My old friend Tom Wilson, "Willy" to some of us, sent me this DVD of the sessions for a 1996 CD of Joe Cocker singing some of his hits and other tunes not necessarily associated with Cocker in entirely new arrangements.
Produced by Don Was, who explains to the camera that he did the project because someone said Joe Cocker is the best singer out there and he realized he agreed. And the sessions on this DVD certainly make the case for Cocker's being one of the greats of all time. He's one of those derivative artists who used to bug me when I was a kid. I'd be all about how he sounds like Ray Charles etc. this effin' Brit tryin' to come off like a soul singer etc. But the fact is, Cocker made that style his own, or rather he owns that style now as much as anyone.
The vocal control he displays in these sessions is impressive and at times even poignant. My friend Willy said this DVD had brought him to tears. And at first when I started watching it I thought that seemed a bit extreme. I was digging the musicianship—there's an array of stars with people like Randy Newman contributing piano to two of his own tunes and Billy Preston, once known as "the fifth Beatle" playing keyboards (organ and electric piano sound, I don't know what to call the variety of keyboards out there since I played plain old piano in clubs back in the day) making everything he contributes to more delicious sounding, to name just two—but then all of a sudden I was choking back tears.
Partly that was in sheer appreciation of the artistry of everyone but focused on supporting Cocker's unique takes on familiar songs. Like Preston's "You Are So Beautiful" which is familiar to probably all of us from Cocker's original rendition I used to play over and over again decades ago when he first recorded it, but in this session adds a whole new layer, layers really, because of the seasoning of age and experience and the ultimate outcome we're all facing.
There's too many songs to pick out only some, but damn, "Heart Full of Rain" and Newman's "Sail Away" cut to the bone. Let alone Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross" and the tears that aroused. But maybe my favorite, was Cocker's take on the classic Van Morrison song, the first one to cement Van's artistry as unique after his beginnings as an Irish cat appropriating "American" blues and rhythm and blues styles—"Into the Mystic"—damn Cocker makes it his own on this deal.
It probably works to just buy or download the CD version, but this DVD with the close ups of Cocker and the musicians' fingers and playing techniques or the gestures of the back up singers etc. as well as brief comments from Was and the musicians and Cocker, make the DVD a perfect gift (thank you Willy) for anyone, including yourself.