Wiping his hands on his faded overalls, Joe loftily informed East Midlands Gas Board that he was tired of being a pipe fitter and would prefer to be a rock star. They handed him his cards with knowing northern smiles which said: ‘All right, lad – but you’ll be back.”
But John Robert ‘Joe’ Cocker, late of Sheffield Central Technical School (plumbing, bricklaying, and carpentry) never came back.
He became the biggest pop sensation in the United States. The Yorkshire lad who once connected gas stoves packed them in coast to coast with his gutsy, gravel voice.
“The force that flows from him so openly, places him as one of the top white blues singers around,” was how one critic put it in 1970.
He shuffled on stage in a scruffy pair of bleached jeans topped by a ragged grey sweatshirt. Hands contorting, eyes rolling, body jerking, he put on a fascinating display of frenzied agony.
By this time, it had been eight years since he had left the gas board and singing in Sheffield pubs. “The audiences were a young crowd, heavy drinkers and good scrappers. We didn’t make much money, but that didn’t matter. We only spent it on beer anyway,” he recalled.
In 1968, when Joe and his newly-formed ‘Grease Band’, were playing in London they were spotted by American promoter Dee Anthony who took them to the States.
A string of concert dates and TV appearances climaxed with his appearance at the Woodstock festival in August 1969, where his extraordinary performance of With a Little Help from My Friends became one of the unforgettable sequences from the ensuing movie of the event. It became number one in the UK and would later be used as the theme song in the US TV series The Wonder Years.
But he was impatient with the trappings of stardom.
“Sometimes I think I would like to go back to things just as they were, like in the old days in the Sheffield pubs with people enjoying themselves.”
Cocker’s musical career lasted more than 50 years with over 21 studio albums as well as a multitude of live ones, and in 1982 released Sheffield Steel, a nod to his home city. His hit singles included You Are So Beautiful, Woman to Woman, Unchain My Heart and the most successful of his career, Up Where We Belong, his duet with Jennifer Warnes (and the theme song to 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman).
An American resident, Cocker bounced chart-topping success with drug and alcohol abuse. He died in Colorado from lung cancer, aged 70, in 2014.