides of his personality. Certainly those who knew him longest retain fond memories and there is much footage of them traipsing round Sheffield where he was brought up and played local pubs. It’s a working class environment, and the terraced houses may once have had outside loos but it’s not a bad neighbourhood to this day.
Aged 12, Joe Cocker joined his brother’s skiffle band, became a drummer but also sang from behind his kit. After hearing Ray Charles’ ‘Wha’d I Say’ he became obsessed with the R ’n’ B star’s voice and his own future beckoned. Taking a chronological overview of the singer’s career is fine early on but as missing-in-action periods increase we shift from annual accounts to notable mentions that incorporate decades. Most significant of all is the year 1969 when Chris Stainton joins Cocker’s The Grease Band (Oddly never mentioned by name on screen). Stainton along with the late Nicky Hopkins (who we discover Cocker would also later feature in his band) developed a piano sound and style helped define British rock back in those days when it ruled the world. Together the pair would write a little number called ‘Marjorine’ that got heard by producer Glynn Johns; a hop, skip and a jump later and Stainton is rearranging The Beatles’ ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ that hit number 1 on the charts pretty much everywhere. It is also at this point that Dee Anthony came a calling.
Born in the Bronx, Dee Anthony was a heavy duty rock manager in the 70s mould. Humble Pie, Ten Years After, Traffic and Jethro Tull were all on his books. He broke British bands big in the States by constant touring; Pie’s Rockin’ The Fillmore and their former guitarist Peter Frampton’s Comes Alive double albums testify to that. From here on, Cocker’s career can be likened to three stages, each under a different manager. With Anthony the financial rewards were immense, but we’ve heard the story so many times now – young working class lads given booze, birds and barbiturates to keep them up all night are eventually going to become strung out. Then, when it’s intimated that a few weeks off is going to result in both broken promises and subsequently a leg or two up and down the food chain you make a decision: singing for your supper is a damned sight easier than being a gas fitter.
Enter also at this point Leon Russell, writer and producer of Cocker’s next big hit the gospel rocking ‘Delta Lady’ but also the man who put a 40 piece rock ’n’ roll circus together to support the singer on tour. The documentary film of the tour shows Cocker becoming lost in a miasma of drink and drugs, and fortunately it only shows those live performances where he rose to the occasion and saw off Russell who many considered was building a career off the back of his. Singer Rita Coolidge describes Cocker as “a sweet gentleman” from which we may gather he retained his manners even when plastered. At the end of the tour he was holed up in LA, not having made a dollar from the tour. Eventually he returned to Sheffield, and his semi-coherent comments from TV footage shows he remained in a poor state and touring was out of the question. When he does return to the fray there are missed opportunities (a small showcase at The Roxy falls apart witnessed by influential music business people practically destroying his career) and unexpected successes (On hearing ‘You are So Beautiful’ on the radio friends are astounded he’s bounced back).
The interviews featured are far from fluff pieces, even the bonus features contain material you will watch again – they’re more akin to a good book’s footnotes and addendum than the backstage filler too many music DVDs feature. Stainton’s memory is vivid sharing good times and bad with self-effacing humour, Randy Newman is studious but expressive, and Billy Joel is revealed a total fan. Like Coolidge and others there’s ample airtime for all, most notably and with good grace there is Michael Lang.
Michael Lang took over as Joe Cocker’s manager in 1976. he had co-founded Woodstock where the singer had performed so triumphantly and though he knew things weren’t going to be easy he took on the role, getting A & M to write off a reported $80,000 debt and slowly beginning to get rid of those hangers-on taking advantage of Cocker. A year later Cocker also met the woman who would become his wife; his courtship with Pam was long and slow but “just what he needed” according to his brother Vic. Together they helped him bring him back as a person and as a performer. When asked to duet with Jennifer Warnes on the theme song for the movie Office & A Gentleman he initially declined, and yes ‘Up Where We Belong’ did position him into middle-of-the-road territory , but you can’t argue that the ballad’s not sung well, nor that it would begin to help re-establish much needed finances.
By June 1st 1988 he was back on top, playing in front of the Berlin wall, and Germany took him to heart (like they have so many British blues ‘n’ soul belters). However, in 1991 Lang received a message saying his services were no longer required. There was no explanation. And there’s no trace of animosity from Lang, just a hint of sadness. From here on Roger Davis who had rekindled interest in Tina Turner took over with a slick operation that took in 170 shows a year and while this may be a case of the Emperor’s new clothes it did prove the man could still deliver. So much so that when asked to sing ‘With A Little Help’ at the Queen’s Jubilee – a song he’d always refused to do as a on-off because it usually took him a whole show to work up to release its cathartic scream – he had no hesitation, declaring “She’s my queen, I’m gonna do it!” That former hell-raising rebels will still fall on their swords for a monarchy so far removed from their own working class origins is hard for many to reconcile. Perhaps, in hindsight there’s a respect for how Elizabeth II has handled fame and wealth all her life, who knows other than that the upshot was Cocker received an OBE in 2007.
Joe Cocker continued to drink heavily on tour however and when he brought that side of his persona home in 2001, his wife gave him an ultimatum. Ironically, it was actually her who needed to adjust when he promptly gave up and never touched the bottle again. That when he did he needed a bucket to the side of the stage where he would throw up has a familiar ring, as John Bonham presumably did so before going on stage. For all their bravura were there nerves? Or did that lure of the crowd make you feel wracked with guilt that you weren’t with family? If Cocker had someone like Peter Grant handling him would he have been protected better during his early career, or might he have ended up like Bonzo a few years down the line?
It seems life worked out right in the end, a woman who patently loved him, a peaceful life country away from the crowds but still able to perform as well as when he first set out. “Charming, not a diva” someone says, and while you just know there were raw edges to him even those who have a right to don’t have a particularly bad word to say against him. The fact that these same people declare he put his whole life into his singing tells us everything we really need to know.
Returning home after a tour he felt unwell and doctors diagnosed that he had Stage 2 lung cancer. Privately friends began lobbying for him to be entered into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame before he succumbed to the illness. Randy Newman looks totally perplexed on learning that he wasn’t, Billy Joel is nearly crying on camera recalling the letter he wrote. The intellectual and the emotional; we learn as much about those being interviewed as the person who is the subject matter. On December 22nd 2014, aged 70 Joe Cocker passed away.
This DVD is a love story and homage, though not an altar to be worshipped at because those closest allowed some of the warts if not all to be revealed. But it’s really funny in places too and the interviews are absolutely top quality productions not just “Who do we know remotely involved in the music industry that we can we get to offer an opinion?” The old live film footage is of its time and there’s not enough of Cocker actually singing. However – and this is what really makes this a class production – it makes you want to go out and buy some Joe Cocker records.