As you’ve probably heard by now, legendary musician Joe Cocker passed away today at the age of 70. Cocker’s contributions to music are numerous and vital, but the songs that you’ll probably have playing on repeat are “Feelin’ Alright,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and “You Are So Beautiful.”
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.
To me, Belushi’s solo performance on SNL is the most memorable version of the impression. It’s just ferocious, physically and sonically unrelenting, and more than a bit fierce. If any of us were to cut up like that on television and reduced to a crawling, beer chugging mess, we’d be livid. Joe Cocker laughed it off.
During the time of “You Are So Beautiful,” I was working at Village Recorders, in Los Angeles, and someone comes into the studio and says, “Joe, we’ve got this video to show you that you’re not going to like.” I don’t know how long Saturday Night Live had been on the air, because I never watched much TV, but when I saw this video of John Belushi doing me being spastic and pouring beer, I became hysterical.
Everyone else said, “Joe, you’re not supposed to find this amusing. You’re supposed to find this gross and inoffensive.”
I said, “Oh, come on. You can’t not laugh at this.” I didn’t even know who Belushi was.
While Cocker may not have known who Belushi was, others were taking notice. In June of 1976, Paul McCartney hired Belushi to perform as Cocker for his birthday party and paid him $6,000 — approximately six times what Belushi had been making per episode on Saturday Night Live.
A few months later in October of 1976, Cocker would appear alongside his unflattering doppelganger in what would become one of the most memorable moments in Saturday Night Live history.
You’ll notice that in Chevy Chase’s introduction to the video, he says that Belushi had become embarrassed of the Cocker impression because Cocker had gotten clean. This is supported by Belushi’s refusal to re-watch the performance and his remarks to Rolling Stone Magazine when asked about it for an interview in 1978.
One of his great imitations is of Joe Cocker, the English R&B singer with the stage mannerisms of a cerebral palsy victim. Saturday Night Live fans usually do not remember individual sketches that well, but everyone remembers the night Belushi sang a duet with Cocker. For some it was hilarious, for others, it was cruel. Belushi himself won’t even watch the tape. “It was all rehearsed,” he says. “So I asked him to do it a long time before. It was just, uh . . . the answer . . . uh . . . I don’t know why I did it. It was very emotional. Don’t ask me why I did it.”
Despite Belushi’s seeming distaste for the impression that had, in many ways, served as his his introduction to the American public, Cocker always took it in stride, even though it did create a perception about him.
“I always found it quite amusing. But you have to understand I was a bit of a wreck at the time he was doing all that stuff. […]
I thought vocally, he did quite a clever job with it. It put a print on me that kind of stuck to this day. He [Belushi] was quite shy really whenever we did any gigs together. He was almost like a schoolboy. He’d come in the dressing room, just watch everything I was doing.”
Clearly, we lost both a titanic singer and a really cool guy today. R.I.P. Joe Cocker.