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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 June 2007, 01:17 GMT 02:17 UK
Joe Cocker's troubled soul
Joe Cocker
Cocker's hits include Delta Lady and I Shall Be Released
British rhythm and blues singer Joe Cocker has created a virtual musical sub-genre with his gritty covers of classic rock tracks.

He first made his name with a gospel-tinged version of The Beatles' With A Little Help From My Friends in 1968.

The original, sung by Ringo Starr, pales into insignificance beside Cocker's gravelly, soulful performance.

The Fab Four were so impressed, they sent the singer a telegram of congratulations when it hit number one.

Gas man

The youngest son of a civil servant, Cocker was born in Sheffield in 1944.

After finishing school, he worked as a gas fitter for the East Midlands Gas Board while singing in a variety of pubs and clubs.

After a few false starts, Cocker struck gold with his bellowing Beatles cover, and set the Woodstock festival alight with a freewheeling five-song set.

In the notorious film of the concert, the singer seems completely lost in the moment - flailing around the stage while working his fingers up and down the fretboard of an imaginary guitar.

Joe Cocker album cover
The Mad Dogs tour featured Leon Russell and Rita Coolidge

"That was the frustration of not being able to play," he says. "That's how it evolved."

Cocker's early live shows were must-see events, and in 1970 he undertook the mammoth, raucous Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, which went on to spawn a film and a live double-album.

Cocker described the tour, which featured nearly two dozen musicians, assorted hangers-on and even the odd animal, as "a pretty spacey kind of dream".

But months spent on the road, often performing two shows a night, eventually took their toll, and Cocker descended into drug and alcohol abuse.

"I was living on a liquid diet," he told the Daily Mail earlier this year. "I would start drinking at 11 in the morning and be pretty wasted by the evening.

"People have said I played some pretty amazing gigs in the seventies, but in all honesty I probably played one good show in three."

At the height of his substance abuse Cocker scored one of the biggest hits of his career, the Billy Preston-penned ballad You Are So Beautiful, but he spent most of the 1970s trying to recapture former glories.

Oscar calls

With the help of future wife Pam, Cocker eventually kicked his heroin habit and, by 1982, was enjoying a commercial renaissance.

Joe Cocker
Cocker still performs to packed out concert halls

His duet with Jennifer Warnes, Up Where We Belong - from An Officer And A Gentleman - hit number one and went on to win both a Grammy and an Academy Award.

Since then, he has toured relentlessly, and still packs out arenas around the world - particularly in Germany.

In 1994, he returned to Woodstock, one of the few performers to appear at both festivals.

Last month, Cocker's 25th album, Hymn For The Soul, entered the UK chart at number nine - proving the singer's soulful, Ray Charles-inspired rasp has lost none of its appeal over the last 40 years.

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