The Complicated Racial Dynamics Of Joe Cocker’s Legacy


Joe Cocker performs at the Woodstock Festival of Arts and Music in Bethel, New York, August 1969.

Joe Cocker is someone you might know at a distance: from singing other people’s songs, or from being impersonated by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live. He is someone you’ve heard of, probably, but one step removed. But that way of knowing Cocker, who died Monday from lung cancer at the age of 70, is misleading, because he was anything but removed. He performed like there was nothing separating him from the music, like his voice and his body were totally consumed by the song.

In the words of rock music historian Glenn Gass, Cocker “became the music,” solving that “what is a frontman without a guitar supposed to do with himself?” conundrum with ferocious, spasmodic movement. “He was just transported somewhere else.” I spoke with Gass by phone about Cocker’s physicality, why John Lennon was cool with Cocker’s covers of Beatles songs, and whether Cocker’s performance of soul music was appropriation, appreciation or both.

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Joe Cocker?

Joe Cocker is someone that slipped off most people’s radars. When he suddenly passed away, a lot of people went, ‘Oh really? I loved him!’ He was such a distinctive persona, style, and stage presence. When you think about him, he’s one of the most indelible images of late ‘60s and early ‘70s rock and roll.

He seemed to value expression over everything. He was about the most direct emotion that you can possibly create. I always thought he did for soul music what Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page did for blues guitar: he sort of brought soul music into the mainstream and exaggerated it and turned it into psychedelic music for the Woodstock generation. Like, what happens when you give Ray Charles LSD? He turns into this. And I love these movements that John Belushi nailed so well. He does what a lot of us do at four in the morning when there’s a song we love: these spasms of emotion, playing air guitar. He took that age-old problem of “What do you do if you’re a frontman and you don’t have a guitar?” Elvis and Mick Jagger solved it their way, and Cocker just became the music, like Neil Young does, in the throes of a guitar solo. He was just transported somewhere else. Anyone else doing a Beatles song at Woodstock would’ve been laughed offstage. It took real guts to do that. But it was a revelation, it was one of the sensations of the festival for a guy that was barely known before.

Were any of his biggest hits songs that he’d actually written, or was he primarily known for singing other people’s songs?

He’s most famous for songs that aren’t his. My favorite Joe Cocker song is “Feelin’ Alright,” which isn’t his song either. He’s much more famous for songs he didn’t write. But Elvis never wrote a song, either. Joe Cocker’s great talent was taking a song and riding it off a cliff, into a direction you didn’t see coming. He was clearly not interested in a note-for-note copy of someone else’s song. He made it his own song, but he did it with love. With his arms flailing, he sang like he was a fan of the songs he was singing; at the same time, he was embodying it. It’s a weird paradox: he was sort of outside of the song and totally inside.

Was there any stigma associated with the fact that he didn’t write his own music?

I think the writing part is less of an issue in general. I think what’s more important about him that way is he took on the most sacred cow, the Beatles, and Lennon and McCartney liked it so much, they said, “do it.” The Beatles were not that fond of covers of their own songs, because they were usually terrible.

It’s amazing to watch the clip from Woodstock now, because he is so earnest and all-in. It feels like something that is so of it’s time; today, someone performing like that would have to be winking at the notion of that kind of performance.

It’s over the top. Someone today, they would be looked at as, like you say, it would either be ultra-ironic and hip or just look like a joke. In class [Gass teaches at Indiana University] I play that Woodstock clip of “A Little Help From my Friends” twice. I play it once so they can get the laughing out of the way, and get over how hysterical it is, and then play it again and say, “listen, really listen.” And by the end of the second time they’re like, “wow, that’s incredible.” At first, it’s almost—it’s not like a joke, but sort of what Sha Na Na was for ‘50s rock. When you really listen to it, it’s amazing. And people like the Stones and Zeppelin get so much credit for bringing blues to the rock mainstream, I think Joe Cocker really wore his influences on his sleeve. He was totally unembarrassed about sounding like Ray Charles.

What about the whole concept of a white artist being the one to bring blues to the rock mainstream? Did anyone raise the issue of, this is a white guy appropriating black music and black culture?

