Obituary: Blues legend electrified audiences with his powerful, rasping vocals and convulsive stage antics.

Joe Cocker, who has died aged 70, was a Sheffield-born singer who came to be considered one of the greatest white blues and soul vocalists. With a voice that could rage, bellow, rasp, screech or - if circumstance demanded - be unexpectedly yearning and vulnerable, he was capable of taking any song and making it his own.

Cocker proved this conclusively with his first and biggest hit, a cover of the Beatles' With a Little Help From My Friends. Replacing the Fab Four's cheerful, music-hall arrangement with his own tortured reading, Cocker topped the charts and so stunned Woodstock the following year that he established himself as rock's most incendiary white soul singer.

It was a role for which he was perfectly suited. Honing his voice on a bottle of bourbon and 80 cigarettes a day, Cocker spent much of the 70s in an alcohol and drug-fuelled haze. He reached the bottom in 1974 when the curtain was lowered on a performance in Los Angeles in which, having appeared in a vomit-encrusted jacket and cast-off jeans, he curled into the fetal position and was unable to continue.

But he was a survivor, for whom hair, sideboards, beard and stomach might come and go while his voice, if occasionally croaky, never let him down. Returning to the charts in 1982 with the Oscar-winning ballad Up Where We Belong, the theme to the hit movie An Officer and a Gentleman, Cocker enjoyed an Indian summer of sell-out tours and chart success.


Cocker lived the stereotypical life of the blues. A wild man who earned - and paid for - his headlines, his career would have ended but for the majesty of his voice. He rarely wrote songs, but had no need. He had his own constituency. As Life magazine observed, he was "the voice of the blind criers and crazy beggars and maimed men who summon up the strength to bawl out their souls in the streets".

John Robert Cocker was born in Sheffield on May 20, 1944. He left Sheffield Central Technical School at 15 to work as a gas fitter and perform as Vance Arnold, in which guise he supported the Rolling Stones and the Hollies at Sheffield City Hall.

As Joe Cocker's Big Blues he recorded the Beatles' I'll Cry Instead, but the record failed to register. After a tour of GI bases in France he teamed up with the guitarist Chris Stainton and formed the Grease Band, whose first single, Marjorine, dented the foot of the charts.

It was the release of With a Little Help From My Friends that propelled Cocker into the big time. Claiming that he had worked out the arrangement in the outside loo of his father's house, his trembling, tumultuous performance invested the song with such poignancy that the Beatles took out full-page advertisements in the music press praising his version.

His onstage mannerisms - legs bolted to the floor while his upper body convulsed - caused him to be likened to "a dancer in a wheelchair".

His first album, With a Little Help From My Friends (1969), consisted mainly of covers bent on the anvil of his voice into personal and definitive readings. Throughout 1969 he toured extensively, appearing at all the major rock festivals, including Woodstock, at which he gave a towering performance, cementing his reputation as one of the biggest voices and most compelling acts around.

Without a band after the Grease Band's parting in 1969, and with a touring contract to fulfil, Cocker assembled 21 musicians, wives, hangers-on, managers, roadies, children, a film crew, a spotted dog and a bus driver and set out across the States on the chaotic "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour, performing 65 concerts in 57 days.

The experience, in addition to the cavalier range of substances Cocker ingested, so exhausted the singer that he was forced to return to Sheffield to recuperate. As the album Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1970) and its accompanying single, Cry Me a River, stormed the American charts, a desolate Cocker was dividing his time between his parents' house and the pub, lamenting "the three o'clock break - that's the endless gap between lunchtime and the pub opening again at six o'clock".


For all his troubles Cocker retained the affection of his industry. When he sang the Crusaders' I'm So Glad I'm Still Standing Here Today - a song specifically written for him - at the 1982 Grammy Awards, he received a standing ovation and renewed record company interest. Up Where We Belong, his duet with Jennifer Warnes, was propelled by the success of the Richard Gere/Debra Winger film An Officer and a Gentleman to become his first American No 1.

He also recorded songs for movies, including You Can Leave Your Hat On for Adrian Lyne's 9 Weeks.

Supported by his new wife, Pam, whom he had met at Jane Fonda's house while he was living in Santa Barbara, he rejected heroin, forsook spirits for beer and, after a long struggle, overcame his nicotine addiction.

Capable of filling Old Trafford, he also performed for the Prince's Trust and the usual flotilla of charity fundraisers. But however civilised the setting, Cocker's voice remained defiantly and magnificently un-housetrained, and his movements on stage as pained as ever.

He is survived by his wife Pam, whom he married in 1987, and by a stepdaughter.

5 Great Cocker versions

Delta Lady

Joe Cocker's 1969 single after his hit With a Little Help From My Friends was a take on Leon Russell's Delta Lady. He put out a scorching live version, recorded for his 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishman album.

Feelin' Alright
Cocker's 1969 take on the song Dave Mason had written for Traffic's album included backing from Jimmy Page, Steve Winwood, Carol Kaye, Henry McCullough and Brenda Holloway.

Cry Me a River
From the Mad Dogs & Englishmen album is a full-on boogie, reflecting the lifestyle Cocker adopted on the road.

You Are So Beautiful
Hit single from the 1974's album I Can Stand a Little Pain, with Cocker delivering a showstopping version of the song written by Billy Preston, Bruce Fisher and Dennis Wilson.

You Can Leave Your Hat On
From the 80s movie 9½ Weeks, Cocker called this Randy Newman tune the "stripper's anthem".