With a Little Help From My Friends
A&M Records 1969
Denny Cordell

Side one:
1. Feeling Alright
2. Bye Bye Blackbird
3. Change in Louise
4. Marjorine
5. Just Like a Woman

Side two:
1. Do I Still Figure in Your Life?
2. Sandpaper Cadillac
3. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
4. With a Little Help From My Friends
5. I Shall Be Released

Joe Cocker and friends provide a rainy day soundtrack



This past weekend has been a wet one, with the frigid temperatures and snow swapped out for rain and air that’s somewhere north of freezing but still south of what anyone would consider “warm.” Today is baseball’s Opening Day, too, but that doesn’t seem to matter to a shifting weather pattern with a firm grasp on the cold.

But there have been a few respites, and during one of them on Saturday afternoon, I was able to venture out into the streets with just my messenger bag and a thick flannel shirt, making the trek down Mass Ave. into a record store or two to see what I might find in the bargain bins. And I pulled a good haul out of Stereo Jack’s, a favorite stop among my vinyl haunts. I found a good, original copy of the Rolling Stones’ Got LIVE If You Want It!, which is more a catalog curiosity than an essential item. I also pulled the 12-inch extended mix of their single “Miss You,” and Tales From the Who, a double-LP bootleg that captures The Who touring Quadrophenia in 1973.

All of these paled in comparison to a $2.99 LP in the “New Arrivals” section — With a Little Help From My Friends, Joe Cocker’s first album and sitting in fantastic condition, too; the cover was solid and I didn’t see an scratches across the record’s grooves.

My education on Joe Cocker has been a slow but appreciative one. After knowing and liking a few songs for some time, I wound up getting a Greatest Hits CD a few years ago, and from there, the live Mad Dogs & Englishmen. And that’s where I’ve sat ever since, comfortable in the knowledge that he was one of the greatest of the British soul singers and that his best material came early in his career, but obviously too distracted to seek out all of his early records until this was staring me in the face.

Not realizing how little I knew about this era for the man, then, left me taken aback when I turned the jacket over to check out the songs — there was the title track, of course, along with “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Feeling Alright,” “I Shall Be Released” and some stuff I hadn’t heard, along with an insane collection of backing musicians, all represented in portrait and staring back at me, practically asking how I didn’t already own this. There was Jimmy Page and Steve Winwood and Henry McCullough, all destined to become huge members of the British music scene in their own right, all lending a hand on this album.

Being such a ridiculous Led Zeppelin fan for so long, I was aware that Jimmy Page had been a session guitarist before joining the Yardbirds, but I didn’t know that he had been a part of Cocker’s ensemble at any point. Ditto for Traffic’s Winwood, or for McCullough, who would go on to be part of Paul McCartney’s Wings. These guys (and the rest of the many musicians listed, including Chris Stainton, Albert Lee and Tony Visconti) were more than mere support men, and it helps shed some light as to how this debut album could be so uniformly strong.

Beyond the supporting cast, the stable of songwriters responsible for the material feels like half of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; again, all contemporaries, Dave Mason, Bob Dylan and the Lennon-McCartney partnership all contribute material to the record, and each of Cocker’s readings of their songs turn out definitive versions of the compositions. “Feeling Alright” has been covered several times over in myriad arrangements, but Cocker’s version has become such a classic that often attributed to him, ahead of Traffic’s original take.

The title track, of course, is a being unlike any other, likely the only cover of a Beatles song to outduel the original, and one of the only other contenders for that classification is, again, Cocker’s version of “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” from his self-titled second album. It takes the jaunty feeling of the original tune and adds the best of the soul of the 1960s, giving listeners an image of what Otis Redding might have done to the song had he had the chance.

But of the cover material, it’s Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” that gets the biggest boost. So many Dylan songs have been covered and rearranged into sweet or falsely important renditions, with folk singers and crooners and rock bands all taking his words and re-jiggering them to fit what it is they’ve always done. Sometimes it works — Jimi Hendrix and “All Along the Watchtower,” for example. More often, it’s just sounds like a Bob Dylan song for the sake of having one.

That’s not the case here. On “Just Like a Woman,” Cocker summons up the heartbreak and simmering anger of the narrator without changing the song much. He slows the tempo, the organ (played here by Matthew Fisher) still plays as the most prominent backing instrument, and like an old pro, he finds the soul in the words, turning the entire experience into an overpowering one without overwhelming.

So, the star and the focus throughout is Cocker. This album is carried by his voice, even as he tackles the words of his famous friends. All 10 songs are essential and could have been on whatever bargain-bin CD I initially picked up a few years ago. And just as obviously as the title suggests, he couldn’t have accomplished all this alone. So now he, Winwood, Page and the rest of the band are sitting on top of my turntable, providing the soundtrack for as long as the weather remains cold and dingy, and they’re ready to be called upon the next time they’re needed.

March 31, 2014

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