That was always an issue, in the early days of rock. Like, did Elvis just steal the blues and make a million dollars off it? And Rolling Stones, same thing, Led Zeppelin, same thing. I’ve never been that bothered by it. For me, rock and roll is so great at leaping across boundaries. Why shouldn’t a white guy sing the blues if he really loves it? If it’s for the right reasons? I think it’s cause for celebration when someone like Elvis says they love that music. And the British, I think they were blissfully unaware that white people weren’t supposed to do this music. They’d never heard of this whole “This is black music, this is white music,” which I think is part of the reason the Brits were such a revelation to us.

How did his peers feel about him?

He was really big; that’s the main thing. He was a top tier superstar in his glory days, and he’s faded from that, for sure, in people’s minds. But he was huge. Musicians loved him. They thought he was hilarious, but in a good way. He sang the way everybody wishes they could sing. He really sang with the brakes off. It’s like some guy that dances totally uninhibited and doesn’t care what people think, that’s how he sang. I think everyone admired that, and the fact that he had a truly great voice helped, and he had a really good musical sensibility, and he loved soul music and gospel music, and he embraced it and did it really well, and brought it to the rock and roll world.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about him? If you could edit his legacy so people remembered him accurately, what would you say?

I think that he’s often written off as almost like a cartoonish figure, like a spasmodic SNL John Belushi stuff. Belushi loved him—that was a tribute, and Joe Cocker played along and did a duet with Belushi—but unfortunately, even in class, to this day, when I say, “Joe Cocker,” students say, “play Belushi!” The Belushi parody of Joe Cocker is as famous as Joe Cocker. It’s sort of sad that his mannerisms or whatever you want to call it become more defining than his music, but it’s awfully hard to separate the two. It’s always kind of broken my heart… Under all the histrionics, he pulled off these beautiful ballads.

I think about Dave Mason, he wrote “Feelin Alright,” which is a classic. And he said, “When Joe Cocker got a hold of it, I knew it was going to be great.” and I think that’s the feeling: artists were excited when they heard that Joe Cocker was going to do one of their songs. It was going to be surprising and be great. It’s sort of a badge of honor to have Joe Cocker cover your songs. I don’t think anyone felt ripped off by Joe Cocker, unless it was Ray Charles.

Today, people talk about issues of racial appropriation all the time—even something as seemingly small as the word “basic” can spark a huge back and forth about who has the right to use what kind of language in what way, or what constitutes Columbusing. Were those conversations happening when Cocker was at his height, or were the discussions around race more based in bigger-picture, Civil-Rights-centric topics?

Those conversations were certainly going on. The crux of the ‘60s is, okay, we’ve taken this music, do we deserve this music? It was a cliché back then: Have I earned the right to play the blues? I’m not a black person picking cotton in a sharecropping plantation, can I take this music I haven’t earned? And there was a sense that you had to earn it, and it was a topic that had to be addressed, for reasons not that different from today. Am I appropriating something in the right way? The Stones and Clapton, they’d go out of their way to credit the original artists, because a lot of people like me hadn’t even heard of Muddy Waters. I think once they got past their guilt, they realized they had an opportunity to educate younger people, and they did in big ways. But those discussions were definitely going on, and it was a badge of hipness, to say that Joe Cocker sounds like Ray Charles. It shows that you’re an astute scholar of music history, because no one really talked about rock history back then, or treated it that seriously. It was a way to one-up people at parties. But it’s Ray Charles on acid, like I said before; it’s playing the blues and exaggerating everything, and making it sound bigger and fuller and weirder, [while being] totally respective of the source. That’s what he did.

When people think about Cocker in ten or twenty or fifty years, if they do, what do you think—or hope—will come to mind?

The fact that his act wasn’t an act. He was really engaged with the music. He is the music. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about him. He was exaggerating, but only because he felt the music so strongly; he connected so deeply with it. I think there’s a level where black and white isn’t an issue anymore; it’s, “how deep do you let music go?” I look at my 19-year-olds in my class, and their emotional worlds don’t hinge on music. And I think Joe Cocker is the perfect personification of someone for whom music was everything. It was life itself. that’s his great legacy.