Joe Cocker died yesterday, just 70 years old, from lung cancer. He was one of a handful of rock singers whose voice was instantly recognisable, adding a new dimension to any song he sang. And perhaps this is why his cover versions worked so well – they did sound completely different, and yet still thrilling and authentic. He could take a well-loved song, and transform it in a way that was loved by those who loved the original.
To me, Cocker was the only person to improve a Beatles song. His 1968 With A Little Help From My Friends is unforgettable, right off from the intro. It sounds like a completely different song, shooting off in a direction that even the Beatles couldn’t quite manage.
McCartney admitted that Cocker transformed the song — his song — into a blues anthem, having seen in it a beauty that George Martin certainly didn’t when they doled it out to Ringo for Sgt Pepper. To me, Cocker transformed With A Little Help from a kiddie song into an adult song, like Carole King did for her version of Will You Love Me Tomorrow. And Cocker could sing the blues, in a way that Lennon couldn’t. You can argue that Cocker had an advantage: his was a variation on a theme, and everyone knew the theme. So of course he could be a little more avant-garde. And Cocker was improving on a Ringo Star vocal performance, so faced a a far lower bar than those who tried to improve upon a Lennon or McCartney number.
But here’s the thing: Cocker actually improved the original. I don’t think you can say this for any other singer who has covered a Beatles number.
When I made this observation on Twitter, I had a few protests – there are others who have sung a Beatles cover that stands comparison with the original, they said. I list their suggestions below.
But I stand by my original argument and I’d like to throw this open to Coffee Housers – has anyone done a better version of a Beatles song than Cocker? If anyone suggests an even half-decent cover version, I’ll add it to the list below.
Don’t get me wrong: the below are (with the exception of Shatner) great singers with great songs. But there are great songs, and there’s The Beatles. And – in my opinion the only man to join them up there – Joe Cocker. RIP.
- Frank Sinatra – Yesterday/Something
- Nina Simone – Here Comes The Sun
- Otis Redding – Day Tripper
- Stevie Wonder – We Can Work It Out
- Spooky Tooth – I Am The Walrus (link)
- Siouxsie and the Banshees – Dear Prudence (link)
- Breeders – Happiness is a Warm Gun (link)
- Wilson Pickett – Hey Jude (link)
- Marvin Gaye – Yesterday (link)
- Elton John – LSD
- William Shatner – LSD (link)
Other suggested Beatles covers that fail to qualify as being ‘half-decent’
- Oasis – I Am the Walrus
- Wet Wet Wet – With A Little Help From My Friends
- Carpenters – Ticket To Ride
- Bono – LSD
- Eddie Izzard – Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite
- Bananarama – Help!