40 Years Ago: Joe Cocker Attempts a Comeback With ‘I Can Stand a Little Rain’
From the beginning of his recording career, Joe Cocker boasted both a willingness to do things differently -- and the chops to pull it off. As early as his solo debut, 1968's 'With a Little Help from My Friends,' Cocker set himself apart as a gifted interpreter of other people's songs, unleashing a gravelly soul howl that belied his Sheffield roots while shining a spotlight on songwriting during an increasingly image-driven era.
Unfortunately for the accountants at his various labels, Cocker also seemed to be dogged by an inability to sustain momentum. A talented live performer, he delivered a number of memorable concert appearances early in his career (including one of the finer sets at the original Woodstock festival) and built a name for himself as a first-rate ringleader of blues-rock abandon -- only to tour himself into a state of exhaustion, building a number of chemical dependencies along the way.
In fact, for much of 1973, Cocker's career had sunk into something of a holding pattern. Picked up for marijuana possession during an Australian appearance in late 1972, on the outs with his producer Denny Cordell, and faced with the prospect of carrying on after the retirement of his longtime collaborator Chris Stainton, Cocker seemed unsure of what to do next, and his substance issues -- particularly his alcohol dependency -- deepened. But in the midst of all that darkness and uncertainty, he teamed up with producer/trumpet player Jim Price for one of his better-selling solo sets.
Originally conceived as a double album, 'I Can Stand a Little Rain' found Cocker surrounded with session aces and top songwriters -- some of whom, like Randy Newman and Jimmy Webb, ended up performing on Cocker's covers of their songs. Included in the somewhat ballad-heavy track listing was a recording of 'You Are So Beautiful,' originally released earlier in the year on Billy Preston's 'The Kids & Me' LP; ultimately, it went on to become one of Cocker's bigger hits, reaching No. 5 on the charts.
"Jim rekindled my interest," Cocker later told Blank Space in 1979. "Jim called and played me ['You Are So Beautiful'], he just came round the house and said, 'What's wrong?' And he played me [the Price-penned] 'I Can Stand a Little Rain,' which turned out to be the title of the album. The two things that kind of re-fired me into work again, and consequently drove me insane in the process."
Chuckling that he ended up recording part of the album in Jamaica "because I like it," Cocker displayed a similarly cavalier attitude when asked about the array of talented guest stars on the LP. "It was just flukes," he insisted. "We were looking round for songs, and Randy, bless his soul, he's as heavy as Ray Charles. We did 'Guilty' together, and the man said, 'My God, if I could sing like you, I'd make a million dollars.'" Pointing out that he also covered Harry Nilsson's divorce ballad 'Don't Forget Me,' he added, "We're all babies together, you know. L.A. babies."
Although as usual, Cocker's songwriting contributions were limited -- he co-wrote only one number, 'I Get Mad,' with Price -- the solemn tone of tracks like Newman's 'Guilty' and Webb's 'The Moon's a Harsh Mistress' led some to believe that the song selection process had been influenced by the singer's personal troubles, but he resisted that interpretation. "Well, you just sing about what is," he shrugged. "I just pick songs for the verbal content or, you know, whatever gives me a buzz."
The buzz didn't go as far as Price and Cocker would have liked at A&M, where execs put the kibosh on plans to release 'I Can Stand a Little Rain' as a double LP. "We were trying to put it together like that, but I think the record company fell out with the idea, so we just slowed down," he explained -- and although the album was eventually limited to 10 cuts, the rest of the recordings were quickly turned around for Cocker's fifth album, 'Jamaica Say You Will,' released the following April.
Unfortunately, 'Rain' proved a commercial outlier for Cocker throughout the rest of the '70s; sales for 'Jamaica Say You Will' disappointed, and subsequent efforts such as 1976's 'Stingray' and 1978's 'Luxury You Can Afford' were met with a lukewarm response. In fact, for the duration of his tenure as an artist in the American label system, Cocker was essentially a singles artist whose occasional hits (1982's 'Up Where We Belong,' a No. 1 duet with Jennifer Warnes; 1989's 'When the Night Comes') didn't really move the needle on his album sales -- perhaps partly owing to his continued unreliability in the years immediately following his 1974 resurgence.
"After we finished the album, Jim booked the Roxy for me in L.A. Everyone was there," Cocker recalled, years later. "Somebody should have kept an eye on me, but some dealer found me backstage and filled me up with cocaine. I hadn't performed live in a couple of years. I drank a whole bottle of brandy, and then went out there and got through two songs, and then I sat down on stage with a total mental block to all the words. It was rather embarrassing. Everyone just sort of closed the curtain, and said good night. That was supposed to be my return."
He worked through his struggles, however, and he's continued to record steadily, bringing his voice to bear on classic works by a growing list of artists that includes John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Elton John, Robbie Robertson, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, and many, many others. His days of touring himself ragged (and/or being brilliantly mocked on 'Saturday Night Live') are over, but he remains a peerless interpreter.
"I kind of felt indestructible," recalled Cocker of his early years in a 2012 interview with NPR. "By the early '70s, the drugs and the booze took their toll. ... It was a long road back. A lot of times when you're young and carefree, you don't realize, when you tip over the edge, how difficult it is to climb back in."
Having done more than his share of climbing, Cocker reflected, "You carry on doing what you do, know what I mean? Making music, if you're a real musician, you carry on, regardless in this world."