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I remember the first time I heard Joe Cocker. It was 2001 and I was probably 11, sitting in my dad's apartment watching the Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music video. I was transfixed when he took the stage, undeniably British-looking, his hair wild and his bellbottoms perfectly broken in. More than 30 years after the fact, his performance was still electrifying, and I was instantly hooked.
Cocker died yesterday at age 70.
Known for his gritty, bluesy voice and renditions of pop favorites, Cocker left an indelible mark on the rock culture of the 60s and 70s, and for many white listeners of the Woodstock generation, he provided an introduction to soul music. His covers sound convincingly his—most memorably the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends," which remains iconic and perfect today (even though quite a few people probably first heard it as the theme song to The Wonder Years). Other songs Cocker stamped with his unique musical personality include the Band's "The Weight" and the Box Tops' "The Letter."
Because I was a tween with a weak grasp on classic rock, hearing Joe Cocker was like holding the hand of someone I trusted and letting him guide me into a whole world of life-changing music. His Millennium Collection was the soundtrack to more car rides and road trips with my dad than I could count. When we got tired of trying to find a radio station we could agree on, we'd always go back to Cocker, and I included at least one of his songs on every mix I made between the ages of 14 and 19. The same CD my dad had bought years earlier, and that I inherited after he died, was in constant rotation on the first drive my mother and I took to Chicago. We belted out the lyrics in the car, absolutely butchering his swoon-worthy recordings, but at 17 I wanted nothing more than to be a mysterious Delta Lady myself.
Cocker's powerful voice still gives me chills. He didn't just perform his songs (or other peoples' songs); he felt them. Soaked in sweat and convulsing onstage, he approached music in public the unguarded way most of us experience and appreciate it only in private. When a song swelled around him, you could see the music envelop his body—he performed with as much physical force as vocal skill.
Years later my mother and I were fortunate enough to see Cocker perform at Ravinia, where his weathered voice echoed through the pavilion. As he sang "You Are So Beautiful," she held my hand—and then, as the song ended, my face. I'll cherish that moment forever.
Joe Cocker's voice has rung throughout most of my life, and in tribute to him, today's 12 O'Clock Track is the 1971 hit "High Time We Went," a song he cowrote. Thanks for the memories, Joe. You were truly beautiful.