Saturday, March 27, 2010

March 27: Joe Cocker, "Feelin' Alright"

Artist: Joe Cocker
Song: "Feelin' Alright"
Album: With A Little Help From My Friends/Mad Dogs & Englishmen
Year: 1969/1970

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Cocker, Studio) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Cocker, Live) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Traffic Version) (will open in new tab)

There is little question that one of the trickiest beasts to tame in music is that of the cover song.  While nearly every artist in history has attempted this at least once in their career, an overwhelming majority of the time, the cover version simply does not measure up to the original.  Yet from Elvis Presley's take on "Hound Dog" to Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along The Watchtower," there is an endless string of songs that prove that if done correctly, a cover can completely overshadow the original.  Furthermore, much like these two songs, there are a handful of covers that become so iconic, that over the years, the fact that they are cover songs becomes largely forgotten.  Perfectly exemplifying this final idea, one need look no further than the case of the iconic song, "Feelin' Alright," which most people know due to the brilliant studio and live versions released by English soul singer, Joe Cocker.  However, the truth of the matter is, the song was actually written by Dave Mason, and released in 1968 by his own band, Traffic.  Though Traffic did not find much success with the song, everyone from The Jackson 5 to The Black Crowes have covered the song over the years, and yet no other version even comes close to the power and musical beauty that one finds in the two Cocker recordings.  The studio version comes from Cocker's debut record, With A Little Help From My Friends, and the live recording, which stands as one of the most stunning live performances in history, comes from his equally successful record, Mad Dogs & Englishmen.

The key to the success and intrigue of "Feelin' Alright" is certainly the brilliant piano hook that, while buried on the original Traffic version, becomes the centerpiece of the Cocker covers.  On the studio recording, it is Artie Butler who provides this amazing sound, and the funky, soulful way with which he plays immediately sets this version far apart from the original.  This groove that is quickly created turns the Joe Cocker studio recording into a far more upbeat and brighter affair than the original, and this certainly played a large part in its success.  Though he had played with a number of different bands over the previous years, it was not until this first "solo" release that Cocker was truly able to present the complete picture of his stunningly soulful singing, and his sound and style are absolutely unlike any other singer in history.  Further adding to the amazing mood of the studio recording, percussionists Paul Humphries and Laudir de Oliveria fill the song with sounds that bring to mind everything from rock to soul to the gentle sounds of the Caribbean.  Adding fantastic touches and small solos, guitarist David Cohen is slightly overshadowed for a majority of the song, but when he takes center stage, he is absolutely phenomenal.  Yet even with all of these amazing musicians on the song, there is little question that the most significant player on "Feelin' Alright" is the iconic bassist, Carol Kaye.  Having played on some of the most famous songs in history, from "La Bamba" to albums with The Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel, there are few bass players who carry as impressive a resumé.  On "Feelin' Alright," Kaye pushes the level of funk and groove to the limit, and one cannot deny her major role in turning the song into a classic.

While the studio recording of "Feelin' Alright" can surely stand on its own, the live version, released a year later, proved that like many artists, Joe Cocker's live performances absolutely blow away his studio work.  Recorded like at The Fillmore East in New York City on March 27 & 28, 1970, it is clear that Joe Cocker has assembled one of the most talented and funky bands to ever take a stage anywhere.  While the performance still centers around the piano riff, this time played by the one and only Leon Russell, one cannot overlook the amazing addition of trumpet player Jim Price and saxophonist Bobby Keys.  The way in which the horns and piano play off one another, especially during the songs' center solos, is truly what turns this recording into a classic, and the fills from guitarist Don Prestion pushes the song into a category all its own.  Strangely, none of the musicians from the studio recording are on this live version, as bass duties are handled well by Carl Radle, and there are a number of different drummers featured on the recordings, so it is hard to know which of them played on this track.  As the song builds and builds, the energy becomes more and more impressive, and it is clear that this is one of the most talented groupings of musicians to ever share a stage.  However, as good as the music is, as is the case with the studio recording, the song is all about the superb vocal work of Joe Cocker.  Clearly holding nothing back, the true soul power of Cocker's delivery is on grand display, and his performance here is largely what makes him a legend to this day.  His singing was so distinctive and so iconic that it even went on to create one of the most memorable moments in television history, when the great John Belushi shared the stage with Cocker, imitating his style, when they performed the song on Saturday Night Live in 1976.  Both of the live performances remain largely unrivaled, and the power of the version found on Mad Dogs & Englishmen have made it so the original remains largely unknown.

Whether it was this extraordinary live version, or the studio recording from a year previous, as the decades have passed, the fact that "Feelin' Alright" was originally written and recorded by Traffic has become one of the most forgotten facts in all of music history.  The original Traffic recording is a far more mellow affair, and yet it is the highlight of what is largely regarded as their finest studio release.  However, as has been proven throughout music history, there are certain songs that just "sound better" by artist who cover them in later years.  When Joe Cocker took this mellow, almost folky tune and injected it with some British soul, it breathed new life into the song, and in many ways, it barely resembles the original.  With Cocker's studio recording featuring some of the most talented studio session musicians of the era, it is little surprise that the final result was so fantastic.  The shared groove, complimented by Cocker's powerful vocals, remain today one of the greatest songs ever recorded, and that alone would have been enough to make Cocker a legend.  However, the live recording of Cocker and his new band (the band was called Mad Dogs & Englishmen, as well as the album) almost makes one forget the studio version, as the wall of sound, let by the equally legendary Leon Russell, is truly like nothing else ever released.  With Cocker completely unrestrained on vocals, the deep soul and emotion that one hears on the studio version is shown to be completely authentic, and it remains one of the most powerful live performances in history.  Proving that one need not write a song to completely understand "how" it should be performed, Joe Cocker used a pair of phenomenal releases to make the world forget that it was Traffic who penned the iconic song, "Feelin' Alright."

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