The Real Fifth Beatle

Countless artists have emulated the Fab Four, but Joe Cocker didn’t just cover the Beatles. He beat the Beatles at their own game.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then that would make the Beatles the most flattered band of all time. Just about every tune they ever wrote has been covered, rearranged, and reinterpreted in any genre you could think of by any artist you could think of. “Yesterday” alone has been covered over 2,000 times. It is a testament to the genius of the lads from Liverpool that their original recordings largely remain definitive despite so much competition.

Of course, covers have the deck stacked against them from the start, particularly covers of well-known songs by the most famous band ever. That’s why the story of Joe Cocker is so amazing. A blues-wailing, arm-flailing shouter from Sheffield, Cocker launched his career on a radically altered interpretation of “With a Little Help from My Friends” that turned a campy Ringo number into an operatic rock masterpiece that remains one of the greatest songs of all time. The tune became legendary after Cocker’s memorable, storm-summoning performance at Woodstock. The Beatles were so impressed by Cocker’s version that George Harrison gave Cocker a tune he was working on at the time–”Something.” Cocker recorded the song, which would become one of the Beatles’ biggest hits, two months before the Beatles did. Which means that, in a way, the Beatles covered Joe Cocker covering the Beatles.

Even more impressive is that Cocker’s “Something,” though largely forgotten, actually challenges the Beatles’ version and arguably surpasses it again. The two versions have different strengths; the Beatles’ version builds into an urgent bridge and then resolves, while Cocker’s version inverts the tension and resolves into a sing-along chorus. But Cocker’s tempestuous vocals and gospel-esque arrangement are more than a match for George’s tame schoolboy charm, and there is a completeness to Cocker’s version that is absent from the Beatles’ version. Some will say it’s apples and oranges, and it’s all a matter of preference anyway. But whether or not Cocker’s version wins out over George’s, it remains one of the best Beatles covers of all time, and further proves that no one did the Beatles like Joe Cocker.

Here are Cocker’s best Beatles covers:

“With a Little Help from My Friends”

Consistently rated one of the greatest covers of all time, this song made Cocker a star. Featuring the one and only Jimmy Page on guitar. Also note the beautifully grotesque album cover. Here’s the original for comparison.

“Something”

Recorded before the Beatles’ version, Cocker throws down the gauntlet on this pseudo-cover and creates a hard act for the Fab Four to follow. An unfortunately forgotten classic, Cocker’s original studio version is currently unavailable on YouTube, so a 30-second sample will have to suffice. Here it is on Abbey Road.

“She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”

Cocker plucks this song out of Abbey Road’s medley and makes a track that stands on its own. Another cover that competes well against the original. Compare here.

“Let It Be”

Cocker could have released his version of this classic ballad before the Beatles, but he left it off his second album. Aretha Franklin ended up releasing the song first. Here’s her version, and the Beatles’ version.

“I’ll Cry Instead”

Long before he hit big with another Beatles tune, Cocker recorded this early Lennon song for his first single in 1964, sticking much closer to the original than his later covers would. Here’s the Beatles.

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One thought on “The Real Fifth Beatle

  1. Pingback: I’ll Cry Instead | Warren Cook

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