One of the truly jaw-dropping moments in pop culture of the last 30 years was the 1976 "Saturday Night Live" episode in which Joe Cocker, that week's musical guest, was savaged with a dead-on parody by John Belushi--during Cocker's own performance.
The British rocker's idiosyncratic stage delivery, in which he often appeared in the throes of convulsions, as well as his legendary battles with the bottle gave parodists plenty of easy material. But laughing at Cocker was probably easier for most than journeying with him to the depths of the human soul, which is where his tortured vocals often led.
Cocker seemed like a white Ray Charles when his debut album, "With a Little Help From My Friends," landed in 1968. Backing him then in his Grease Band were no less than Jimmy Page and Steve Winwood, and the album yielded his career-launching versions of the title track and Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright."
His riveting performance at Woodstock the following year cemented his stature as one of the great British musical exports of the late '60s.
Like the Genius of Soul, Cocker wrote or co-wrote a song occasionally, but he was primarily a stylist. Every song he chose was filtered through his meat-grinder vocal cords and a musical sensibility shaped by Charles and other great American soul and blues singers.
During the '80s and '90s, Cocker become more a singer of adult pop, with material and performances that often only hinted at the astonishing power he once could take for granted. His most recent studio album was 1998's "Across From Midnight."
*** "The Best of Joe Cocker" (A&M). Cocker's catalog has been subjected to seemingly endless recycling through at least a half-dozen greatest-hits, best-of-live compilations. The latest is a functional look that covers most of his career highlights, but with just 11 songs that brush the surface of his 22-album career.
It has seven key songs from his peak 1968-72 period--"The Letter," "Cry Me a River," etc.--his '74 hit with "You Are So Beautiful" and his '82 version of Jimmy Cliff's gorgeous "Many Rivers to Cross."
Most disappointing is the absence of any songs by Randy Newman, with whom Cocker has displayed a strong kinship over the years. Some of his most powerful performances came with Newman character studies of alcohol-besotted losers such as those in "Marie" and "Guilty."
This set also omits nearly everything from his post-A&M career, which has encompassed at least five other labels over the last 22 years. Cocker is more than deserving of the Rhino-level treatment that plucks the signature performances from across a multilayered, and multi-label, career.
Far more comprehensive is last year's "Joe Cocker--The Anthology," a two-CD, 37-track set covering his recordings from 1964 to '82. Like the new "Best Of" set, this one also stops with "Up Where We Belong," his Grammy-winning hit with Jennifer Warnes.
**** "Mad Dogs & Englishmen," Joe Cocker (A&M). This aural document of of Cocker's 1970 tour with a powerhouse gospel-rock big band assembled for him by Leon Russell contains the original two-LPs' worth of material, recorded at New York's Fillmore East, on a single CD. Cocker's singing was extraordinary and the band was frequently explosive, from the horn-driven R&B power of "Let's Go Get Stoned" to the soulful despair of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on the Wire" to the gospel rave-up of "Give Peace a Chance" (not the John Lennon song, but a Leon Russell-Bonnie Bramlett tune). According to the liner notes by Cocker biographer J.P. Bean, the tour ended in San Bernardino after more or less deteriorating along with the relationship between Cocker and Russell. "I ended up in a heap in Los Angeles," Cocker is quoted as saying about that tour, "very disillusioned with the whole rock business."
** 1/2 "Don't Let Go: The Collection," Delbert McClinton (Music Club). Despite George Carlin's famous rant that "white people should never, ever be allowed to sing the blues," many have, and often quite convincingly. Cocker is one, as is Texas blues-rocker McClinton. This disc isn't a career retrospective, so don't look for his 1980 pop hit "Giving It Up for Your Love" or his first appearance on record, playing harmonica on the 1962 Bruce Chanel hit "Hey! Baby." These '60s small-label sessions which McClinton did in Texas provide an intriguing though erratic look at a musician in search of a style. There are glimpses of the rich rock-soul stew he'd distinguish himself with in the '70s and beyond, but also tracks in which he comes off variously as Elvis clone ("Don't Let Go"), a painfully sensitive pop-folkie ("I Cry 'Cause I Care") and the missing transatlantic Beatle ("This Boy").
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).