Who are you Mr. Joe Cocker?

Joe Cocker

Published May 7, 2009 06:05 AM

By John Voket / LiveDaily Contributor

On the cusp of a very ambitious spring/summer schedule, classic rock and blues veteran Joe Cocker [ tickets ] is doing something he never did before: reviewing all his recorded material to find a few classic cuts to work into his nightly setlist to tickle some of the most tried and true fans.

“You know, it’s kind of weird when somebody sends you every song you ever recorded … a few of them I don’t even remember,” Cocker joked while speaking to LiveDaily by phone from his Mad Dog ranch, which is nestled in the Rockies outside of Denver. “So I’m going to pick out two or three and swap them out over this next tour and see how they go.”

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Cocker has had his ups and downs over the years–battling and beating reported alcohol and heroin addictions, as well as capturing the trifecta of a Golden Globe, Grammy and Oscar for “Up Where We Belong,” but at age 65, he’s lining up a tour that could tucker out a rock star half his age.

Last month, Cocker hit the road for a tour that will find him playing nearly 50 North American gigs through mid-July. (His tour schedule is included below.) The veteran singer is pounding the pavement behind his most recent studio album, “Hymn For My Soul,” which emerged in May of last year and peaked at No. 9 on Billboard’s Top Christian Albums chart. The record features the legendary singer’s take on vintage songs like Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells,” Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” and Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation.” Cocker’s version of the Beatles’ classic “Come Together,” featured in the Oscar-nominated film “Across the Universe,” also made the album.

During a wide-ranging chat, Cocker touched upon his role in that film, his relationship with the Fab Four, and the demons that helped put him nearly a million dollars in debt between his original Woodstock appearance, which helped introduce him to American audiences, and a high profile turn singing “Feelin’ Alright” beside a mirror image of himself as played by John Belushi on the second season of “Saturday Night Live.”

LiveDaily: Many of your seasoned fans never forget you and John Belushi doing that bit on “Saturday Night Live.” Were you prepared for it? I guess Belushi’s Joe Cocker imitation helped make him famous, which maybe was kind of surreal for you, no?

Joe Cocker: By then, it was pretty well documented back in the ’70s I was pretty well out of it. I was pretty heavily drinking. And I remember this producer Geordie Hormel in LA asks me, “Did you see this guy Belushi doing an impersonation of you? It’s disgusting.” And I hadn’t seen it. But pretty soon everybody was coming up to me being real negative and saying how bad it was. Well, I finally saw it. And that’s what impersonation is, isn’t it? I thought he did a great job. But I really didn’t know what to expect when they brought me up to rehearsal. And John [Belushi] was actually quite shy … He was reticent. He just watched everything I did. I had a sore throat, so he took me to his own doctor–watched the doctor put that lollipop stick down my throat and all that. Whenever he was around me, he wasn’t a comedian at all; he was actually very quiet. He made me tea!

Back when you were just beginning to start your recording career, there were a lot of young lads–particularly Jimmy Page, Steve Winwood–who played important roles in helping you establish yourself on record. Can you talk a bit about how those sessions with people like Page and Winwood happened? Did you have your pick of them, or were they assigned to you for you to work out a friendship after the fact?

Well, you’re going back to about ’67 and ’68, and the record deal I got, Denny Cordell was the producer. And imagine just a simple Shefield guy coming into London, and we had a single, Chris Stainton and I, called “Marjorine.” And Denny says “Let’s make an album. Who do you want to play on it?” And he’s mentioning all these names: Jimmy Page, Mike Kelly from Spooky Tooth, my God all these people I admired. And I said, “If you can get ’em, that would be wonderful.” So a lot of different sessions evolved just from Denny calling ’round London to see who wasn’t working at the time. And that first album I still treasure to this day because you don’t have the kind of time to make that kind of record anymore. … We had over a year to produce it.

It sounds like Denny not only had the ability to line up the talent behind your first album, but it looks like he retired every page in his phone book a couple of years later while lining up your backing band for the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” project. What was it like shuffling around from show to show with a 30-person backing band?

