That Joe Cocker made it to 70 probably would have surprised the people who knew him when. Back in the ’70s in particular, the singer was known nearly as well for his hard living as the raspy, rough-edged voice that was his signature. That voice—permanently hoarse, achingly soulful—sounded pained even in the best of times for the man who possessed it.
Joe Cocker spent most of his nearly six-decade career as an interpreter of other people’s songs, first coming to the attention of the record-buying public with a transformative reimagining of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” In Cocker’s hands, the enjoyable but slight Sgt. Pepper’s track was almost unrecognizable—a British pop song reimagined as American soul music, Liverpool by way of Memphis. When Cocker and his Grease Band closed their afternoon set at Woodstock with it—the first set of the festival’s last full day—it would go down as one of the most memorable performances at a festival that had more than its share of them.
A Rolling Stone review of Cocker’s first album, With a Little Help from My Friends, published just days after his Woodstock performance, likened the 24-year-old’s voice to “that of a middle-aged Southern black man.” Or, more succinctly: Ray Charles. “But Cocker has assimilated the Charles influence to the point where his feeling for what he is singing cannot really be questioned,” the review continued. Nearly 40 years later, Rolling Stone would echo this sentiment when it placed Cocker at no. 97 in its list of top 100 singers of all time: “Joe Cocker’s voice is an irresistible force that combines a love of American soul music with an undeniable depth of feeling.”
With a Little Help from My Friends was a critical and commercial success after its release in the spring of 1969—another generation would come to know its title track as the theme to The Wonder Years—and he followed it up with Joe Cocker! that November. Unsurprisingly, Cocker was burned out by the end of the year and dissolved the Grease Band, vowing to take a break from the road. But his management had already booked a U.S. tour, and in the beginning of 1970, they hastily assembled a band—under the name Mad Dogs and Englishmen—over the course of a few days to accompany Cocker on the road. The exhausting two-month tour received positive reviews and spawned a live album, but took its toll on Cocker, whose drinking had become problematic.
It was the beginning of a dark run for the singer, who would disappear from public life for a few years before spending the next decade attempting a series of comebacks. Another hastily assembled group, the Concert, followed in 1972, but didn’t take. (An Rolling Stone interview with Cocker from that time ends with the singer taking “a deep snort” of cocaine.)
By the time Cocker appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1976 to perform with John Belushi, whose Cocker impression was a staple of his early career, he was in bad shape, a burgeoning has-been unable to keep his demons at bay.
By 1978’s Luxury You Can Afford, Cocker seemed to be revitalized, and he completed his resurrection in 1982 thanks to the soundtrack to An Officer and a Gentleman. Cocker’s duet with Jennifer Warnes, “Up Where We Belong,” was an international hit that won a Grammy, an Oscar, and topped Billboard‘s Hot 100.
Cocker steadily released albums for the next 30 years, most recently 2012’s Fire It Up, and settled contentedly with his wife on a sprawling Colorado estate he called Mad Dog Ranch. He also kept performing; last year, he embarked on a lengthy European arena tour that would be his last.
Cocker put his ranch up for sale this past spring, and during a September concert, Billy Joel performed a tribute to Cocker, noting the singer “is not very well right now.” But details of his lung cancer were kept secret until his label, Sony, confirmed his death today.
Cancer of the lungs is an especially sad end for a man once known as the Sheffield Soul Shouter, but by just about any measure, Cocker lived a full life. Even when his life seemed to be getting away from him, his true love never strayed far. “It’s always music,” he once said in an interview. “If you love music, it’s always swirling around in your head.”