Recording studio, Melbourne, 1977
I’ve been a working muso for over 40 years. My 17th birthday rolled around in 1969 and I’d already spent thousands of hours learning every Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who and Small Faces song. I’d also begun writing my own songs and was feeling pretty sure of myself, thinking it was going to be straightforward turning all those hours into becoming a star.
Then one day in 1969 I went along to see the movie Woodstock. My head was already spinning watching superstars like The Who and Crosby Stills and Nash before Joe Cocker and the Grease Band came on, but when Joe launched into the magic intro to With A Little Help From My Friends I was instantly mesmerised. Moments later, when I realised he was covering one of my Beatles favourites, a new world opened. Here he was, blowing our minds with a version miles better than the original. It was something he was to do with many other iconic hits – songs like She Came In Thru The Bathroom Window and The Letter. He would change the feel of the song completely, without taking away from the honesty of it. Needless to say, I lined up to see Woodstock three times in a week.
I never met Joe – it’s probable that only a few Aussies have had the pleasure. He wasn’t a Cat Walking Star, probably happy to sit in his room with a drink and a joint and whatever else. Ray Charles would have been on his stereo. In 1977, when he toured Australia for the second time, my band The Ferrets were in the middle of recording our gold album Dreams Of A Love. With Molly Meldrum as our producer, we always expected the unexpected, but when he walked in from Joe’s concert with Nicky Hopkins and Bobby Keys (sadly, also passed away recently), we were rapt and soon they were pounding and blowing us away as they added to two of our tracks. Thanks for that, Joe.
Even today, the last song I sing at nearly every gig is Joe’s version of Help From My Friends. It nearly kills me, because I, and most of my peers, don’t achieve that beautiful raspy tone of Joe’s easily. Sometimes I play The Beatles’ version, followed by Joe’s, just to show how much gold can be mined from one brilliant vein.
That Joe has passed away over Xmas has brought a smile to my face, for one of the funniest things I remember a superstar saying on a live record was when Joe, on the Mad Dogs And Englishmen tour, noted that it was Easter. Joe’s observation? “Hey, I want you to remember: Don’t get hung up over Easter.”
We didn’t, Joe, but I want you to know, hearing about your passing, I sure am hung up over Xmas . . .
© Billy Miller. Billy Miller is a Melbourne musician and a member of the RocKwiz family. This story is published courtesy of RocKwiz. It was first published on the RocKwiz Facebook page.