I [told] Denny I had heard Leon Russell on record and really liked his playing, and maybe we could put a quintet together, or maybe a little rhythm section. And that’s when Leon called back and said “I’ll do your tour, but I want to do it my way.” And I went ahead with it for the fun of it. [laughing] You know, we flew around on one of those big prop Constellations, and I used to swear it would be tilting back because there were so many people on board. We had a choir of 20 people, and everybody had their girlfriends, and wives and dogs. It seemed very hectic at the time, but it was really kind of low key, no big money. We stayed in regular hotels, but it was an experience, all right!

I recently saw you in the Oscar nominated film “Across the Universe.” How did that role come to you?

I’m not too sure how that decision came together. One of my producers said Julie Taymor had approached him. It all changed in the process, though; it was supposed to be David Bowie playing the Eggman and a whole list of different people who were going to be in it. We did a lot of location shooting in New York and New Jersey, going all night until as late as six in the morning. So it was like doing a video, but a lot more work.

Did you basically come in and say, where do you want me? Or was there some collaboration on your part?

Starting off, it was T-Bone Burnett doing the track. And I wasn’t too fired up about that because I was hoping for a lot more from the track after I left him with it. But the script was written, and Julie laid it all out for me saying, “You’re going to play the pimp, and a tramp, and a hippy.” It’s strange; it was a strange, cultish kind of movie. But, here in the sticks, the teens really like it. It really introduced them to a lot of Beatles songs, hearing them rattled off one after another.

And here you are with this well-established and seemingly great relationship with The Beatles going back nearly to the beginning of your career. Did you actually pal around with The Beatles, or was it more of a business relationship?

If you could imagine towards the end of the ’60s, living in London, you know those guys were almost gods by that time. Well, just ahead of “Abby Road,” Denny says to me, “Joe, you know, The Beatles want to give you some songs.” So I went down to Apple Records one afternoon to talk with George and Paul, and George picks up a guitar and starts playing “Something In The Way She Moves,” and he says “You’re welcome to take that one.” And he was offering me all these acetate demos, and when I look back on it, I maybe should have jumped on more of them than I did. There was “Old Brown Shoe,” and some other stuff he didn’t record until his solo days. But then Paul played me “Golden Slumbers,” and I said, “Can I have that one?” and Paul said, “No, I was just playing that one for you.”

But then Paul says, “I’ve got another one.” And he plays me “She Came in Through The Bathroom Window,” and I released it on the second album before they put “Abby Road” out. I’ve since worked with Paul on a concert for the Queen Mother, and it was nice working with him again, but we hadn’t been friends throughout the time in between.

You’ve always drawn a cast of great musicians together to back you up–but “Hymn for My Soul” seemed to have a particularly strong group of musicians. How do you draft musicians for your studio work?

It depends on what each different producer is looking for. I worked with Ethan Johns on the last album and he said, “I’m a bit fussy with who I work with.” And, fortunately, he brought in some of the older guys like [drummer] Jim Keltner. A lot of the newer studio guys aren’t used to doing things live. Ethan says they just can’t deal with recording live in the studio, you know, like being spontaneous. I like doing sessions with live players, then taking the tracks back to start doing other work on it in production. For some reason, the younger guys seem to want to build tracks out of nothing, rather than starting with live tracks. Maybe I’m just asking the wrong guys, I don’t know …

Now you’re out again on tour for the umteenth time. What process do you employ getting a band together for the road?

For the last few years, I’ve been using the same players–who are not necessarily the guys that I settle down to record with. Nick Milo, who used to be with Tower of Power. Gene Black on lead guitar, he’s one of those cats who has been around LA for a long time and he knows my songs implicitly. You know, at one time, I used to say, “I just don’t want to go out there and do the hits.” And I still throw in a few newer songs, but I kind of realized, when you’ve only got an hour and a half or two hours to put it over, the audience really wants to hear those [hits]. But it’s not just that. I try and reinvent them every time I go out. The nature of my material is R&B, so my phrasing doesn’t have to be locked in to one set motion. Once I resigned myself a few years back that the audience is going to want to hear all those same songs, I kind of get into it in a different light and I really do enjoy performing more now. I have a lot of fun.

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