Graham Reid | | 6 min read
It's a trick question, but see how you
go: Who's the odd one out in this list; Hannah Montana, Britney
Spears, Joe Cocker or Justin Bieber?
The answer is, of course . . . the
Bieber boy. He's the only one who hasn't had a song written for him
by former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi.
But the real question is, what is
66-year soul singer Cocker doing with having not just one, but two,
DioGuardi pop co-writes on his new album Hard Knocks? After
all, this is a man whose previous album -- the stripped back Hymn
for My Soul produced by Ethan
Johns in 2007 – was deeply spiritual.
As good as Hymn For My Soul was
– “the biggest record I have had in Britain for years, we did
like 150,000 copies. Yet it did nothing in the rest of Europe” –
Cocker admits he needed to aim for radio with Hard Knocks,
recorded with producer Matt
Serletic (Matchbox 20, Collective Soul).
“I interviewed a few producers in LA
and I really liked Matt and we were trying to make a modern soul
record that would get played on European radio, that was the idea
when we were going through reams and reams of material.
“It sounds very different with all
the electronics but I gave him full rein.”
And among those many songs were the two
which has DioGuardi's name on them, whom Cocker had met when he
appeared on American Idol earlier in 2010 year. To her credit
as a songwriter-for-hire and through working with others, she
delivered two standouts, the raw ballad Unforgiven (mostly
the work of co-writer Mitch Allen) and the
“She was very funny and came along to
the session and was saying to me, 'You don't have to sing it like
that, you know' and I was looking at her saying, 'You know honey,
when you've been singing as long as I have, you do things a certain
“She was trying to get me to do more
of a pop thing but she joined the [gospel] chorus.”
It would be an unwise person who told
Joe Cocker how to interpret a lyric, the man has been at it since the
late Sixties when he took Beatles songs such as Little Help From My
Friends and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window into whole new
directions of throat-searing intensity.
He commanded the stage at Woodstock
(the first one), went on the road with Leon Russell helming the Mad
Dogs and Englishmen tour, lost his way through booze and dope in the
Seventies, and then became the inheritor of Ray Charles' mantle with
songs as moving as I Can Stand a Little Rain, You Are So Beautiful
and The Moon's A Harsh Mistress. He soared up the charts with
Jennifer Warnes on Up Where We Belong and in the Nineties enjoyed a
career revival as an authentic r'b'b soul voice.
Sheffield-born Cocker – against the
odds – had survived.
He and his
American wife Pam have lived in Colorado since 1995 where their
Cocker Kids Foundation, established in 98, has been helping children
in need by provided books, computers and educational/entertainment
He's a man much more comfortable with
himself these days (he gardens) and reflects on his recent career
with humour, honesty and insight. The last few albums have seen him
changing producers in search of something new and different, for
himself and his audience.
“I really enjoyed the experience of
working with Ethan,” says the chatty Cocker, just back from
pre-Christmas shows around Europe, “and he doesn't like to use any
gadgets and it was all recorded on tape.
“But then my EMI deal fell through,
I'd had a deal for them them in Europe for 15 years, so Sony asked me
to make an album for them in Germany. I said, 'What kind of a record
do you want?' and they said, 'We want more of Cocker album'. So I
thought, 'Oh, I get it'.”
Cocker is nothing if not candid: he
says European audiences loved Unforgiven when it was played
live “but it's an area that not everyone likes to hear me sing in.
I have friends who love to hear me do bluesy material and they don't
like me going into that big ballad area”.
He also offer sales figures (Hymn
only did 50,000 in Germany which had always been a good market for
him, this new album has done 100,000) and much as he'd love to do a
blues album he's told it would only sell 6000 copies so . . .
He mentions in passing he's 66 so
traipsing into radio stations as he did in Europe isn't that easy any
more and says the album wasn't even going to be released in Britain
by the local arm of Sony there.
“In England they don't like this new
one, maybe because I didn't do any promotion for it ,” he laughs.
“It was like an afterthought. Sony
was a separate entity there and didn't want to put it out there so it
got shoved to the back of the queue. So I did a whole month of
running around Europe the old fashioned way where you go to each
radio station, and it's tough when you get to my age – although I'm
told not to mention age in interviews.”
In a thick German accent he says “They
don't vant to hear you talking about gettink older”.
But he does anyway, admits he looks at
his albums “like picture books for people to know I'm healthy and
putting out some songs” and that with Hard Knocks he was
“trying to make a radio album that would get played in the middle
of all the modern sounds that are going on”.
“But I couldn't believe when we
started this project how many slow tunes were sent to me. I'm talking
45 out of the 50 were slow. When they suggest to writers my name they
tend to think big ballads like You Are So Beautiful or whatever.
“It's hard to find modern r'n'b that
isn't straight 12-bar . . . like the opening track Hard Knocks
which is the kind of song I like, it's r'n'b but removed from the
The more radio-directed, pop-rock sound of hard Knocks is certainly working in Europe: “It went number one in Hungary and
the oddest places. We do incredibly well in the Ukraine, Poland and
Russia. They just like my voice and over the years I've been lucky
enough to have hits that have stuck in people's minds and relate to
But, laughing again about his age, he
says he still wants to do that blues album.
“One like those old London Sessions
where Jerry Lee Lewis would get all those English cats together. You
get Eric [Clapton] and Jeff Beck . . . and I wonder if that would be
a nice way to make an album, just really great songs and do it almost
live in some sessions.
“But I better hurry because, well, we're all . . .”
For an earlier interview with Joe Cocker, see here.