This month’s retro ramble goes back to the 60s and my home town of Sheffield, and a man who became arguably the world’s greatest white soul singer and a superstar to boot – Joe Cocker.
Born John Robert Cocker, the name ‘Joe’ was a nick-name given to him by his boyhood pals when they used to indulge in a bit of role-playing as cowboys.
Joe’s first musical awakening was the skiffle music of Lonnie Donegan, which enthused his older brother Vic to form his own skiffle group, The Headlanders. As the music drifted into rock’n’roll, young Joe formed his own band with three pals, becoming the drummer and singer for the group. Calling themselves The Cavaliers, their activities were limited to mainly youth clubs.
By 1961, Joe had formed another band, The Avengers, and taken the name Vance Arnold, with Vance taken from one of Elvis’s film characters, and Arnold from country singer Eddy Arnold
By now the group was playing R&B and, in particular, the music of Ray Charles. Ray’s music had become a major influence on Joe, whose day-job as a gas-fitter has been well chronicled.
I recall recognising him in a city-centre pub one afternoon, dressed in his work-clothes, with his work-mates and quietly saying to him: “You’re Vance Arnold aren’t you?” To which he somewhat sheepishly replied: “Yes, I am”.
Playing round local clubs and pubs, the band featured a bluesy mix of songs by big names such as Ray Charles, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins and Muddy Waters. With a great feel for the music, the band became one of the most popular on the local scene. Dave Berry declared Joe’s version of Georgia On My Mind as the best he’d heard.
As their popularity spread, Joe decided to ditch the Vance Arnold moniker and become simply Joe Cocker. With the change, he was also signed to Decca Records and cut a version of The Beatles song I’ll Cry Instead, featuring a great neo-rockabilly arrangement with guitar supplied by Big Jim Sullivan and backing vocals by The Ivy Leagure. With the record, Joe formed a new band and appeared on the long-forgotten Stars & Garters TV show, hosted by comedian Ray Martine. Declining to ever sing I’ll Cry Instead, on the show he performed the Jimmy Reed blues classic, Shame, Shame, Shame
Unfortunately, the disc did zilch and, to survive, Joe and the band set off on a tour of US air bases round France. The tour was beset with numerous problems, one of which was that they had to have a female singer to obtain accommodation as per their contract.
Under the name of Billie Rae, Sheffield girl singer Marie Woodhouse was sent to France to fill the request, with her presence resulting in numerous offers of marriage from American servicemen! But the US soldiers were also very praiseworthy of Joe and the band, in view of their repertoire, which included a selection of soul and blues numbers.
Back home, the band disbanded and Joe got a job in a WHSmith warehouse for as long as his sanity could take. With interest shown from original Cruisers’ guitarist Frank Miles, Joe set about putting together a new band with drummer Dave Memmott and keyboardist Vernon Nash.
Another ex-Cruiser, John Fleet also came in on bass, but his involvement was very brief as he didn’t think Joe had what it took musically! In his place came ex-Cadillacs bass-player Chris Stainton, who would go on to play a major role in Joe’s career.
Now named Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, a name chosen “to upset people” – according to Joe, they quickly became highly popular in and around South Yorkshire. By day, Joe, Frank and Chris would collaborate, along with another local musician, Tom Rattigan, writing songs and recording them in the wash-house at Frank’s home.
The venue was soon named the ‘Egg-Box’, due to the walls being lined with egg-trays to deaden some of the outside noise. The team experimented with various songs they had written, including a song titled I’m Free, on which Frank had written and played all the instruments.
Joe then added his vocals too, giving the number a bluesy feel, and another early example of Joe in his formative years. Another composition was an instrumental piece, tentatively titled ‘March Of The Mysterons’ which, with lyrics put together by Joe, was retitled Marjorine.
A demo of the song was heard by Chesterfield promoter/DJ Dave McPhie who took it down to London promoter and DJ Tony Hall. The demo was then passed on to record producer Denny Cordell whose ears pricked up when he heard it.
From here on, the Joe Cocker story moved up a level and he was given a recording deal with EMI who were relaunching their Regal Zonophone label. Unfortunately, the deal also brought Joe and Chris to severe their ties with the other members of The Grease Band and, in fact, Sheffield – for the time being.
However it was Joe’s next record that would bring him to the attention of the world with his adaptation of The Beatles song With A Little Help From My Friends. Joe has undoubtedly made the song his own, confirmed by Paul McCartney himself as the definitive version.
Through various highs and lows, Joe strived through a career that saw him triumph at Woodstock in ’69, end up virtually a zombie among the rock circus that was Mad Dogs And English Men, ignored in a Sheffield estate agents because he was wearing wellingtons, busted for drugs in Australia, enjoying a world-wide hit with Jennifer Warnes, and Up Where We Belong, and rose to become a world-class artist and perform in front of The Queen.
On record he’s been responsible for some out-and-out classics; Delta Lady, The Letter, You Are So Beautiful, Civilised Man, When The Night Comes and You Can Leave Your Hat On.
Away from all the rock-biz, Joe enjoys the serenity of Crawford, Colorado, where he and his wife Pam live on the Mad Dog Ranch. These days, Sheffield is a long way behind but, thankfully Joe has some good memories of his old home town and hanging out in pubs with some of his old musician pals.
Fittingly, a new single was released in the UK in 2013 entitled Fire It Up which has been getting some extraordinary air-play on Radio 2. It’s another high-energy anthem that contains all the feel and tension of his other great works and, of course, that great big soulful voice, adding up to another classic in the making.