Singing With Passion

It is important for every singer to feel emotion and sing with passion, and they must use their voice, words and stage presence to convey feelings.  The actual origin of air guitar remains debatable, with some pointing to the Diamonds’ Bill Reed and his five-second riff in 1957 and others finding early influence in Jimi Hendrix’s storied childhood practice of using a broom as a guitar.  Joe Cocker helped make the air guitar and air keyboard famous after his enthusiastic rocking out at Woodstock in 1969.  Joe was not a self-conscious performer who calculated every move that he made to please his audience, as he stayed thoroughly in the moment of the music.  When he got excited, his arms had a tendency to flail around, but he always sang with intensity like nobody was listening.  It is possible that Joe never intended his stage presence to be air guitar.  He always maintained that he just got carried away by what he was doing.  He always laughed off any remarks about him being spastic, but damn this man could sing with passion.

Joe Cocker’s voice is described as being powerful, raw, and full of anguish, which made him perfectly suited to sing the blues, and by doing this he became well known in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  As a teen, he was heavily influenced by the music of Ray Charles, which led him to begin playing drums and harmonica and in 1959 he joined his first group, the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers reorganized and became Vance Arnold and The Avengers, and Cocker became the lead vocalist.  They released regional singles and toured locally with the Hollies and the Rolling Stones.  The group mostly played in the pubs of Sheffield, performing covers of Chuck Berry and Ray Charles songs.  Cocker developed an interest in blues music and sought out recordings by John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf.  In 1963, while with The Cavaliers Cocker did a cover version of The Beatles’ song ‘I’ll Cry Instead’, however he hated this song so much that he refused to sing it onstage and he totally ignored it on the tour where he opened for Manfred Mann.  Decca offered Cocker a contract in 1964, and he took a six-month leave of absence from his job at the gas company.  The band broke up and Joe went back to his old job of being a gas fitter.

In 1966 Joe Cocker resurfaced as the leader of The Grease Band, which included Chris Stainton on keyboards, Alan Spenner on bass, Henry McCullough on guitar, and Bruce Rowlands on drums.  They played Motown covers in northern England pubs until 1967, when producer Denny Cordell became Cocker’s manager and persuaded him and the band to move to London.  A Cocker-Stainton song, ‘Marjorine’, became a minor British hit, and gave Cocker’s powerful voice its first notable exposure.  Cocker and the Grease Band recorded a slow version of the Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ in 1968 with guests Jimmy Page, Albert Lee, Steve Winwood and others.  Cocker owned this song and it would never belong to Ringo Starr again.  It went on to be Number One in England and Number 68 in the U.S.  In 1969, The Grease Band performed at several large festivals, including the Newport Rock Festival and Denver Pop Festival and then went on to make an appearance at the now-famous Woodstock music festival.  His explosive performance of the song at Woodstock was a festival highlight, and his habit of wildly flailing his arms as he sang became a trademark.  When Cocker sang Traffic’s ‘Feelin’ Alright’ on The Ed Sullivan Show the program’s producer hid him behind a group of dancers, simular to the way Elvis Presley and his wiggling hips were dealt with.  The Grease Band also played at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East and West.

Cocker met musician and songwriter Leon Russell at the Woodstock festival, where the two became good friends.  Russell penned Cocker’s next hit, ‘Delta Lady’, and supervised the recording of the album Joe Cocker!.  Cocker dropped out of The Grease Band and Russell organized a 40-day tour of the United States.  More than 20 musicians were involved, including the Delanie and Bonnie Band, Rita Coolidge, and various members of Derek and the Dominoes.  The ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ tour was a huge success, leading to a live album that went gold, and a film that made Cocker’s strange, spastic stage presence as familiar as his rasping voice.  The Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour that Cocker made in 1970, resulted in a Number Two live double album that yielded a pair of hits including ‘The Letter’ which reached Number Seven, and ‘Cry Me a River’ that hit Number 11, and a film was also made.  In 1975, Cocker had one of the biggest hits of his career, ‘You Are So Beautiful’ which was written by Billy Preston and it reached Number Five.

The Letter was written by Wayne Carson a 16 year old 10th-grade High School student and it was first recorded by the American rock band the Box Tops in 1967.  The original members of the Box Tops were Alex Chilton, Bill Cunningham, John Evans, Danny Smythe, and Gary Talley and they all came from a local band called The Devilles, who had to change the group’s name when it was discovered that another group had released a record under that name.  Just before ‘The Letter’ was released, they found that they needed a new name for their group, so someone suggested having a contest where people would mail in names similar to the way people mail in box tops cut from breakfast cereal boxes, and that was it, The Box Tops emerged.  Chilton admitted that he had a hangover and sore throat when he recorded this song.  The song was the group’s first and biggest record chart hit, reaching number one in the United States and Canada.  Rolling Stone magazine included the Box Tops original at number 372 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame added it to the list of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.  In 2011, the single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.  This song is about a guy who gets a letter from his former love telling him that she wants him back, and the guy wants to fly out and see her immediately.

Written for 5/5/18 Linda G. Hill’s ‘Life in progress’ Stream of Consciousness Saturday where the prompt is “letter”.

16 thoughts on “Singing With Passion

  1. Great, informative post. I didn’t know most of Cocker’s story, and since I really loved his songs, I appreciate all of the background you provided. Leon Russell was also a favorite of mine.

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    1. It was my pleasure. I did not post anything yesterday as it took me most of the day to craft this blog. Leon Russell was a great performer and maybe one day I will do a post on him.

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  2. Yep, that voice sure brings back good memories of the way back days. Listened to Joe Cocker all the time, and we still do, along with Leon Russell. Interesting to read the back story on this. 🙂

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