On August 17th, 1969, amid the now-legendary Woodstock Music & Art Fair, English bluesman Joe Cocker delivered one of the most storied performances in the history of rock and roll. The gravelly-voiced singer was a relatively new name at the time, but was rapidly garnering an impassioned fan base as he started playing bigger shows. While his performances predominantly featured covers of other artists’ material, it was the all-consuming physical and emotional passion with which he reimagined them that made him a star. In the words of rock and roll historian and Indiana University music studies professor Dr. Glenn Glass, Cocker “became the music,” solving the enduring question of “what is a frontman without a guitar supposed to do with himself?” With ferocious, spasmodic movements, shuddering and writhing like a man possessed, Cocker “was just transported somewhere else.”
Following an opening pair of Traffic covers performed without Cocker’s vocals by his backing outfit, The Grease Band, Cocker emerged to lead them through Bob Dylan‘s “Dear Landlord” and the set’s sole original song, “Something’s Coming On.” Honeybus‘s “Do I Still Figure In Your Life?” followed, before Cocker led yet another reimagined cover of a Traffic tune, “Feelin’ Alright,” which would go on to be one of the most beloved tools in his repertoire. Another Dylan tune, “Just Like A Woman,” was next, and The Coasters‘ “Let’s Go Get Stoned” came in close behind it.
A cover of Ray Charles‘ “I Don’t Need No Doctor” was similarly reinvigorated by Cocker’s unhinged emotion and showmanship before yet another Bob Dylan cover, “I Shall Be Released,” brought the set to its final minutes. If you’re reading this and you’re unfamiliar with Cocker’s work and legacy, it may seem strange that such an acclaimed show was composed virtually entirely of covers. At the time, and in the years that followed, Cocker’ would deal with his fair share of critics who believe he made a career from passing off the musical and stylistic ideas of other artists–particularly black artists–as his own. Ray Charles himself even spoke out against Cocker for these reasons.
But the essence of Cocker’s enduring legacy, the true merit of his artistic vision, is perhaps best described by the Woodstock set’s final song: a totally revamped, fiercely emotional rendition of The Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper hit “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Cocker and his band’s performance of the song was utterly magnetic, transforming the already incredible song into a gospel-flavored soulful spectacle and painting Joe as its mad maestro. Cocker’s recorded version of the song went on to hit #1 on the UK charts, was used as the theme song for hit TV show The Wonder Years, and has generally entered the American cultural lexicon as a powerhouse in its own right. Joe Cocker’s Woodstock set helped vault him to stardom, and his enthralling rendition of “With A Little Help From My Friends” still remains after his death as the centerpiece of his lasting legacy.
Watch Joe Cocker and the Grease Band’s iconic performance of The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” below from the Woodstock movie, courtesy of YouTube user Folha BR:
SETLIST: Joe Cocker & The Grease Band | Woodstock Music & Art Fair | Max Yasgur’s Farm | Bethel, NY | 8/17/69
Set: Dear Landlord, Something Comin’ On, Do I Still Figure in Your Life?, Feelin’ Alright, Just Like a Woman, Let’s Go Get Stoned, I Don’t Need a Doctor, I Shall Be Released, Hitchcock Railway, Something to Say, With a Little Help from My Friends