20. Joe Cocker, Luxury You Can Afford
In the late nineteen-seventies, Joe Cocker was going through one of those rocky stretches that were the accepted territory of raspy-voiced rock ‘n’ roll singers. He spent a decent portion of the decade bouncing around different managers and cultivating a reputation as a self-destructive alcoholic with an occasional penchant for vomiting mid-set onstage. In 1978, he was further trying to rebound by some significant commercial disappointment, and he had to prove himself to a new label. Luxury You Can Afford was his first for Asylum Records, after a long stretch with A&M Records. Maybe part of the problem was that Cocker didn’t have much of an artistic voice of his own. In an era in which earnest singer-songwriters shared the charts, somewhat uneasily, with the studio maestros who were helping disco flash mightily in the pan, Cocker was best known for his cover versions. The vast majority of his biggest hits was first made famous, often very famous, by another artist. When listeners wanted something fresher than booze-soaked takes on radio standards, Cocker was at a loss.
To a degree, Cocker was up to his old tricks on Luxury You Can Afford (a sluggish version of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was the second single released from the album), but there was a little a bit of sense of trying to craft something more distinctive this time out. For one thing, he put himself in the hands of a formidable producer, working with burgeoning New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, who further contributed to the cause with his songwriting on the rollicking opening track and lead single, “Fun Time.” Toussaint was surely instrumental in assembling the formidable line-up on musical guests, including Donny Hathaway, Billy Preston, Dr. John, and David “Fathead” Newman. The album has the unmistakable touch of someone dedicated to delivering music that is sharp, polished, and yet deeply authentic. The Muscle Shoals horns and the subtly intricate arrangements of most of the songs provides a sense of deep care that was often missing from other Cocker recordings, when craftsmanship was set aside in the hopes and expectation that the singer’s distinctive voice was all anyone cared to hear anyway.
Of course, the voice in question is pretty formidable, clearly the highlight of the album’s very best moments, such as the surprisingly affecting “Southern Lady” and “I Know (You Don’t Want Me No More).” At his worst, Cocker comes across as a roughly-assembled prototype for The Commitments, belting out old favorites with a appealing raggedy approach. The high points of Luxury You Can Afford suggest there was something more there, something that perhaps the right collaborators could tap into and make real rock ‘n’ roll art. That wasn’t meant to be, as there were still plenty of formidable obstacles in Cocker’s path. Luxury would be his sole release with Asylum. He’d have some difficulty sticking with a label after that, having his greatest commercial success as a solo artist in an extended run with Capitol Records in which the powers that be effectively turned him into a harmless performer suitable for adult contemporary radio when the programmers wanted to turn it up a notch. They had good cause to believe there were profits in that route, given that his greatest overall success came as one half of a duet (with Jennifer Warnes) on “Up Where We Belong,” the smash hit song from An Officer and a Gentleman. That may not be the sort of creative pivot most were envisioning for the artist, but it’s surely contributed to his longevity. The guy who once seemed a likely candidate be a data point is rock’s notoriously high mortality rate is still cranking out albums, releasing a new live effort just last year.