When the great session saxophone player Bobby Keys was writing his autobiography a couple of years ago, one of the many old colleagues he called upon to reminisce about the old days was Joe Cocker.
Trouble was, there were a lot of things about those wild times in the late ’60s and early ’70s that were pretty blurry.
“You know it was funny,” Cocker said in a recent phone interview from Mad Dog Ranch, his home for the last 20 years in the West Elk Mountains of Colorado.
“He comes up to the house with his publisher and he says, ‘OK, do you remember that?’ And I went, ‘No.’” Cocker laughed. “‘Do you remember that?’ ‘No.’ I mean neither of us could remember much about it at all. Some people said that about the ’60s.”
But that’s when the rock ’n’ roll shouter from Sheffield, England, first made an indelible imprint on the consciousness of American music lovers. Who could forget that tangle-haired, tie-dye-clad Englishman doing that herky-jerky, air-guitar-playing dance as he put his own hard-edged, gravelly growling, rhythm ’n’ blues stamp on the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” in front of 500,000 Woodstock witnesses?
Cocker does remember something about that day in the summer of ’69.
“Over the years it’s more like a photograph that I picture when I go back to that time,” he said, his British accent still thick as ever. “’Cause that morning when I flew in — you know, I went in a separate helicopter, the band had gone ahead — and I flew in in one of those little bubble helicopters, and I’ll never forget seeing that crowd coming into view, slowly but surely, and it was like I didn’t know what it was.
“I just saw all this movement and I asked the pilot, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘That’s where you’re gonna be singing.’ … You know, comin’ from Sheffield and just playin’ the bars, with suddenly this ginormous crowd, you know what I mean? Woodstock was like the end, the finale of it all that year, ’69, in the Grease Band. It was like a climax to it all.”
He also remembers the following year, when he and Leon Russell put together a 40-piece band and toured the world as Mad Dogs & Englishmen. That run resulted in a hit movie and one of the bestselling albums of Cocker’s career. It also made a star out of Russell, but Cocker hasn’t spoken to the Oklahoma-born Mad Dogs bandleader in 42 years.
“Well, you know, it was well publicized at the time that we kind of fell out at the end of the tour,” Cocker said. “I don’t know what it was. It was 1970 and you know, I mean, for me, I’m just a kid from Sheffield who came over from England and, you know, going into all the wrong substances too quickly. And by the end of the tour I was pretty much a wreck. I’ll own up to it.
“But I’ve never blamed it on Leon. I’ve always thought he was an incredible pianist and writer. But he did, he left a message one time saying, ‘Tell Joe I’m ready to put Mad Dogs together again.’ But I said, ‘I’m not.’ ’Cause I just didn’t wanna go. You know, the pressure I took. Being the front man on that package, even though it was Mad Dogs and Englishmen, my name was always at the fore and I did all the press on that tour. And I just didn’t want to. It’s not like putting the Eagles together, you know what I mean? … I mean there’s nothing to say I wouldn’t work with Leon again. He did that thing with Elton John recently. They came up with some good stuff.”
And Cocker, now 68 and a long time sober, has managed to come up with some good stuff himself in the intervening years, from rockers to movie soundtrack ballads, and he promises to deliver all the fan favorites when he and his band perform Thursday night at the Zoo Amphitheater with show openers Huey Lewis and the News.
“We blast ’em hot and hard, with ‘Feelin’ Alright,’ ‘You Are So Beautiful,’ ‘Up Where We Belong,’ ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On,’ ‘Unchain My Heart’ … We kind of swing through a few memories there.”
And there’ll even be a Leon Russell cover.
“‘Delta Lady’,” Cocker promised. “We do do ‘Delta Lady’.”
Joe Cocker and Huey Lewis & the News
•When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
•Where: Zoo Amphitheatre, 2101 NE 50.
•Tickets: Protixonline.com; (866) 977-6849; participating Buy For Less locations.