Cocker’s voice is the thing most people will remember about him. It was pained, raspy, and singular. Not many people have a voice that you could pick out of a chorus, but Cocker did.
John Belushi had that same ability to stand out. More for his explosive energy than the sounds that he made, but his art has persevered despite his absence and the same will surely be said of Cocker’s work, and that voice now that he’s gone.
Of course, I mention Belushi because he and Cocker are forever linked thanks to Belushi’s uncanny and wild impression of him. A transformation that actually served as both a bridge to Belushi’s early career success and a reminder of Cocker’s more reckless times.
Like a lot of Saturday Night Live royals, John Belushi cut his teeth with the Second City sketch comedy troupe. At 22, Belushi was the youngest Second City mainstage performer, and by all accounts he was exactly the kind of hurricane that you would expect him to be. The Cocker impression was part of his repertoire.
Today, if you’re a breakout performer with Second City or UCB, you have plenty of outlets and avenues to help you get noticed. In 1971, performers had to rely solely on word of mouth and Belushi’s Joe Cocker impression was clearly the kind of spectacle that got around, piquing the interests of National Lampoon magazine editor Tony Hendra, who was casting a stage parody of Woodstock culture called Lemmings.
Here’s a video of a bearded pre-SNL Belushi (with Chevy Chase on drums) performing the song “Lonely at the Bottom” as Cocker.
Following Lemmings, Belushi stayed in the National Lampoon family, writing and performing on National Lampoon’s Radio Hour beside future Saturday Night Live head writer Michael O’Donoghue and others.
In 1975, Saturday Night Live began and in the third episode, Belushi once again unleashed his Joe Cocker impression, performing “Feelin’ Alright” before falling off the stage and pouring a beer down his throat in front of a national TV audience.