Retro: Sheffield musician’s memories of Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker as Vance Arnold and the Avengers: Phil Crookes is far right and the other band members are Steve McKenna, drummer Bob Everson and Richard Ibrahim
Joe Cocker as Vance Arnold and the Avengers: Phil Crookes is far right and the other band members are Steve McKenna, drummer Bob Everson and Richard Ibrahim
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Sheffield musician Phil Crookes has been sharing his fascinating memories of life on the city’s music scene in the late 1950s and early 60s in Retro for the past two weeks. Here he remembers his good friend, Joe Cocker.

It was a shock to hear about the passing of Joe Cocker just before Christmas last year.

Apparently he’d been ill for the best part of a year but only his close friends and family were aware of this. I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I won’t see Joe again and his death will leave a big hole in my life.

Somehow I always thought we’d have the chance to sit down and talk about life before worldwide fame and adulation put that simple act out of reach.

Joe and myself were both born in 1944 and came from the north Sheffield suburb of Crookes, a friendly working class area where most people knew each other by sight if not personally.

When I was 14 I started a paper round for a newsagent just across the road from the school I attended at that time. Joe used to deliver for the same shop and at a certain point just behind Crookes main road I would usually see him delivering evening papers coming in the opposite direction.

We used to smoke a cigarette there and talk about the records we’d heard, mainly by Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and Big Bill Broonzy. Then Joe would go one way and I the other, both of us a little dizzy after a couple of Park Drive and a heavy bag of Stars to deliver.

John Robert Cocker was born on Tasker Road about five minutes’ walk from where I lived on Stannington View Road, everybody knew him as Joe and I never heard anybody, including his parents, call him John.

When I wasn’t delivering papers or at school I’d go round and visit Joe.

My enduring memory of him at that time is of him eating a bowlful of Weetabix with plenty of milk and sugar while listening intently to whatever was coming out of his dad’s stereogram.

The Cockers were a musical family: Harold, Joe’s father, loved Mario Lanza the operetta singer, while his mother Madge was a ballroom dancer and always encouraged her son to sing.

Joe’s older brother Vic played the washboard in a skiffle band and Lonnie Donegan was just as likely to be on the turntable as Bo Diddley, the latest acquisition from Violet May’s record shop.

A typical evening’s activity for our small group of teenagers would be to wander over Crookes staring at the girls who were doing the same thing, calling in at one of three drink shops and if we had the money having a bottle of ice cold Pepsi Cola, a bag of chips and sharing a cigarette.

Joe had started to carry a small transistor radio and had his ear glued to it if he heard something he liked. One night he stopped and held up the radio so we could all hear the new sound of an electric piano playing a 12-bar riff we’d never heard before,

Joe turned the up the volume, the piano became more rhythmic and a male voice and girl chorus began an intense call and response that showed up the African roots of the blues.

We were hearing Ray Charles and The Raelets for the first time and What’d I Say Parts 1&2. Joe had found his soul brother on that warm summer’s evening. From that day onwards it would be Ray Charles who took preference on the turntable.

Joe wanted to play the drums, I wanted to play the guitar and, along with Joe Mitchell and Bob Everson, another guitar player and bass player, we formed a small band and began to practise our first songs.

We were all members of a youth club at the Wesley Hall and when the club leader heard that he had a group of ‘musicians’ at the club it was arranged that we’d play there on the small stage.

By now Joe was singing as well as playing the snare drum; a full kit would appear later. A small cover charge was made for entry to the hall; we had to pay to go in before we could play the four songs we’d been practising for the last month.

Our amplification of course was minimal, we used the club’s ancient PA system and tiny home-made amplifiers for the guitars.

Mort Schuman’s I’m a Man and Endless Sleep were two of the songs we played that night and to say how scared we’d been to appear in front of people we knew the experience had been good, our first adrenaline rush.

Our first paid engagement was at Heeley Working Men’s Club on Broadfield Road; it’s no longer there, along with a lot of WMCs and pubs that were the training ground and a means of making a living for many of the city’s groups and jazz bands.

By that time we had a driver called Ray who doubled as a manager and hawked our name, The Cavaliers around Sheffield’s venues. It was someone at The Star who thought up the name Vance Arnold and The Avengers and we went along with that because the Top Star Special, as part of the Telegraph and Star Group, were featuring an article on the city’s bands with pictures and free publicity.

By then Joe or Vance Arnold was the singer and we’d added a drummer by the name of Steve McKenna. Bob Everson was still on bass and I’d graduated to a Fender guitar.

Our repertoire of songs had also progressed to a more blues-orientated set, this included songs like Barret Strong’s Money and I’m a Man, this time by Muddy Waters, and Joe’s showstopper, Georgia on My Mind, written by Hoagy Carmichael and based on the version by Ray Charles but given Joe’s own treatment.

We were building up a strong fan base in the Sheffield area and picked up a couple of weekly residencies at the Barrow Hill Hotel and the Fleur De Lys at Totley.

This gave us chance to tighten the songs up and also add more songs, such as Ray Charles’ Mary Ann and Arthur Alexander’s You’d Better Move On, but Georgia was still a favourite both for Joe, who never tired of singing it, and for the audience.

In 1963 we were invited to play at the Sheffield City Hall not once but twice, in September with the Hollies and the Sheffield ‘Shadow’ Dave Berry and in November with The Rolling Stones who’d just had a hit with a Chuck Berry song called C’mon.

By now Joe was playing his familiar ‘air guitar’ and his voice had developed a soulful tone of its own. The City Hall audience were hearing the embryo of the fully-formed Joe Cocker who appeared at Woodstock; Georgia On My Mind brought an ovation from old Vance’s loyal following that was as loud as anything The Stones had.

The first person to leave the band was me.

Joe and I had a small disagreement about something in the van one night. It didn’t break our friendship but it was time for me to move on and for Joe to follow his dream to the west coast of America and ultimately Colorado where he married his wife Pam, created a foundation for kids who had problems, built his castle, grew tomatoes, just like his father Harold, and fished the rivers with his dogs for company.

Joe made his mark on the world stage and created a style that was all his own in the field that chose him. Respect, Joe.