Today as we say goodbye to British singer Joe Cocker, who died at 70 after a struggle with lung cancer, we’ll remember him most for that 1969 Woodstock performance of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” It was without a doubt a career-defining moment. He never stopped performing the song in his inimitably gruff style, his raspy voice partly a product of too many cigarettes and some pretty hard living over the decades. Known also for his air guitar proficiency, Cocker successfully covered other famous bands like Traffic and The Box Tops, and made many songs—like Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful to Me”—uniquely his.
But yes, it’s that 1969 debut album, also titled With a Little Help from My Friends, with its mix of originals and big-name covers from The Beatles and Bob Dylan, that first brought us the Joe Cocker we fondly pay tribute to this holiday week. I overheard someone describe Cocker as the only person who could do The Beatles better than they could, which is going a bit too far. But he may be the only artist whose covers of the band are as well-known and well-loved as their originals. Paul McCartney, who will lead memorials this week with Ringo Starr, said of Cocker’s “A Little Help,” “it was just mind-blowing, [he] totally turned the song into a soul anthem and I was forever grateful to him for doing that.” Indeed. At the top of the post, see Cocker and band above play “With a Little Help” in Cologne, Germany in 2013, and just above, watch again that gripping Woodstock performance.