What, dear reader, are we to make of Joe Cocker’s career?
Here’s a man with a scratchy, throaty wail of a voice that hundreds of people would kill for, yet Cocker’s ability to vocalize is limited by his inability to play instruments, much less write a solid song. He’s a man who interprets the works of others, and as evidenced by his performance at the original Woodstock, this can (at times) be a spectacular feat. Yet in listening to Classic Cocker, the latest in a very long line of Cocker retrospectives, it’s obvious tha,t though his heart means well, Cocker’s career as a musician has been relentlessly one-note.
The first problem with Classic Cocker is simply the circumstances of its existence. Released by Capitol, this retrospective culls tracks from 1984 to the present day, thereby neglecting his ‘70s hits. So if you’re looking for tracks like “It’s a Sin When You Love Somebody”, “Midnight Rider”, or “Cry Me a River”, you’re flat out of luck. The same goes for anything off of his breakthrough 1970 live album Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Those were during his time at A&M Records, meaning that Capitol has to resort to filling Classic Cocker with live tracks from 1990’s Joe Cocker Live!, featuring vastly inferior renditions of the Beatles’ “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “The Letter”. Though the penultimate track is a solid take on another trademark Cocker tune (“With a Little Help from My Friends”), it still doesn’t hold a candle to its 1969 counterpart.
So where does that leave us? We’re then stuck with alternate versions of other genuine Cocker classics (the insipid 1996 revisioning of “Delta Lady”), and a good smattering of Capitol singles that failed to even chart (“Now That the Magic Has Gone” and “Civilized Man”). However, once you wade through Capitol’s cash-grabbing ways, you will find that there are some genuine classics to be found in here. The disc opens with Cocker’s surprisingly potent take on “When the Night Comes”, and though the production is very much coated with a dated sheen of ‘90s pop-rock bombast (as a majority of the songs on this set are), Cocker’s trademark wail and an extended showboating guitar solo somehow elevate it above being thought of as “just another hit” of yesteryear. “Shelter Me” also falls into this category, transcending its obvious timestamp through a more full-bodied performance. Yet a Capitol Cocker compilation wouldn’t be complete were it not for his biggest hit of the ‘80s, “Up Where We Belong”—a duet with Leonard Cohen protégé Jennifer Warnes. Cocker is very hit-or-miss when it comes to ballads; just check his disc-closing take on “You Are So Beautiful” to hear him at his best. Yet “Up Where We Belong”, now forever locked in the public consciousness (and parodied to death) has lost its magic, and the inherent cheesiness of said ballad is, sadly, now more obvious than ever.
The Deluxe Edition of Classic Cocker comes with a bonus DVD that features five of his Capitol music videos (all as typically bland as you’d expect an early-‘90s music video to be) as well as three clips from his 1992 Night Calls tour. “Up Where We Belong” and “Feels Like Forever” are played by-the-numbers, but the band really gets into it during—surprise, surprise—“With a Little Help from My Friends”, easily outdoing the 1990 live recording that appears on the CD portion of Classic Cocker, largely because the band feels much more accustomed to drawing out a climax, which they do here with laser-precision.
Ultimately, there’s a reason why this disc isn’t given a more authoritive title like The Best of Joe Cocker, The Ultimate Joe Cocker, or even Joe Cocker: The Definitive Collection: because it isn’t any of these things. It’s a picture of his time at Capitol records, which in itself was hit (“Up Where We Belong”) or miss (someone turn off “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, please). Though Classic Cocker stands as a nice look at Joe Cocker’s career, there are much better career overviews available for good ol’ Wailin’ Joe. Pick one at random—it will probably be better than this.