Long regarded as one of Britain's first great soul singers, Sheffield's Joe Cocker began recording around 1964. He had the dubious good fortune in that his first and greatest major hit, a groundbreaking version of the Beatles' 'With A Little Help From My Friends', was not only a UK No. 1 but also an absolute platinum-coated classic. He's been trying to live up to that standard ever since, but never quite done so. Once at the cutting edge of contemporary music, he can still roar with the best of them, but over the last few years his albums haven't really made it in the way they used to.
While Joe has occasionally collaborated with others as a writer, he has always been known best as an interpreter of other people's songs. That in itself hardly matters. What is rather disappointing about this collection, first released in 1996, is that among the fourteen songs are several that he had recorded previously - and he generally did them much better the first time round. Despite having a band on these sessions that includes the likes of keyboard players Chris Stainton, who has frequently worked with him since the 1960s, and almost-fifth Beatle Billy Preston, plus drummers Jim Keltner and Kenny Aronoff, future Stones bassist Darryl Jones and producer Don Was, the performances are on the whole rather so-so.
To start the record, full credit to him for choosing a Van Morrison song which seems to have been rarely covered. 'Into The Mystic' is a good performance, which remains largely faithful to the original. It's followed by 'Bye Bye Blackbird', an ld 1920s song which I've never been too keen on, but he does the best he can with it.
However, I just can't see why he re-recorded 'Delta Lady'. He originally did it in 1969 when it made the Top 10, and after 'Friends' it remains perhaps his best record ever, and although Stainton and Preston between them pull off the keyboard work just as well as Leon Russell did many years earlier, I miss the tightness subtle lead guitar licks that it had first time around. Moreover, it does rather serve to highlight the fact that a fifty-something Cocker's vocal powers are hardly surprisingly not what they were in his twenties.
'Heart Full Of Rain' is another powerful performance, a soft, tender song with Cocker emphasising the song's fragile beauty. Sometimes his ballads verge on the hamfisted, but he acquits himself well on this one.
'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood' must be one of the most-covered songs of the 1960s, and this reggae treatment with organ and guitar to the fore goes down well. Interestingly, one of the reggae greats is next on the repertoire. Jimmy Cliff's 'Many Rivers To Cross' is however turned into a ballad, with the backing quite sparse - largely piano and organ.
At last, a song by Cocker himself, or rather a collaboration with swamp rock guitarist Tony Joe White, 'High Lonesome Blue' is a pleasant bluesy song with oh so subtle acoustic lead guitar and occasional touches of harmonica. There are no keyboards here, giving the bass and drums a chance to fill in the rhythm section without any frills. In fact this is a grower, and one of the better tracks here.
Randy Newman's 'Sail Away', with the writer himself on piano, is quite effective, although the organ intro sounds a bit like the esteemed instrument from the Blackpool tower. Cocker sounds remarkably like Newman himself. On the other hand, Stevie Wonder's 'You And I' is really rather dull. Nice arrangement, with lightly-picked acoustic guitar, plus violins, violas and cellos near the end, but the song just seems to lack any really interesting tune. Thankfully, 'Darling Be Home Soon' redeems that, the old Lovin' Spoonful tune given an almost country setting courtesy of the guitar. However, once again his version on the 1969 'Joe Cocker' LP was superior.
Let's hear a fanfare for what follows, as it's easily the best track here. 'Dignity' is a rolling bluesy number by Bob Dylan which made its first appearance as the only previously unreleased number on the 1995 'More Greatest Hits'. Similar in rhythm to Dylan's 1971 standalone single 'Watching The River Flow', Stainton's piano underpins this one well. Maybe it's a pity that Cocker doesn't include all the verses - this one lasts just over three minutes, while the original song is close to six - but that's only a minor criticism.
Back to the Randy Newman songbook for 'You Can Leave Your Hat On', but despite the funky keyboards and soulful backing vocals, this one adds nothing to his previous version. Much the same can be said for the two remaining songs. 'You Are So Beautiful', which we've always been told was co-written by Billy Preston and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, is credited here to Preston and B. Fisher. (Possibly a Wilson pseudonym?) I've always found the song pretty dull, even when Joe sang it in the mid-1970s, and this new recording does nothing to change my mind. On the other hand, I've always loved Steve Winwood's Blind Faith song 'Can't Find My Way Home'. It's quite competent enough, but I'm not convinced that it suits Cocker's voice - and in any case, this one doesn't measure up to his far superior take on it on 'Night Calls', which is probably the last really good album he made.
A twelve-page booklet, including photos of all the band, plus full personnel listings of who did what on each track.
It's pleasant enough, and I've always admired Cocker's voice. However I'd far rather hear him tackle different songs than revisit past glories, and not revisit them so well, as he does on this collection. There's no faulting the band most of the time, but it really sounds as if he's rather going through the motions without putting all his heart and soul into what he's doing, and some of his choices of songs are a shade uninspired.
[Revised copy of a review I originally posted on other review sites]
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Into The Mystic
2 Bye Bye Blackbird
3 Delta Lady
4 Heartful Of Rain
5 Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
6 Many Rivers To Cross
7 High Lonesome Blue
8 Sail Away
9 You And I
10 Darlin' Be Home Soon
12 You Can Leave Your Hat On
13 You Are So Beautiful
14 Can't Find My Way Home