One of the things I loved about meeting and having conversations with many of the biggest names in 1970’s rock was realising that they are human. Yes, they may be extraordinarily talented, and they’re also humans like the rest of us. They have breakfast, they go to the bathroom, they sleep, they fall in love, all very normal stuff. And then they go to their study, or the studio, or on-stage and write and perform wonderful music enjoyed by millions.
When I started working for Sounds in the spring of 1971, one of the first people I had to photograph was John Lennon. He had been a hero of mine right through the 60’s, both as a Beatle and in his solo career. It’s hard to explain to people who weren’t around at the time just how enormous the world-wide fame of The Beatles was. If you imagine Beyoncé, Madonna, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga all in one super-group, they wouldn’t even come close.
And the first thing I saw John Lennon do was eating his breakfast: bacon, sausage and egg, washed down with a Marks and Spencer mug of coffee. At his kitchen table. What could be more normal than that? And yet when you see the film ‘Above Us Only Sky’ you get how totally immersed he was in producing one of the greatest rock albums of all time: ‘Imagine’.
Another hero I met around that time, although in different circumstances, was Joe Cocker, the greatest blues and rock singer ever to come out of England. I first became aware of Joe when I saw him perform ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ on TV in ’68 or ’69 and was completely blown away, both by the wildly different interpretation of the song (in my opinion the greatest cover version ever) and by his electrifying performance. I’m almost certain it was on Top of The Pops and featured Sue and Sunny Weetman on backing vocals, but I can’t find it on YouTube or Google.
I first met Joe socially, away from the music biz. I had become great friends with his ex-girlfriend Eileen, and when they decided to get back together, she introduced me to Joe. He was ‘off the road’ at that time. The tour that culminated at Woodstock, and the subsequent ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ tour immediately after, had left him emotionally and physically drained.
One time we were in the car, and Joe’s version of “I Shall Be Released” came on the radio. Joe went to turn it down, saying he hated hearing himself. Eileen insisted we listen as she loved this particular track. After a couple of choruses, she cracked up laughing, saying “I never realised before that you’re singing in a Sheffield accent”. She then proceeded to demonstrate what she meant, singing “I seen my light come shinin’” in her broadest Yorkshire, and it was true! Joe wasn’t as amused as we were. I can’t hear Joe’s version now without hearing Eileen too.
The three of us would occasionally go to Grease Band gigs together. They had recovered from the ‘Woodstock’ tour and were back on the road. They’re not nearly as well known as I believe they should be. Henry McCullough was regarded by Jimi Hendrix as one of the best guitarists in the world. I believe the only album Jimi ever produced (apart from his own) was by Henry’s previous band, Eire Apparent.
Joe and Eileen split yet again, and I started hanging out with Joe. We would listen to his record collection for hours on end, and he turned me on to some fantastic musicians and bands, the likes of John Martyn, The Band, Ann Peebles, King Curtis … in fact I still have Joe’s vinyl copy of ‘King Curtis Live At The Fillmore West’ that he loaned me and I never managed to bring back to him.
It got to a point where I forgot he was a professional musician. He was just my friend Joe. One night Joe was cooking us a fry-up, and he had put on John and Beverly Martyn’s ‘Stormbringer’ album, which I particularly liked, especially the opening track “Go Out And Get It”. When the first chorus came around, I sang along. When the second chorus arrived, Joe sang along. I remember looking at him in amazement as he was frying the eggs and thinking “Joe, you’re a really good singer. Have you ever thought about taking this up?” I remembered who he was, just in time …
I went back to live in Dublin in 1973 and we lost touch. I kept reading that his drugs habit was getting worse, and by the end of the 70’s, I was always half-expecting to hear on the news “Famous 1960’s Rock Star Found Dead …” etc. I dreaded the thought.
In 1980 he came to do a gig in Dublin. I found out where he was staying – a seaside hotel just outside the city. I went out there around lunchtime and asked to see Mr Cocker. “I think he went out jogging on the beach” the receptionist said. “That’s a bit more hopeful”, I thought. The receptionist called his room and said who I was, waiting downstairs to see him. The next thing was a door slamming somewhere upstairs, and the sound of someone bounding down the stairs. It was the man himself, looking healthier and happier than I had ever seen him. Massive hugs and backslapping.
I took him and his band on a guided tour of Dublin in their bus. We had a couple of pints of Guinness over the course of the afternoon – literally only a couple. We had both cleaned up our acts.
We then went to the gig together, and they played some wonderful music. The band included BJ Wilson, Procol Harum’s drummer, and Joe sang a fantastic cover of ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’. The love and affection coming from the audience was extraordinary.
He was a much-loved man and a priceless musician.
P.S. Joe didn’t write that many songs, so by definition his career was built mainly on covers. I once said to him I’d love to hear him cover “Dancing In The Streets”. He was horrified: “That’s Martha’s song” he said. “It’s perfect as it is”. In 1985, Jagger and Bowie released their version, which I personally don’t think added anything. When I last saw Joe, that time in Dublin, I thought about suggesting he might cover “Stayin’ Alive”, which I think he would have done brilliantly, but I thought the better of recommending any more material to The Great Man …
Nevertheless: in my mind, I can still hear that magnificent voice singing …
Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk
I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk
Music loud and women warm, I’ve been kicked around
Since I was born …
Listen to my Joe Cocker playlist on Spotify: https://spoti.fi/2sm00CE
Favourite 10 tracks by Joe:
- Hitchcock Railway
- Feelin’ Alright
- With a Little Help from My Friends
- Dear Landlord
- I Shall be Released
- You Can Leave Your Hat On
- Unchain My Heart
- Woman to Woman
- Delta Lady